Straight Outta Compton charts the dizzy rise and scary fall of rap supergroup N.W.A, whose frustration and rage against lifetimes of police harassment and violence toward residents of inner city L.A. created the scorching explosion of vocal protests we’ve come to know as gangsta rap. Surviving members of the radical, barrier-smashing group Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Tomica Wood-Wright (the widow of Easy-E) are producers of the film and while that gambit is understandable, iron-fisted control has its flaws and drawbacks. They’re going for a full-authorized legacy movie and, for better or worse, that’s exactly what we’ve got here. The script, credited to Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, begins in 1986, when the group members weren’t icons and when they are at their most likable — minus all that fronting and braggadocio.
Hustling, charismatic Easy-E (Jason Mitchell, a standout) has his own thing going as a mid-level drug dealer who holds a realistically fatalistic point of view about his odds of living and the trajectory of his life. Meanwhile Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is a DJ who definitely knows his James Brown and Funkadelic and is blessed with an uncanny ear. Then, there’s scrappy, two-fisted high school kid Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., a dead ringer for his dad) who frantically scrawls rhymes in his notebook while riding back and forth on the school bus. These two have the juice and the hustle and the movie makes certain we know that. Meanwhile, MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) don’t get much play at all.
The boys hook up as a group and, with the assistance of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), they put out, arguably, a half-dozen of the most vibrant, essential, and powerful hip-hop albums of the ‘90s. And then things go wrong as they must, because at heart, Straight Outta Compton is a straight musical bio movie. That’s okay, though, because, directed by F. Gary Gray (who directed Ice Cube’s Friday), it’s also a brash, enjoyable nostalgic rush that also happens to be as timely as tomorrow.