Considering his previous filmography – and upcoming projects (with Fast 8 doubtless to propel him back into the blockbuster sphere)– F. Gary Gray could have easily botched the biopic of N.W.A, throwing in mindless car chases and shoot-outs, and focusing far less on the politics and brotherhood of the band’s evolution. However, having had a six-year break since his last film, Law Abiding Citizen, it seems he has matured, and Straight Outta Compton is an extremely confident, compelling and often moving drama. Taking in $60 million in its U.S opening, it may still be a blockbuster, technically, yet it’s crafted with finesse, eschewing melodrama and action.
There’s a very artful quality to the film, not seen for a while in a biopic since The Social Network’s stylish profile of Facebook’s beginnings. This is largely down to Matthew Libatique, director of photographer on previous “pretty” films such as Black Swan, The Fountain and Requiem For A Dream (yes, all Darren Aronofsky). He’s no stranger to music and hip-hop, specifically, either, having worked on Tupac’s Live At The House Of Blues and Xzibit: Restless Xposed. He brings an extremely crisp and beautifully-lit essence to the film, as well as the kinetic vibe that pulses through this story. Despite an Oscar-nominated script, it is the cinematography that shines out in production terms.
The story, for those unaware, is finely knitted together, tightly observing the humble start of N.W.A, to the global notoriety, and the division of projects and partnerships. There are very few moments where you feel bored, and the honesty portrayed in terms of the backstabbing and turf wars is extremely refreshing to a film with producers so closely linked to the film*. Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff have penned a very intimate portrait of the five members. Imaginably, the surviving members have had quite a say on what can and cannot go into this film, yet that does not show – we see the twisted, aggressive and soft sides to these urban icons.
Focus is not completely shared, and this is mostly Eazy-E’s, Dr. Dre’s and Ice Cube’s rags to riches tale. MC Ren and DJ Yella are often just present. Still, you feel their camaraderie from the get-go, and as casting goes, this is sublime. Notably, Ice Cube is played by his son O’Shea Jackson Jr (in his first acting performance), somewhat distracting in terms of how eerily similar he is to his father. Nevertheless, his acting ability exceeds that of Cube, and Jackson Jr brings that stern charisma to the role. Dre’s embodiment is made by Corey Hawkins, playing the part as a quiet yet influential figure in the band’s upstart. Hawkins has a maturity deep within him that shines through for the almost-paternal Dre character (fatherly and brotherly, he is the one who softly guides them through). Despite Dre and Cube being far bigger names now, the spotlight is nearly entirely soaked up by Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E. Bringing rage, innocence, comedy and tragedy to the late figure requires an awful amount of tact – Mitchell is an excellent actor in this regard.
As an ensemble piece, very few plotlines branch out too clumsily. Famous faces are shoehorned in at times (Tupac, and Snoop Dogg, to a degree), although you never forget their place in regard to the star players. The occasional peppering of cultural signifiers, such as the Rodney King trial, also work hand-in-hand with the band’s growth, and the political undertones are always poignant.
For those less interested in rap, it’s hard not to admire the power of their words, or the rhythm of their music. Certainly, for a regular viewer who has never listened to N.W.A before, it’ll be a delightful education, and for fans, it’s a beautiful tribute to that band. With its raw depiction, and magnetic performances, Straight Outta Compton is a 2015 cinematic gem.
*Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are producers; Get On Up, the James Brown biopic had Mick Jagger – who closely knew Brown – felt too tame, probably at the request of Jagger who didn’t want to damage Brown’s image.