Three years ago, I was interviewing Ice Cube when the N.W.A. movie came up. He was doing promotional rounds for 21 Jump St. and I was thrilled to be speaking with an actor and artist I’d been a fan of for most of my life. A good, open conversation ended with the inevitable question of what he had coming up and Cube brought up making a film about his younger life. There was something about the way he said it, a weight in his voice, that made it obvious how much the idea meant to him. The film in question, F. Gary Gray’s blazing, energetic Straight Outta Compton, isn’t a feature-length rap video but a real movie and a great one at that.
Gray, who’s made everything from Friday to (my personal favorite) Set It Off, gives this a wide scope and a seriousness that matches what Curtis Hanson brought to 8 Mile. The story of how five rap artists (Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, DJ Yella and Eazy-E) became enormously popular, influential and controversial makes for an entertaining ride, with a handful of terrific scenes. The sequences depicting the infamous Detroit concert, their run-in with cops outside their studio and the hospital-set conclusion are undeniably powerful.
It’s well into the running time when we realize that the focus isn’t on the group itself but the unique, troubled father/son relationship between Eazy-E and Jerry Heller, their manager. Many will be surprised that N.W.A., who famously flaunted their rebellious attitude and took aim at racist authority figures, had a white manager. As played with intelligent layers by Paul Giamatti, the character isn’t some cheap ploy to appease the mainstream by adding a sympathetic Caucasian character. In fact, the role grows more complex as the story progresses and Giamatti has many great scenes to showcase his craft.
But is the film self-congratulatory? A little bit, particularly at the end. Over the closing credits, there’s all sorts of plugs for Cube’s movies and the Beats Like Dre headphones, when a postscript, telling us what happened to everyone, would have worked just fine.
While there’s no glossing over the group’s bad, raunchy behavior in their heyday (we see hotel rooms get trashed and women getting used), we also see Cube, Dre and E in committed relationships with their spouses. There’s no sense of why these party animals decided to settle down and only one scene addresses the concern a girlfriend has in dating a controversial rapper.
Much of this becomes redundant after a while, with scenes of the group recording, partying and their tense confrontations with racist cops occurring seemingly on rotation. At two and a half hours, the running time flies by, though this could and should have been three hours long. There’s a lot of ground to cover, many characters who required more attention and sequences that didn’t need to be cut as tightly as they appear. Gray may have assembled too much of a good thing but a potential Director’s Cut on DVD/blu-ray could sharpen what he already makes so fascinating.
O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays his father well, though the real Cube has always come across even more forcefully and with more blinding charisma than his son can manage. Corey Hawkins is pretty good as Dr. Dre and, while both Neil Brown Jr. and Aldis Hodge do what they can as DJ Yella and MC Ren, the roles mostly fade into the background. The film belongs to Jason Mitchell, who is sensational as Eazy-E, and Giamatti. There are also juicy supporting roles for stuntman-turned actor R. Marcos Taylor–mesmerizing as Suge Knight–and Keith Stanfield, in a funny cameo as Snoop Dogg. Marcc Rose’s resemblance to Tupac Shakur is so strong that I gasped the first time I saw him.
N.W.A. needed either three hours, tops, to fully tell its story or go the documentary route. Still, all involved should be proud of the end result, which is good enough to make even Ice Cube crack a smile.