Generally speaking, I am not a fan of biopics. Film offerings such as last year’s The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything leave me utterly cold. I have, thus far, failed to understand why anyone would desire to watch a Hollywood version of reality, and have always preferred to watch a well-made documentary on the subject rather than a glamorised hyperreality.
Straight Outta Compton, detailing the birth and rise of political hip-hop group N.W.A., is that rare thing: a biopic that works well on both an artistic level and as an historical artefact. This may perhaps be largely down to the involvement of N.W.A. members, rendering the depiction of actual events with a ferocity that is usually lacking from a production made with less passionate involvement.
The film’s narrative begins before the conception of N.W.A. introducing via title card each eventual member of the group. We witness Eazy-E’s experience of drug dealing, Dr Dre’s early attempts to inject his DJing with something more revolutionary and Ice Cube’s passionate creativity and lyricism. The setting is richly rendered, establishing through the minutiae, the details of the lives of each N.W.A. member, largely focussing on the aforementioned three. The casting is intelligent, with Ice Cube’s startlingly lookalike son O’Shea Jackson Jr playing his famous father with a clear respect and dedication towards the role. Both Corey Hawkins (as Dr Dre) and Jason Mitchell (as Eazy-E) are too, fantastic in their respective roles, with Mitchell’s delivery of Eazy-E’s famous line ‘cruising down the street in my ‘64’ strikingly reminiscent of his famous counterpart.
Director F. Gary Gray, known for his work in both film (Law Abiding Citizen) and music videos, imbues the narrative with a sense of urgency and gravitas, and his experience of shooting music helps to ensure that the moments in which N.W.A. perform are some of the film’s most electrifying. The film impressively manages to inject pace and excitement into a well-known narrative through juxtaposing the group’s earlier, difficult live, with the later power and excess that they were able to enjoy.
Critics have noted, and rightly so, that the film fails to highlight Dr Dre’s violent towards women, nor does the film feature the groups’ documented cocaine use. And yet, despite these obvious problematic elements, the sheer joy of the narrative helps to maintain the film’s success.