This movie burns so hot that it’s bound to run out of steam. It does. But not so much that you ever want to leave its danger zone. Straight Outta Compton is epic, baby, an explosively entertaining hip-hop biopic that raps home truths about race and police brutality as timely now (think Ferguson) as they were during the 1980s in Compton, California. That’s where five black teens — known as Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren — channeled their fury into the beats of N.W.A, short for Niggaz With Attitude. The band didn’t invent gangsta rap, but N.W.A were sure as shit there in the delivery room, sparked by near-constant rousting from the LAPD. Director F. Gary Gray, working from a script by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, doesn’t supply halos for his protagonists. Sex, drugs and the thug life figure prominently. Assign any soft-pedaling to the fact that Dre and Cube, now media moguls, are among the film’s producers and that Gray directed Cube videos and his 1995 stoner comedy, Friday.
The atmosphere is charged as cinematographer Matthew Libatique creates striking visuals that pull us into the fray. Cube’s look-alike son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., does a smashing job playing his dad, blending sensitivity with seething intensity. It’s Cube and his buddy DJ Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (a charmingly sly Corey Hawkins) who persuade drug dealer Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) to finance a label, Ruthless Records. Mitchell’s fierce portrayal of the mercurial Eazy (who died of AIDS complications in 1995) is award-caliber, especially when he haltingly, then thrillingly, lays down vocals on “Boyz-n-the-Hood.”
The recording sessions, featuring Neil Brown Jr. and Aldis Hodge in lesser roles as DJ Yella and MC Ren, pack the vital spark of live performance. But it’s Cube who puts N.W.A on the map with his incendiary “Fuck Tha Police.” The film’s righteous highlight is a Detroit concert where the cops threaten to jail the bandmates and shut the place down if they sing the rap that has demonized N.W.A to Middle America. Of course they sing it. And the crowd roars. The movie is never as potent as it is in that groundbreaking moment, when artists and audiences connect. But credit Gray for tracing the group’s rise and fall with dramatic vigor. The band’s white manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), instigates a rift that sends Cube on his own and Dre into an unholy alliance with Death Row Records founder Marion “Suge” Knight (a very scary R. Marcos Taylor).
Straight Outta Compton plays better when it’s outside the box, showing us N.W.A power and the consequences of abusing it. Would the movie be better if it didn’t sidestep the band’s misogyny, gay-bashing and malicious infighting? No shit. But what stands is an amazement, an electrifying piece of hip-hop history that speaks urgently to right now.