N.W.A. and the album, “Straight Outta Compton,” were revolutionary. They came out of nowhere and spoke for a culture unheard in the mainstream. Not many musical artists can say the same and telling the story, and getting every nuance and struggle correct, is tough. F. Gary Gray directed Straight Outta Compton with a finger on the pulse of the group and climate they helped to create, but he also forgets what is most compelling and the film turns into an explanation for the years following the gang’s dissipation.
The film follows the origins of N.W.A. with the founding members — Ice Cube, Easy E, and Dr. Dre — leading the charge. With the help of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), the group released their first album — sharing the title of the movie — and became an overnight sensation that caught the world’s, and law enforcement’s, attention.
Gray works with a cast of unknowns, including Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr. playing his father, allowing them to capture the characterizations of each persona. Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell slide right into the roles of Dr. Dre and Easy E, picking up the subtleties and nuances that create these personalities with such ease. This transition makes the characters more compelling, as if seeing the actual people on screen at this point and time.
But the film also wants to tell “the whole story” and including following Ice Cube after he leaves the group and starts a back and forth with his former comrades. It also includes Dre leaving to form his own label after he, like Cube, realizes that Heller is screwing them out of money even though Easy E is naive to the whole ordeal.
All of this information is interesting, and Gray does a great job of pulling back the curtains and offering us a glimpse into what happened with the revered group. But after an hour and a half of drama and beefs among members, it becomes more of a VH1 Behind the Music rather than a film telling the life — with highs and lows — of these characters.
When the film begins, and they are making music and performing, Straight Outta Compton is electric. There’s a kinetic presence with how Gray shoots the concerts. He also offers powerful insight into how the group influences law enforcement and the public’s perception of gangster rap. For the first hour, it is utterly intoxicating to watch as these boys from Compton, California bring the world to their knees and create music that hadn’t been heard before — or at least appreciated.
The film has many moments that are powerful and pull you in closer to the scene. Moments like when the police attempt to arrest the group outside of the recording studio and Giamatti screams at the cops, not understanding that this is a normal occurrence for these men. It’s telling of Heller’s perception as a white man, as he tells the men he can call people to make this right, as if it would solve anything in the long term.
It isn’t talking down to Heller, instead, it is saying how out of touch people can be towards another someone else’s life. Heller has no idea what it is like to be a black man in Compton so when he sees this, it is like watching something from a different planet. Why would the police arrest these artists?
These social moments are bread and butter for Gray and he directs them with a adept hand. But those are short and few, moving out of the way for back-and-forth moments between character that become stale after about an hour. These personalities are real, but in terms of the film, they are characters. I don’t ever feel I was given a full sense of Ice Cube or Dre as a character — flaws and all. I felt like I was given what I was supposed to see, which probably is linked to both men producing the movie, and that made me feel a little cheated.
The only character that was given a full exposure was Easy E, played wonderfully by Mitchell. It helps that he isn’t here to defend himself, but his character was nuanced and we saw the good and the bad.
Straight Outta Compton works best when it is commenting on the aftermath of the album and watching this group become N.W.A. F. Gary Gray knows what moments work best and allows the film to give us these small portions of social commentary that teeters on the caliber of Selma. But those don’t happen enough, and to fill the rest of the time, we are given filler and behind the mic action that doesn’t always work.
This leaves us with a film that offers so much, but also leaves a lot on the table for interpretation.