I grew up with NWA, not as a fan, but as a casual listener in the car while my sister drove me to and fro wherever. I was a child, therefore I can’t say I was even aware of the group behind these game-changing songs when I heard them, but they stuck with me. Say what you will about my sister exposing my virgin ears to such controversial songs, but it’s entirely possible such early exposure to them was one of many seeds for my later interest in the social and political circuses. In watching the NWA biopic “Straight Outta Compton,” these memories came flooding back, reminding me of a simpler time in my life, if not a simpler time in the country’s history, what with police brutality and institutionalized injustice dominating the airwaves as they are today.
When Snoop Dogg raps on the fly to an improvised keyboard beat by Dr. Dre, you can’t help but smile ear to ear at pure art’s process, in addition to recognizing that familiar “Snoop Doggy Dog” script. The whole movie’s like that, playing on late 80’s/early 90’s nostalgia, whether it be the clothes, cars, and lack of cell phones or the songs themselves. In the midst of a fairly standard biopic structure, it’s three unknowns leading the fray who drive the film to transcend genre, each of them knocking it out of the park their first time at bat. Corey Hawkins instills musical genius Dr. Dre with ambition and a brother’s love, brought to tears when his younger brother is killed in a street fight, and brought to blows when he’s had enough of his shady comrades clowning around with drugs and death threats. Jason Mitchell, a first-time actor from New Orleans, pulls off the improbable task of Eazy-E, the defacto leader of the group who is simultaneously selfish and sympathetic. The spitting image of his father, O’Shea Jackson Jr. is the lyricist Ice Cube, the first defector who crafts a blow-up career of his own and eventually movies. He’s the first one to notice the possibly nefarious ways of NWA’s manager and agent Jerry Heller, and the most prominent spokesman for the social commentary that rings so true throughout. As Heller, Paul Giamatti is wonderfully duplicitous, turning the “white savior” character on its head from ally to enemy and everything in between. Future “Storm” Alexandra Shipp shows up periodically as Cube’s lawyer and eventual wife, and R. Marcus Taylor is necessarily one-dimensional as Suge Knight, the psychopathic producer who couldn’t leave the gangster life in Compton. This exciting ensemble is almost enough to make you ignore the somewhat predictable nature of the rise and fall of a famous rap group, regardless of how real it is, or even the subtle and not-so-subtle misogyny that rears its head at key moments of the film. It’s one thing to ignite audience arousal at admittedly intoxicating musical performances, no matter the lyrics. It’s another thing to include multiple jokes at the expense of relatively innocent female characters. But those performances are intoxicating, on and off the stage, and they make up for director F. Gary Gray’s occasional tendencies toward the generic.
It helps that the man behind the “Friday” films has an ear for the urban, and an eye for when to amp up the visual flourishes, such as tracking shots through a booze-addled hotel room or down a low-rider-hangin’ city street. Alongside very few others, such as Ava Duvernay, Spike Lee, maybe John Singleton, Gray has managed to break the mold when it comes to African-American filmmakers in Hollywood, as straight-jacketed as they are in that white boys’ club. Better than any other he’s wrangled together the disparate notions of real-world racial politics and crowd-pleasing theatrics into a critical and financial success. It’s nostalgic authenticity meets street-wise anti-authoritarianism. “Straight Outta Compton” isn’t perfect, but that precise combination makes it one of the best films of the year.