This biopic of rap group N.W.A has generated enormous excitement among fans but probably little curiosity from those who either couldn’t care less about hip-hop culture or think the whole lifestyle is morally reprehensible.
So first, to the fans: Straight Outta Compton is as good as you’ve heard, so just go.
And now, to build a case for a wider audience, here’s why it’s such a blast:
One core strength is that the members of LA’s most super group were on board with the dramatizing of their journey through fame, and it was directed by long-time collaborator F. Gary Gray. (While most directors graduate from music videos to focus on film, Gray has continued to work with hip-hop artists throughout a career which includes The Negotiator and the remake of The Italian Job.)
So with not rights issues, we get to hear all the music, nowhere better than through a cinema screen, mouthed expertly by a cast of excellent actors who rapidly suspend your disbelief as they spin exhilarating rhymes and own the concert stage. The best of these is, inevitably, O’Shea Jackson Jr. who is the spitting image of his father Ice Cube, but you’re also watching break-out performances by Jason Mitchell (a superb Eazy-E) and the baby-faced lothario that is Corey Hawkins’ Dr. Dre. For most audiences the only familiar face will be Paul Giamatti’s Jerry Heller, the manager who saw the opportunity to send a bunch of black kids from south-central Los Angeles into the stratosphere of superstardom. And their trip is never short of enthralling.
But to address any misgivings: Is it misogynist? Absolutely – hardly a bastion of fleshed-out female roles, the women on screen fall into two camps: silent buxom-girl-in-(or-out-of)-bikini and long-suffering wife/girlfriend/mother with two lines of dialogue. We either accept it, as with The Wolf of Wall Street, as being sadly a realistic depiction of the inherently sexist lifestyle or we put away our Bechdel test and leave the cinema.
Similarly, does the film glamorise the pouty lipped, hard-eyed stare that accompanies the “Don’t mess with me” saunter of arrogance in its youthful protagonists? Of course it does. But how can it not? Straight Outta Compton illustrates the moral conundrum that most hip-hop music (gangsta, police-baiting or otherwise) grows out of understandable indignation at centuries of discrimination and injustice. While matter-of-fact, the film’s scenes of police brutality and victimisation, contextualised by the sorry state of 1990s Los Angeles, are far more chilling than the booty shots.
As the sum of its wonderful parts, Straight Outta Compton is endlessly informative, entertaining and exhilarating, and a must-watch account of N.W.A’s legacy.