Straight Outta Compton is a good movie that could have been great.
While I enjoyed the film, which is a biopic of the iconic rap group N.W.A., I also felt that it was overlong and overly ambitious. It follows founding group members Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Easy-E (Jason Mitchell) before, during and after the group became a national sensation. While it is certainly a thorough look at the group, that thoroughness ultimately makes the film feel bloated.
The trailers for Straight Outta Compton have focused on the controversial rap group’s ascension as the voice of a downtrodden minority oppressed and abused by a police force that should be protecting them; a story which sadly mirrors what we are seeing play out today in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore.
That storyline exists in the film, but it is just a small part of a much bigger movie. The actual film, which clocks in at just under two and a half hours, seeks to give a comprehensive overview of the rise and fall of N.W.A. Unfortunately, while the film is an entertaining dramatization of the group’s struggles and successes, it ultimately suffers under the weight of its ambition.
I found myself wishing they have narrowed the scope and focused more on the group’s struggles with authority and the resonance their songs about life in Compton had with their legions of fans. This is easily the most compelling part and the scene where they are confronted by police in Detroit who threaten them dire consequences if they perform “F*** the Police” that night on stage feels like the climax of the film. But the film continues on for another hour after this moment, chronicling the N.W.A.’s implosion and Easy-E’s tragic death.
While the film felt a bit long and meandering, it was very captivating. This is thanks in large part to the charismatic performances by O’Shea Jackson Jr., Jason Mitchell and Paul Giamatti.
O’Shea Jackson Jr. is most likely to be the breakout star of the film. He is Ice Cube’s real-life son and, in addition to looking eerily similar to his dad, he also inherited his father’s charisma and knack for acting. His performance was so compelling and his appearance so similar to his father that I often forgot I was watching an actor portray Ice Cube and felt instead like I was actually watching him on-screen. I expect big things in store for the talented young actor.
Jason Mitchell’s Easy-E is a tragic figure who puts too much trust in manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who the film presents as an opportunist who swindled E and the other group members out of large sums of money. Mitchell is charming in the role, which makes his fall all the more tragic.
Giamatti does a great job making a Jerry Heller feel like a well-round and complex character. While the film certainly asserts that he took a lot of money off the top, a tactic which ultimately pushed Ice Cube and Dr. Dre out of the group, it doesn’t make his a cartoonish villain. Instead, he does seem to genuinely care about Easy-E and wants the group to succeed, even while ripping them off.
The one casting that felt off was Corey Hawkins’ portrayal of Dr. Dre. He just doesn’t seem to capture the essence of the rapper-turned-headphone-mogul, who always struck me as an intense, brooding figure. Hawkins fails to capture that intensity. He lacks Dre’s swagger. Instead, his version of Dre comes across more meek and sullen.
I also felt like Aldis Hodge was criminally-underused in the role of MC Ren. Ren, one of the core members of the group, is largely ignored by the film. And Hodge, a talented and compelling actor, isn’t given anything interesting to do. He’s mostly just there, in the background. The film’s version of MC Ren has no discernible personality. And while we see at the end what has become of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre in recent years, Ren just disappears from the narrative altogether with no explanation of where he ended up.
The marginalization of MC Ren, the portrayal of Easy-E as a tragic figure in over his head (and one who owed much of his success to Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, who were writing/composing the songs behind the scenes) and the depiction of Jerry Heller as a thief are quite possible accurate, but I found myself uncertain how much of the narrative to trust knowing that both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre produced the film. (As many others have pointed out, the glossing over other unsavory things like accusations of Dr. Dre abusing women is also notable.) The film doesn’t portray the rappers as saints, but it does present them in a overwhelming positive light. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but I do think it is worth noting.
A few small complaints and one major miscasting aside, I greatly enjoyed Straight Outta Compton. It offers a compelling snapshot of an iconic group that is largely overlooked by mainstream society. And it’s narrative about cops abusing minorities unfortunately mirrors today’s headlines. It’s a really wonderful movie, but one that could have benefited from some tighter editing and a narrower scope.