I had mixed feelings about this F. Gary Gray biopic. Giving an insight into one of the most influential music groups of this generation was an intriguing idea, but previous attempts at filming the early life of rap heroes have had mixed results, with ‘8 Mile’ being a high point and the 2009 Notorious B.I.G. biopic, ‘Notorious’ being an awful low point. The problem with biopics, particularly musical biopics, is that they regularly stick to the same beats. It usually starts out with the talented protagonist struggling to make it out of an environment that is working so hard to keep them where they are. Queue a significant breakthrough, a love interest and a double-cross and you have the standard formula for any biopic.
‘Straight Outta Compton’ is no different. It follows this well-trodden path in a disciplined and functional manner, which is odd considering the characters portrayed on screen represent a way of life which is synonymous with a more rebellious attitude and the “middle finger to conventions” approach. It is strange that a film about a group of controversial visionaries has been made in such a safe and efficient manner. The film is tells the story of the rise, and demise, of legendary rap group N.W.A and shows their journey through poverty, huge success and inner-band feuds that ultimately leads to the end of this seminal musical legacy.
That’s not to say the film is boring. Actually it is fiercely entertaining and whether you are fans of these artists or not, you will be hard pushed not to become wrapped up in their world, their motives and their success. At its heart is a well told, if not a somewhat predictable story, of a group of young, talented individuals trying to break away from their oppressive surroundings. The film is, on the face of it, a simple rags to riches story. Look deeper however, and the film is actually about the futility of attempts to escape your roots. Wealth and fame does not prevent the constant flirtation with “gangertism”, criminality and prejudice and the film also shows the other side of this message – how far corruption, racist attitudes and a will to oppress the impoverished can stretch, no matter how successful you may be.
The performances are universally terrific, but special praise should go to Jason Mitchell, who plays the cheeky and dangerous Eazy-E. Not only does he look the spitting image of the real life Eric Wright, but Mitchell’s performance perfectly encapsulates the charismatic, funny and ultimately hot-headed character, who became a talisman for the young and needy demographic of mid 90’s Compton. The films often looks beautiful as well, even the early scenes of poverty in Compton’s darkest recesses are exquisitely realised; you can almost smell the squalidness on the screen. The way Gray manages to shoot the recording sessions is impressive too. It becomes both entertaining and fascinating to see how these groundbreaking tracks were created and to see why they were, in the end, so successful. The film’s theme – the impossible struggle to escape your roots and how your surroundings define you and mould you as a person – is relatively well explored, with the film’s climax rather poetically bringing all of this together. However, a run time of nearly two and a half hours, whilst far from leaving me bored, didn’t quite feel justified; I found the film lacking anything of real substance to sink your teeth into, to warrant such a run time.
My final criticism of ‘Straight Outta Compton’ would be that there is plenty of misogyny on show, and Gray does not do enough to clean up the boundary between depicting misogyny and the film becoming misogynistic itself. Of course, rap music has often been condemned as sexist, and the film does not shy away from this. But whilst the depiction of misogyny is often represented in a negative light, at times the film verges on supporting this mentality (Eazy’s “Wet & Wild” party springs to mind). In the end though, you can forgive these characters for the most part, because there is an argument to say that this attitude comes as a result of their upbringing and the environment they grew up in.
Despite these dalliances with controversy, F. Gary Gray has created an entertaining and inspiring film about people who were, and still are, important figures in the popular culture of the last 20 years or so. The tragic demise of certain characters is evidence of how you can never really escape where you come from, yet you can persist in bettering yourself and become a beacon of hope to those who have none. Whether you’re a fan of N.W.A or not, this could well be one of the best musical biopics you’ll see for a long time – after all, these kinda things don’t come around too often.
Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: O’Shea Jackson, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell