Still catching up with films I’ve missed during my illness, I didn’t know if Straight Outta Compton would speak to me. I’m familiar with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre today, but I had no awareness of N.W.A. when they burst on the scene several decades ago. I certainly didn’t understand gangsta rap or its origins on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Strong reviews and word of mouth impelled me to see the movie this past weekend and I’m glad I did. It’s awfully good.
Director F. Gary Gray has a lot of ground to cover but manages to keep the film moving from one incident to another, like a vaudevillian spinning plates—no easy feat given the number of characters it portrays and the many years it spans. The screenplay, credited to Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff (with story by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus and Berloff), establishes the volatile atmosphere in which the principals grew up and makes its crystal-clear why the young rappers’ breakthrough songs were fueled by anger—and spoke so loudly to an audience hungry for the truth.
In a world where violence is an everyday fact of life and emotions run high, it’s inevitable that melodrama will enter the picture, but these scenes play honestly, a credit not only to the filmmakers but the talented young actors who make up the ensemble. If you’ve seen any show-business biopics before you’ll recognize story tropes about crooked managers, bad business deals and such…but here again, there is no avoiding the facts. (I can’t gauge the honesty or candor of the movie, which was produced by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, among others, but it bears the ring of truth. I’m aware that certain things were left out of the narrative; I can only judge what remains.)
Straight Outta Compton is compelling and eye-opening, a timely review of recent Los Angeles history as well as a story of friendship, brotherhood, hedonism, creativity, and determination. It’s meant to pack a punch and it does.