Straight Outta Compton

Universal Pictures           147 Minutes                R

We already knew of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, McRen and DJ Yella who created N.W.A. But we have to admit, we didn’t know enough about how and why they got together to be the young rappers who struck a nerve with Black youth in the 80’s.

The story, the acting and the music are more powerful and compelling than we expected. They used 130 sets, including on locations in the Compton, Slauson and Torrance dangerous hoods where these guys came from. We wondered if it would be worth 2 and a half hours. It is. Don’t let the R rating, huge party scenes and the profane street language keep you from seeing this film.

This is a story of greed, tragedy and betrayal, but also about the music business, fame, and brotherhood. Director F. Gary Gray grew up in the same neighborhoods at the same time. His cut was 3 and a half hours long. He’s known for The Italian Job, The Negotiator and music videos for Dre and more artists. We still thought it was a little long in places but then there are a few short scenes that didn’t seem to fit or have a purpose other than to introduce a character we ended up seeing again. It interrupted the flow.

Gray says the film is different because “the biopic and music intersect.” He explains that it’s more than just a story of making a band. And they started making the film before Ferguson erupted. He says, and we agree, this movie is not just about what happened at the time but, unfortunately, what’s happening now with young Black men and the police.

The Director states emphatically that it’s not a police movie, even though the popularity of the band exploded with lyrics that stuck, “ F*** the Police.”  They’d justify their raps saying, “Would you rather have us break in your house or have us make a record about breaking into your house.” They didn’t pick up sticks, guns or knives. They fought back with groundbreaking rhymes set to a beat. Unfortunately, police brutality was rampant in those areas. And the real N.W.A. band members say the battering ram in the opening scene used by LAPD, is “for real.”

But what makes this film fascinating is how it was made. Ice Cube always wanted his son to play him. O’Shea Jackson wasn’t an actor and didn’t want to do it at first, but he took acting lessons for 2 years and it became an obsession to play his Dad. He even lost weight for the part. And O’Shea says he’s really been in training since he went on tour with his Dad in 3rd grade. That’s when he met Dr. Dre for the very first time. Ice Cube was so obsessed with this film, that while he was shooting Ride Along elsewhere, he had a computer put facing production as scenes were being shot for Straight Outta Compton so he could scope and Skype the set.

This film is really a tribute to Eazy-E; a hustler with faults. Jason Mitchell (Contraband) plays the complicated, rebellious lead of the group. Eazy-E’s son wanted to play his Dad, and tried for it, but ended up coaching Mitchell for the role instead. Mitchell said he trained for 6 weeks, 3 hours a day, 5 days a week to get the part down. He was given family videos and more information by Eazy-E’s widow never seen before. Mitchell is convincing, every step of the way.

Corey Hawkins who plays Dr.Dre says it was huge to have the support system of the original band members and/or their families to talk to. They also performed some of the raps which were mixed with the originals!Hawkins says they were really doing it! He also admits he was really nervous to play Dre at first. But Dre told him, “You don’t have to imitate me, just represent N.W.A. and the rest will follow.“

Neil Brown, Jr. as DJ Yella, Aldis Hodge as MC Ren and Marlon Yates, Jr. as the D.O.C. complete the group.“These are my boys.” says Hodge, and that it was huge to have the chance to put his voice to these classics. They all agree they became family and that shooting those scenes in the recording studio brought them even closer together. You can see the bond on screen.

Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller, the man who discovers the group, seemed an odd choice at first. His hair is distracting at first, but that was Heller’s style. Giamatti is such an amazing actor, he can go from playing John Adams to a rap manager without missing a beat. Giamatti says Heller is a guy who could be two very different people and Director Gray knew how to the guys sell the music and it  “feels really real, moreso than other movies I’ve done like that.” His scenes with Mitchell as Easy-E and with O’Shea as Dre are sometimes touching and other times, gut wrenching.

Marion "Suge" Knight, the Manager of Death Row Records, played by R. Marcos Taylor, (Gothem and Sons of Anarchy) are frightening. He’s big and violent. And we found out that he supposedly tried to visit a set where a commercial for this film was being shot and when they wouldn’t let him in, he ran over two men, killing one. Yikes!

Is this worth your bucks? This film is an inspiration for young people of all races and cultures to use words instead of weapons to be heard. This film helped one of the original N.W.A. members to do just that. Dr. Dre says this film inspired him to record for the first time in 16 years. His album “Grand Finale” was just released and is expected to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in its first week! Bottom line, Gray has created a film that is really a tribute, not only to the power of rap, but to Eazy-E. What do Dre and Cube say? “Eazy would be proud.”