Rap History 101. In a pleasant surprise, the film does a good job at making itself accessible for rap diehards and non-fans alike. Obviously fans of N.W.A. will have a more significant connection to the material and understand some of the references a little more, but people who have never heard of N.W.A. should not only be able to follow what’s going on, but appreciate the quality film as well.
A timely release. The August 2015 release of Straight Outta Compton has to be the work of supernatural, future-telling forces or extraordinary good luck. One of the main subplots and overall themes in the film is that of police brutality and racism, an issue raging through the United States as I write this. The Rodney King beating of the time, also shown in the film, eerily is echoed by the several high-profile cases of the past few years. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed and its appearance in a big studio film is a nice step.
Breakout stars. The three lead performances by Jackson, Hawkins, and Mitchell are all fantastic in their own ways. Jackson is Ice Cube’s son (obviously) and he seemingly becomes his father. It really feels like the young Ice Cube in this film, not an actor portraying him. Dre is the emotional center-point throughout most of the film and Hawkins does a great job with the character. In a group of tough guys, he is the one who deals with the heavy emotions (most of the time) and he handles them quite well. Mitchell really has a presence as Eazy-E, and while that presence isn’t always a positive one, he does a great job. His character has a major emotional subplot shoehorned into the third act and while it is rushed and underdeveloped, it is very well acted.
A tale of two halves. The first half of the film is something very special. It is energetic, thematic, and full of life. It is unlike many biopics in its execution and energy. It focuses on the music and the ramifications of N.W.A.’s art and it is absolutely riveting. The second half comes along and it feels like a different movie. It’s unfocused, scattered, and it tries to cover too much. It descends into its biopic roots and I do not mean this in a good way. It tries to fit years of the group’s history and it unsurprisingly feels rushed. This half makes it feel like this story would have been better served as a mini-series to flesh out these conflicts and characters, especially the villains, Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) and Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti).