STRAIGHT OUTTA Compton is the story of the rise, and then fall, of rap’s first super group, N.W.A, the group that introduced gangster rap to the mainstream in the late 1980s. The film has been the surprise hit of the summer in the US and looks like it will be a huge success here too.
Produced by the surviving members of the band, and Tomica Wright - wife of deceased band member Eazy-E (which was vital as she owned the rights to the music ), it does have the air of a victory lap. History is written by the winners and they are certainly good to themselves here, but that does not take away from the remarkable story about how five young, black men, from LA managed to become the voice of a generation.
Straight Outta Compton is very well directed by often hit and miss director F Gary Gray. He has always been better known for music videos than for his feature work, but having worked with a young Ice Cube in the early 1990s on his music videos, make him uniquely qualified to tell the story of the group. The real surprise here is the quality of the acting. Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson jr plays Cube and while he does have an uncanny resemblance to his dad, it is his powerful performance and how he captures his dads spirit that is most impressive.
Jackson has not only mastered Cube’s trademark scowl, but the way he spits and snarls his raps with anger and intensity is genuinely like watching footage of a young Ice Cube. The other notable performance - although man for man all the actors are uniformly excellent - is Jason Mitchell who plays Eazy-E. Probably the most difficult role in the film, the ex-drug dealer turned rapper who eventually died of AIDs, is a surprisingly complex character. Mitchell is able to put forward an arrogant, unlikeable egotist, but also makes him inherently watchable and by the end, the most sympathetic member of the band.
There is a similarity between our Irish rebel songs and rap music from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Black people were victimised and bullied by the police so rap then was essentially protest music. Rap music was the only way voices young black voices were heard. The movie covers the Rodney King trial and the riots in LA in 1992 and is eerily similar to recent events in the US.
I do have some problems with hypocrisy of the real men behind the film. They claim within the movie that they are speaking the truth. In one scene Ice Cube says they are basically journalists, only they have the balls say what is actually happening, but they exclude some of the more troubling aspects of their own history, particularly the horrendous beating of TV personality Dee Barnes by Dr Dre at a party in 1991. If you Google the beating, it is enough to turn your stomach and Dre, who is a producer of the film, comes across as a genuine hero. There is no mention of his violent past. History, it seems, really is told by the winners.
The third act of the film feels extremely laboured and adds nothing to the film. It is almost just a collection of scenes that barely relate to each other, like an extended poorly edited montage. Career highlights and cameos of 2Pac and Snoop Dogg feel forced and add almost nothing. It does not fit with the wonderful editing and sharp storytelling we see in the first hour.
Despite such reservations about the actions of the real men involved, and the lackluster third act, the first hour of this movie might be the most entertaining I’ve seen all year. Rap music is obviously not everyone's cup of tea but there is something substantial here, I could see this being a surprise in more than one category at the Oscars.