“Our art is a reflection of our reality” – Ice Cube
By nature, films transport audiences. Great films, however, can immerse a viewer in a reality completely foreign to their own set of experiences, and provide perspective on another world. “Straight Outta Compton” does just that. A gritty biopic about rap group N.W.A. and its members, this film feels authentic and genuine in every way, undoubtedly aided by the fact that it is produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, two original members of the group, and Tomica Woods-Wright, the widow of a third. While this may appear to be a breeding ground for bias, the film doesn’t appear to back away from negative or unsavory pieces of their history, leaving it feeling grounded and realistic.
I was continuously struck throughout the film at how relatable it was. Despite, obviously, having no life experience in the world of Black America or the rap music industry, I was able to reasonably understand the motivations of the film’s characters. This is a tribute to both the acting (see below) and the screenplay. What could have been a bloated film, bogged down by too many characters and plotlines, instead is balanced and nuanced – a quality mix of personal struggles, music industry politics, and social commentary. In terms of the latter, there is understandably a great deal of racial politics engrained in the plot, especially with reference to the Rodney King police brutality incident, trial, and subsequent riots. Additionally, I was intrigued by the “Fuck tha Police” controversy and related arrests of D.W.A. after disregarding a police warning and playing the song at a Detroit show. These conflicts in “Straight Outta Compton” paint another picture in the film mosaic of Black American history – and it is nice to view a more lived-in, real-people depiction of the modern civil rights movement than we are used to.
The casting team did a phenomenal job on this film, with the actors being both uncanny physical matches for the real people they portray, and providing quality performances. I was deeply impressed by the ensemble cast – each performance is solid, only to be outdone by their interplay with one another. (It will be interesting to see if any performances are recognized by the Academy, or if the film will be sidelined from the award show.) Individually, O’Shea Jackson Jr (portraying his father, Ice Cube) and Jason Mitchell (as Eazy-E) stand out among the stellar group, although singling out even these two is difficult. Overall, a vast and impressive emotional range is portrayed, reaching surprising levels of beautiful sentimentality in the final act. I think it is valuable to mention that despite the harsh lyrics and steely exteriors of these individuals, they do not shy away from showing true, raw emotion. In a world where males are constantly taught to repress feelings in order to “be a man”, and especially with characters such as these, this honesty is both refreshing and encouraging.
With a fantastic script, a stellar host of actors, and a killer soundtrack, “Straight Outta Compton” is definitely a must-see. In a lackluster summer of film, this stands out as a hard-hitting, visceral, and captivating true story, that won’t bore you for a moment of its 150 minute runtime. Even if you don’t listen to rap music – like myself – or haven’t heard much of N.W.A.’s work before, you will still enjoy the film, as it puts their work in the context of history, providing the framework with which to appreciate their art.