N.W.A. remains as important as ever8/19/2015
Three truths that “Straight Outta Compton” reminds the viewer of: 1) History is written by the victors, 2) N.W.A. was to rap music what The Mamas & the Papas were to rock: sadly short lived, brilliantly creative and completely unique, and 3) You never want to be on Ice Cube’s bad side.
“Straight Outta Compton” tells the story of N.W.A., the Los Angeles-based group that single-handedly launched the “Gangster Rap” genre to mainstream consciousness, and introduced the world to Ice Cube, Dr Dre and Eazy-E. Directed by “Friday” helmer F. Gary Gray and produced by Cube, Dre, Gray and Eazy’s widow Tomica Woods-Wright, everything about “Compton” feels like it has all the makings for a typical vanity piece. What actually transpires on the screen, however — while still presenting a highly sanitized version of real-life events — is a painstakingly rendered glimpse into the life and times of one of the most important and influential acts in rap (or music) history.
Most of that narrative centers on the relationship between Eazy and Ruthless Records co-founder and N.W.A. Manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). When the group is getting its start, it is Heller who goes to bat for them, introducing them to record executives and putting himself between N.W.A and the LAPD. However, as the group’s fame grows, and as Cube and Dre gain confidence and business acumen, tensions grow over the money the band is bringing in versus the amount each member is being paid.
Ultimately, conflicts over money, creative control and Heller’s influence over the group would all conspire to tear N.W.A apart, just three years after “Straight Outta Compton” changed the rap landscape. Dre would move on to Death Row Records (Death Row founder Suge Knight features prominently in the film), where he would help launch the career of Snoop Dogg, among others. Meanwhile, Cube would jump to Priority Records while engaging in a viscous war of words with his former N.W.A mates, ultimately resulting in Cube’s incredible diss track, “No Vaseline.”
As one generally expects from any Hollywood biopic, “Straight Outta Compton” takes some liberties with the timeline for certain events, condensing some things and putting some minor ones out of order. The film also sanitizes much of the group’s history (while still showing plenty of dirt) and, perhaps most importantly, completely eliminates much of the feud between Dre and Eazy in the aftermath of N.W.A.’s final breakup. Still, in many senses, “Straight Outta Compton” stands as one of the most truthfully leveled “true story” films to come out of Hollywood in the century.
But the truth of the story ultimately would not matter much if the delivery did not make the film worth watching, and in that regard, “Compton” is outstanding. All of the film’s six principal performers are uncanny in their resemblance to their real-life counterparts (most obvious being the role of Ice Cube, played by Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.), and give strong performances throughout. Most notably, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, the point upon which the entire film turns, is given the especially difficult task of lending an air of humanity to an artist who, since his death in 1995, has become more of a legend than anything else. If Mitchell treats Eazy too reverently — and the film definitely gives him ample opportunity to do so — then the entire story could come off feeling trite. But instead, Mitchell’s performance shows us Eazy as a funny, charismatic, engaging personality with a strong sense of honor. As viewers, we trust in Mitchell’s performance as Eazy, so we believe in the film’s narrative. CV