PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Gangsta rap – sometimes called “reality rap” by practitioners — emerged from the streets in the late 1980s in South Central Los Angeles, among other places, where racial tension was high as gangs clashed with police.
That’s when N.W.A.’s controversial song, “F— the Police,” was denigrated by the FBI, and the hip-hop culture – with its characteristically angry and incendiary protest music – established itself.
N.W.A., its title an acronym for “Niggaz With Attitude,” was one of hip-hop’s most influential groups, inspiring countless groups to come, and former N.W.A. members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are two of the producers of the musical biopic and origin story, Straight Outta Compton, named for their debut album, which explores the personal stories that led to the confrontational group’s formation in poverty-stricken Compton and their tumultuous history, and was squarely on a path that would lead to riots in Los Angeles in 1992.
The creative spark in the recording studio and the camaraderie of the people making and midwifing this influential music are entertainingly captured and conveyed, and there’s even room for a few gratefully acknowledged humorous moments as well.
But it would not take long for N.W.A.’s west coast gangsta rap to be accused of inciting violence against law enforcement officials by the FBI and others.
Director F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Negotiator, The Italian Job, A Man Apart, Be Cool, Law Abiding Citizen), working from a densely detailed, straightforward-biodrama screenplay by Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman that’s based on a story by Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, and Alan Wenkus, has fashioned a myth and also concocted a period piece that argues implicitly that, in terms of racial relations, we remain stuck in that very period, as recent and current events seem to corroborate.
Their casually misogynistic script is a lively warts-and-all portrait of the way artists deal with their problems through their creative outlet and output, in this case commenting on the racism and poverty that they see all around them, while the narrative also details, over the course of nearly two-and-a-half hours, the varying perceptions of the three highest-profile principals among the group’s five members as inevitable friction develops and they go their separate ways.
Ice Cube is played by his real-life son, spitting image O’Shea Jackson Jr., while Corey Hawkins portrays Dr. Dre, and Jason Mitchell is a neighborhood drug dealer, Eric “Easy-E” Wright, with whom they go into business. The other two, Neil Brown Jr. as Dj Yella and Aldis Hodge as MC Ren, get to register as well. Even the three leads are relative newcomers, while veteran Paul Giamatti plays their opportunistic, enthusiastic, and manipulative manager, Jerry Heller, and icons Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield), Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose), and Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) are worked into the mosaic, as they should be, as well.
The ensemble acting that Gray gets from his large cast is quite impressive from top to bottom.
As for the depicted racial profiling and rioting, the police brutality and gang violence are conveyed vividly over the course of a decade, with the many electrifyingly dramatic and truthful scenes making up for the few moments of flatness, excess, or exaggeration.
The feeling that the film is overly crowded and busy never entirely disappears, which is probably why the epic story sags just a tad in the late going, with the second half not quite living up to the standards set by the first half. But the overall narrative momentum holds up nicely enough for rap fans to be gratified and newcomers to be intrigued.
Sprawling and perhaps overstuffed but energetic and insightful, the biographical melodrama, “Straight Outta Compton,” gets 3 stars out of 4 for addressing rap’s bad rap in a powerfully resonant way.