‘Straight Outta Compton’ does justice to hip hop legends
In 1994, I got my first CD player and saved up all my money to buy my very first CD, Snoop Dogg‘s Doggystyle. It could be argued that a ten-year-old should not have been listening to gangsta rap, but my mom was awesome and she appreciated the artistry in Snoop’s smooth flow and the Parliament Funkadelic inspired beats of Dr. Dre. I knew most of the lyrics were about street violence, drugs, and sex, but I was a kid in Boulder, Colorado, so life on the streets of Compton and Long Beach was about as familiar to me as life on Mars. From Doggystyle, I moved on to The Chronic, Dre’s 1992 solo album—perhaps one of the most iconic rap albums of all time. That was where I learned about Dre’s roots in N.W.A. and his feud with Eazy-E, who was parodied in the music video for “Fuck Wit Dre Day.” Because I started listening to West Coast gangsta rap in the mid to late 1990s—and because I was in elementary school—I didn’t know the origin story for these often-protested icons of street culture. So naturally, I was beyond excited upon first hearing of Straight Outta Compton, a biopic that would give this story the gravity it deserved. I anxiously awaited the movie, and was thrilled to be able to review it for Trashwire. Now that I’ve given you a little backstory, I’ll explain why F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton is my favorite film of the year.
We first meet Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), MC Ren, (Aldis Hodge) Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., who is the son of the real Ice Cube) as kids with a dream living in the city of Compton. They face poverty and crime, but mostly they face police harassment and a general misunderstanding for black youth culture, something that makes a movie about the formation of the seminal rap group of the era feel incredibly relevant today. Dre is the master of beats, with Cube heading up writing duties and E financing the formation of Ruthless Records. From there, the guys start working on Straight Outta Compton, arguably one of the most influential rap albums of all time.
The early days are filled with fun and humor, making audiences truly invest in these guys as people, not just future superstars. One particularly funny scene involves Eazy’s first foray into the booth to record. The guys are pumping him up, trying to get him into the right headspace to deliver the line about cruising in his ’64, but he’s reluctant to be the one on the mic. They insist it must be him because he’s the only one of them who actually has a ’64—most don’t even have cars at all. The humble beginnings are both sweet and funny, especially considering the standard bravado of hip hop culture.
It’s in these early days that they meet the infamous Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a manager who believes he can take N.W.A. straight to the top. Giamatti handles the role expertly, being both sleazy and genuine at the same time. Sure, he’s out here to make money and his later dealings are shady at best, but he does legitimately care about these guys and is shocked to see some of the hardships they face on a daily basis. In one scene, the guys are hanging out outside the studio when the cops set upon them and harass them, basically for being black on a Friday night. Heller tries to clear things up, but he sees the depth of the police bias firsthand and truly feels for those who have to experience it. This scene also gives us the origin of one of N.W.A.’s most famous songs as Cube heads back into the studio after the incident and quickly pens the lyrics to “Fuck tha Police.”
The nostalgic moments are plentiful enough to fill anyone’s #tbt meter to capacity, and 1990s hip hop fans will have a smile on their faces the entire time. Hell, they even managed to squeeze a “bye, Felicia” in there! When things start going south and Cube leaves the group, we watch the creation of legendary battle tracks like “No Vaseline” and the formation of Death Row Records, headed up by hip hop’s boogeyman, Suge Knight (played to perfection by R. Marcos Taylor). At Death Row, we’re introduced to a young Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield), who impressed Dre when he stops by the studio and freestyles on Dre’s work in progress, “Deep Cover”. We even get a quick glimpse of 2Pac in the booth recording “California Love.” The N.W.A. family tree is vast, and we owe much of today’s hip hop to these founding fathers.
Straight Outta Compton avoids that cliche behind-the-music tone by acknowledging it’s heavier moments and never lingering in melodrama. The struggles are real, but the guys are survivors who pick themselves up and keep going. In fact, their perseverance makes every tragedy that much more impactful, and keeps the audience wholly engaged throughout the entire film. Most of us know how the story ends, but Gray and co. make us appreciate every step of the journey. Every movie promises to make audiences laugh and cry, but very few actually achieve that, and thankfully, Straight Outta Compton is one of those few.