Straight Outta Compton is the 2015 biopic that tells the story of Eazy-E’s (and the rest of NWA’s) genesis and rise to superstardom amid the supercharged racial and political upheavals of the 1990s. The film is almost three hours of rags to riches American Dream. Conflicts brew from the various dangers both internal and external of having a life awash in cash and the breaking of social conventions in a nation already crippled by injustice. The story of the rise to the top of these men is as captivating as it is exciting and tragic, all carried by a stellar script and ruthlessly beautiful direction. Rarely does a biopic about a group of artists whose mere existence evoke such rabid nostalgia among its fanbase succeed, but Straight Outta Compton succeeds with an unparalleled electric fervor rarely seen in musicals or biopics of our age.
The news of Straight Outta Compton being made me anxious. How could a biopic with such great expectations possibly live up to the reality of the lives of these men who single-handedly brought our nation into a rebirth of style, music, free-speech, and larger-than-life egos and lifestyles of major performing artists? In many cases, work that reaches a mass appeal has no long-term resilience – but Dre, Eazy-E, Cube, Yella, and MC Ren’s work only continues to keep their reign as kings of hip hop, influencing every artist that has come since. There was rap before NWA, and there was rap after NWA, and this film had a great deal to live up to with audiences of our generation, not to mention the fact that these men accomplished so much as they faced down a singular flashpoint of American History. How was it possible for a mass market film to even come close?
The two major choices that needed to happen had to do with casting and an airtight Hollywood script that would appeal to the widest possible audience, bringing together lifelong fans and popcorn fiends together in a sweet spot of great storytelling and solid performances. I thought that both were achieved. Herman, Berloff, Savidge, and Wenkus’ Academy Award-nominated script was a triumph in storytelling, condensing several decades of history, biography, and summary into a little over three hours of perfectly executed dialogue. Then, there are the performances. Rumors about the casting decisions including the sons of our protagonists, O’Shea Jackson Jr and Lil Eazy, seemed to be too much of a ridiculous decision. How often do great roles go to amateur actors as a gimmick and end up ruining a piece just for the sake of publicity, after all? The casting decisions paid off as Jackson Jr’s performance was not only perfect but carried that rare spirit of his father in his role as Dre. It seemed for Eazy, they also made the perfect choice as the spectacularly adept Jason Mitchell carried the entire film from beginning to end in a performance that spanned an entire emotional arc – something that I would be hard-pressed to believe an amateur could pull off as well as Mitchell did… in an interview with VLAD-TV, Lil Eazy was aware of what the producers were going for and his own limitations as an actor. The rest of the cast, from Corey Hawkins to Paul Giamatti to Aldis Hodge to R. Marcos Taylor to even the small casting decisions of Keith Stanfield as Snoop and Marcc Rose and Darris Love as Tupac, this ensemble cast embodied the era and these characters in such a complete, satisfying way that I can’t imagine the film being executed any better.
Straight Outta Compton is one of those rare films where I walked in with pretty low expectations, wondering how it was possible that they could ever live up to what I wanted in it, and I was completely blown away by what F. Gary Grey accomplished. An excellent film in style, substance, execution, and energy, I was not only not disappointed, but enraptured.