Being a biopic is Straight Outta Compton’s biggest strength and weakness. The rise of NWA to its most culturally relevant moment is an entertaining and almost unbelievable tale. A group of kids with seemingly few, to none, future prospects become not only one of the country’s biggest musical acts, but opens society eyes to social injustice taking place on their streets; it sounds like a movie. But it’s real, and these guys were smart, merging their art with social awareness and being unafraid to rub right in everyone’s face.
So why doesn’t the film work throughout? There comes a point where a show in Detroit goes a little sideways, the concert sequence here might be the highlight of the film, and right when director F. Gary Gray seemed like he was going to blow the doors open on connecting the message of NWA to the world of today the film starts to get limp. There are still some good moments of humor, and Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E is fantastic, but Gray lets the lionizing of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and NWA get in the way.
The film wants you to almost worship at these guys’ feet by the end of the film, but none of it feels really earned. Corey Hawkins is really good as Dr. Dre, there is a soft vulnerability to him that really makes it easy for you to support Dre. The film also goes out of its way to put Dre off the hook for anything beyond a punch or a traffic violation here and there. We know Dre wasn’t acting all roses out in the real world during this time, and that inauthenticity comes through the screen. After that Detroit scene, the film stops telling a story and instead starts to build the myth of these guys.
Yeah, there is some history to tell with Eazy-E, but Cube goes off to make movies and become the perfect husband, while Dre is always conveniently on the outside of all the major Death Row records drama. It just isn’t as interesting as anything that came before it, the film loses its energy. It holds onto it briefly while Cube and NWA feud, but I couldn’t care about a manager screws the talent drama; we’ve seen this done to death. Cube also gets eliminated from the final third of the film, a jarring change as he was the leading force every minute before he isn’t.
The core trio of actors are all solid, with Jason Mitchell being the biggest standout. Eazy-E has the most interesting history of these guys, and Mitchell is able to convey the wide array of personalities E took on across his life. Mitchell also sells Eazy’s struggles that come around at the end of the film, delivering possibly the film’s best acting sequence. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is Ice-Cube’s real life son, but he isn’t quite as good an actor; take that for what you will, based on what you think about Ice-Cube. Still, you will be caught off guard by how much Jackson looks and acts like his dad, even if it should come as second nature to him. Dr. Dre’s character might come across a bit inauthentic, but Corey Hawkins is really great at playing the character we get up on screen. We buy his softer side, yet can fear his wrath in the brief instances that it comes out. Hawkins creates a compelling version of Dre, I just didn’t feel like the writing was giving us the whole truth (and apparently it wasn’t). Paul Giamatti is always enjoyable, but I wish we got a bit more insight into why his character, manager Jerry Heller, is the way he is. I bought Jerry being into NWA, being on their side, him screwing over the group is never really rationalized. Instead it is delivered like we should just expect it. Neil Brown Jr. and Aldis Hodge round out the NWA, and they are both quite good as well in the time they are given. Brown does a nice job of injecting a lot of the levity into the film. R. Marcos Taylor also seems to be having a lot of fun chewing the scenery as Suge Knight.
Straight Outta Compton could have been something special, but even though it limps to the finish line I think it is well worth your time. The music is great, the performance is solid across the board, and the rise of NWA is as compelling a music story you will find out there. F. Gary Gray delivers a solid bio pic, you just wish he would have tried to make something as revolutionary as NWA’s music was. It feels like a missed opportunity.