By Stephen Fasulo II
“This is what we should be doing. Rapping about real things.” So says Dr. Dre, played by Corey Hawkins, in the new biopic Straight Outta Compton, a movie about the trials involved with the early days of the West Coast Hip-Hop movement. F. Gary Gray’s film takes you through the struggles an up-and-coming rapper, from hurt or broken relationships to the trials of fame and the lasting effects of the superstar rap lifestyle. This movie neither glorifies nor demonizes anyone in the film – except the police – which is understandable considering the group’s song ‘F*ck tha Police.’
Everyone in the film is human and is capable of flaws. That is the movie’s masterstroke, and how it keeps you invested in the story of N.W.A. The Dr. Dre you see in the beginning, trying to promote a new artistry, is the same Dr. Dre you see drive recklessly and outracing cops after romantic rejection. Characters which could be demonized are nuanced by their good and bad points. No one falls into the stereotypical two-dimensional villain role some biopics fall into, like the coaches in Moneyball and Rudy.
Each character also realistically goes through ups and downs. Paul Giamatti’s Jerry Heller is a scumbag, but he is shown to believe in the strength of Eazy-E and the N.W.A. Eazy-E gives his friend Dre a chance to create a record, and then viciously disses Ice Cube after he leaves the group. You can root for a character in one scene that you hated in the last and vice-versa.
These complex characters would probably falter under weaker actors, but each is played incredibly well, especially the pivotal characters: Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre. Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins play such convincing renditions of E and Dre, that you overlook that they don’t quite look like their real life counterparts. O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays his father Ice Cube so well you actually forget you aren’t watching Ice Cube rap or destroy the office of a record executive.
Of course, even if you aren’t a fan of N.W.A., you’ll love the soundtrack, especially the recording sequences that allow the actors to just have fun impersonating the legends of hip-hop. The music will make you cry during scenes of tremendous sorrow and have you bobbing your head to the sounds of the titular album during scenes of the N.W.A’s famous first tour.
Realism is the name of the game in Straight Outta Compton, and F. Gary Gray has put a lot of work into presenting the world of these young men from Compton. In one early scene, O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s Ice Cube is sitting on a bus on his way home from school, when a couple of kids on the bus throw up gang signs at a local gangbanger, who stops the bus and tells them to be good students and to stop trying to imitate this life before this life kills them. Ice Cube comments on it later, saying, “Some banger stopped the bus and gave us a motivational speech.”
Truthfully, underdog fame stories where people let fame get to their heads and ruin relationships have been done before, but not this way and not this well. You see the flaws in the heroes, and the sympathies in the antagonists. But, there isn’t a happy ending where the main character realizes what’s important; it ends with regret and bitterness at things that happened or that will never happen. This aspect creates something a little more honest, and a lot more watchable.