“Straight Outta Compton” wasn’t on my movie-going radar until after its opening weekend, when it doubled what its distributor, Universal Studios, expected it to make. That said, anyone who measures the movie’s success by dollar bills is missing the point.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad the film is doing well. It was clearly a passion project for those who first lived its story, and then retold it more or less intact in movie form. To see them succeed financially is gratifying.
Even more rewarding, though, was to see the film succeed artistically. It does what biographical movies should do: immerse viewers in a time and place in history, and then take them on a journey through the lives of people who actually lived and breathed. I left the theater illuminated, exhilarated, and reluctant to slip out of the illusion of reality a movie casts around viewers.
Directed by F. Gary Gray, “Straight Outta Compton” follows the rise and fall of Compton, Calif., hip hop group N.W.A., of which Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E were members. I can’t even hint at what their name stands for, nor can I publish any of their lyrics in this column. I scanned several web pages of lyrics from their songs in the hopes of finding something, and decided I’d rather keep my job.
When I heard about their music in the ‘80s, I was ignorant. I knew only the controversy, not the truth about their music. I didn’t see artists, I saw foul-mouthed, violent, and decadent human beings. I didn’t understand the artists, their music, or the cultural incubator that had hatched them, pulsating with primitive intent and cursing at the world around them, especially the racist autocrats who harassed them because of the color of their skin. (Okay, Eazy-E sold drugs before N.W.A. formed, but if the movie is to be believed, that stopped once the music started.)
I knew the movie was effective because by the time it was over I felt sympathy for some of its characters, and understood others better, yet I didn’t feel like I’d fallen victim to propaganda. I felt like my eyes had been opened. The music was infectious, with an addictive underlying groove, and the lyrics spoke hard truth. All I can say is Ice Cube has a deeply poetic way with words, and a talent for imparting meaning through words.
I also saw a side of humanity I’d never seen before, and would never want to. If “Straight Outta Compton” tells its story truthfully, the world of gangsta rap can be dangerous and volatile. In one scene, Dr. Dre’s business partner and a few thugs beat him to a pulp for threatening to leave the record label they had formed.
But the performances drew me in. The actors, including O’Shea Jackson, Jr., who stuns in the role of his father, Ice Cube, didn’t merely slip into character when the cameras rolled, they became these people. They lived and breathed as them.
What’s more, Gray directs tight scenes, keeping his actors reigned in to get what he needs but also giving them enough leeway to infuse each moment with authenticity, as though you’re watching life, not a movie, unfold. At no time does the film feel awkwardly directed, nor do the actors ever seem out of control.
Some people have fussed about how “Straight Outta Compton” tinkers with the facts, while others say the timeline isn’t entirely accurate. So what? When you’re dealing with a chaotic period of history, and many of those people are still alive and eager to be portrayed in a good light, a close approximation of the truth is acceptable.
As biographical stories go, “Straight Outta Compton” is rather straightforward. But there was nothing ordinary about its central characters, and their story made for an energetic, entertaining, and very genuine film. I won’t be buying any N.W.A. albums any time soon, but I will be seeing this movie again. I’m eager to slip back into the illusion of reality it casts around viewers.
Three and a half stars out of four. Rated R for language, strong sexuality, nudity, violence, and drug use.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.