Straight Outta Compton is a film I have been looking forward to ever since I saw the trailer a few months back. I’m not especially a big fan of N.W.A, but the singles ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and ‘F**k Tha Police’ are among my favourite rap songs. They have a raw power and a sense of urgency that culminates in a primal scream of fury. I hoped as much from the film. Plus, a film about race relations in the US always has relevance, especially in light of present race-related murders in the US. I didn’t know enough about the N.W.A. to spoil the plot of the film, either (well, apart from knowledge about Dr. Dre and Ice Cube). I received what I expected: a great musical biopic that feels truly epic in scope and theme.
The film follow the rise and fall of the N.W.A., or more specifically, the three ‘main’ players (in the film’s point of view, anyway) of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. The others players, such as M.C. Ren, are mostly relegated to the sidelines. This is not a knock on the film, however; any more plot strands and exploration of characters would bloat the film to an unforgivable degree. And, of course, history is written by the victors. And just look at the news today and you’ll see who the victors were: Dr. Dre with his Beats and Ice Cube with his film career. Eazy-E was such a pivotal member of N.W.A. that, regardless of his death two decades ago, he has to be a main player in the film. The film is divided into three acts: the first act revolves around the rise of N.W.A, the second charts its fall, and the third charts what happened to the three main players after N.W.A.
“Rap is not an art”
Right from the beginning, Straight Outta Compton grabs you by the collar and screams in your face. It opens with Eazy-E attempting to claim his money from a drug deal. With guns pointing at him and being outnumbered by a great majority, he doesn’t back down. However, the true antagonist is not the gansters he is dealing with, but the soon-to-arrive police who ram half the house down to get at the drug dealers (the ram has a smiley face painted on it). Eazy-E escapes, but we are in no doubt of two things: Eazy-E is street-wise and brave, and the police trample over the rights of black people. The police are the main antagonist in the first act (and most of the second act) are the police, an omnipresent menace who abuse their authority without remorse.
Of course, the other antagonist is society itself; the school bus that Ice Cube is riding the first time we see him is boarded by gangsters who threaten to shoot a schoolkid. Scene after scene had me gripping the arm of my chair; more than any big blockbuster did this summer (barring Mad Max, of course!). All the computer generated carnage cannot manage to equal, for example, a scene where the N.W.A. have been ordered by the police not to sing ‘F**k Tha Police’ at a concert in Detroit. You know N.W.A. will not listen to the order, but the build up to them singing it has me grinding my teeth. The police slowly moving through the crowd, the gunshots, the following riot…a perfect build of tension and climax.
“We gave the people a voice”
It helps that, as I mentioned before, the issues explored in Straight Outta Compton are as revelant today as they were thirty years ago. Every month we hear about a black person being shot or killed by a police officer without provocation. When the N.W.A. take a break outside from recording their first album, they are harassed by the police. It takes Jerry Heller, their erstwhile manager, to cool the situation down. After their break-up, the Rodney King controversy dominates the headlines. The graphic footage of the incident is played over and over again. The message is simple: little has changed since then. There may be a black man in The White House, but racial injustice is still rife in the USA. When the N.W.A. are accused of inciting violence, Ice Cube replies that they are merely rapping about their reality, their daily lives. If you push people far enough, they will eventually push back with extreme prejudice.
It’s the third act that the tension dissipates and the film takes a different route, simply exploring the post-N.W.A. lives of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. However, it feels like a natural end for the film. It doesn’t have the visceral impact of the first two acts, and could have done with ten or fifteen minutes sliced off (but I wouldn’t know what to slice off!), but it’s carried by the great performances of the actors playing the main characters. They fully embrace their characters, and even in the film’s quiet moments they keep eyes glued to the screen. They are all complicated characters, and the actors portray each characters’ flaws and contradictions with ease.
“We could own the world”
As a musical biopic, Straight Outta Compton is almost unparalleled. There’s no looking away from the film during the first two acts, as their themes strike with force at modern day America. Scene after scene is replete with unerring tension, as the N.W.A. fight against the police and society in general. The actors who portray Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are brilliant. It’s only the third act that contains real flaws, in pace and a lack of tension, but it feels like a natural conclusion and a chance to breath after the sheer terror (yes, that’s the right word) of the first two acts. The film itself feels like a natural end to the summer blockbuster season: a film that shows the CGI-filled mayhem of big budgets films how to really embrace and depict tension. A great achievement, and definitely one of the films of the year.
VERDICT: 9/10. Put simply, one of the films of 2015. A searing indictment of modern day America by examining its past, and depicting the rise of a truly controversial band in gripping fashion. It loses steam in the third act, but there are no superfluous scenes. Simply stunning.