Timeliness is always an element to include in a film review if relevant. This past year, two of the major standouts have included The Imitation Game for its focus on the mistreatment of homosexuals in England, and Selma for its racial inequality that seemed to arrive just in time for some senseless, racist killings. Straight Outta Compton—a film chronicling the rise of the Hip Hop group NWA in the late 80s and early 90s—continues this trend and elevates it even further with its sprawling tale of the history of modern rap and the reminder that racism hasn’t changed nearly as much as we want to believe it has.
Clocking in at nearly 150 minutes, Straight Outta Compton covers a lot of ground. From NWA’s rise in the 80s, to the inevitable drama between members, to focusing on the lives of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E, to adding commentary on the Rodney King riots and much more, SOC might feel like more of a cursory glance at the rich history of modern rap than an in-depth look at those involved. This is perhaps the films biggest problem because there is just so much that can be examined, and a lot of it is incredibly interesting, but it almost requires more films (which has more or less been announced).
Instead of going the way of casting popular actors, F. Gary Gray enlisted a group of newcomers and fresh faces to take on the immense roles of Dre and Ice Cube. The three prominent roles of Eazy-E, Cube, and Dre are played by Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube’s actual son) and Corey Hawkins respectively. Though they are young and new, these three actors deliver heavy-hitting performances as we watch them grow up out of their brutal neighborhoods, abuse from cops, and the ever-present drug abuse. Jackson Jr. is a big standout as he is a spitting-image of his father, even getting down into his conveying his signature mannerisms with natural flair. Like the problems with the film overall, we do not always get a good look into the minds of these characters, especially when major events happen, but it does not prevent them from being compelling and entertaining.
Gray handles the intense brutality with magnificent care. The LAPD is shown as hypocritical, violent, and unruly pricks who base who they beat up on looks and if they’re bored. The violence towards African Americans is never portrayed in a graphic light, though, and it isn’t merely a means of shock-value unlike in other films. Blood is hardly shed, but the beatings and mistreatment still feel authentic and pointless. Juxtaposing these violent scenes are tremendous concert scenes that inspire you as much as the crowds in the movie. The entire cast has no difficulties in emulating NWA’s inspirational powers.
Straight Outta Compton has surely taken the country by storm. It is a film that shows a real time with people we know that is not so different from our own. Racism, the unjustified and unfair persecution of African Americans, and the struggles of growing up black in one of the most dangerous cities in America is not a problem most of us have to deal with. Gray allows us a brief glimpse into this harsh reality with truthful performances and a grand story. Straight Outta Compton isn’t just a biopic, nor is it just a reminder that music is a weapon—it is a slap in the face to snap us out of the sugar-coated fantasy we think we live in. It is—in many ways—a rallying cry.