It starts with a bang and then a back beat. One of our heroes, Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) is running from the police after a tense drug deal goes south. They plow through the front door, throwing chaos into an already unruly scene. People are thrown to the ground, one woman is thrown across the room from the battering ram. Eazy E barely gets away as the screen cuts to the larger-than-life sign as to where he's headed: "Straight Outta Compton."
Next, we meet the rest of the crew: aspiring disc jockey Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), lyricist Ice Cube (brilliantly portrayed by his son, O’Shea Jackson), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge). The group is full of ambition and short on pocket change, until their smooth-talking manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) comes into the picture to book their gigs, sign them to a label and promote their first album as the newly christened N.W.A.
The movie is a straightforward biopic, full of dramatic confrontations, off-the-rails scenarios and takes certain artistic license to follow the five men through their different careers. DJ Yella and MC Ren come off more as hype men than active members, and their contributions never quite get the spotlight that those of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre do.
The cast’s electric performances hold the movie together, hitting their stride until the group splinters. As lively as the movie begins, the group's success brings on squabbles over money and respect that diminish the action. The stakes feel lower and the rest of the movie plods along slowly until the credits roll.
But “Straight Outta Compton” is unapologetic enough to keep the film a warts-and-all portrait of the group’s story. Dr. Dre’s infidelity, Eazy E’s in-fighting and Ice Cube’s anti-Semitic rap against his former manager bump up against the steady stream of partially clad groupies who parade in front of the camera. Not all of the bad blood made it to the screen, however: This New York magazine piece on the group’s misogynist past points to some careful editing out of the women in their story.
"Straight Outta Compton" is a period piece, but it is not. It’s snapshots of L.A. before and after Rodney King, decades removed from the Watts riots, "Fruitvale Station" and Ferguson, Missouri. Sadly, it’s still a part of that timeline, the legacy of criminalization of black and brown bodies and power-tripping cops.
Director F. Gary Gray (who previously worked with Ice Cube on “Friday”) makes it abundantly clear that “Straight Outta Compton” is both of its time and of ours. Using close-ups of the Rodney King beating tape, riot scenes and cavalcades of officers harassing N.W.A members, Gray draws parallels to the scenes we’ve watched on the nightly news. Even the recent news that the studio will supply theaters with extra security for screenings of “Straight Outta Compton” echoes a time long ago, yet of this day and age.
“Straight Outta Compton” opens in theaters Friday.