‘Straight Outta Compton’ Review: Parental Discretion Iz Advised

'Straight Outta Compton'

Movie Rating:


The story of N.W.A is so insane, operatic, inspiring and horrifying that it was pretty much guaranteed to be the stuff of stirring cinema someday. Well, that day is here thanks to ‘Straight Outta Compton’, a grand, colorful, 150-minute tale of a few angry kids with big talent.

When the movie is at its best (as in, say, the first 70 minutes or so), it’s a pretty excellent and socially relevant story. When the movie is at its worst (like most of the last 70 minutes), it struggles to contain its ambitions, focuses too much on contract disputes, and glosses over all the least flattering elements of the true story for the benefit of the surviving and most famous members of the group (who also just happen to be producers). Ah well, at least the good outweighs the bad.

Things kick off with Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) getting caught up in a drug deal gone wrong that leads to riot gear, angry dogs and a destroyed living room. With that, the tone is set and we get the usual “Get to know ya” setup to a music bio-pic. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is the musical genius with the beats and the brains and the vision to create a whole new type of music. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr. – Cube’s eldest son) is the angry young genius who writes the words and delivers the attitude. Eazy-E bankrolls them with his drug money and keeps it real. There are other NWA members, but don’t worry about hearing much from them. There’s simply not enough screen time to go around, so they just dip in and out of the background much like the Snoop and Tupac lookalikes who pop up for a few seconds.

The band forms from something real and honest, but producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti and the worst wig of his career) sees real money and brings them to the masses. As they record the first N.W.A record, the discrimination the men face from police and much of society feels visceral and the music is a natural expression of their frustration. As they tour, fame and success comes hand-in-hand with arrests and FBI threats.

It’s pretty powerful stuff that’s quite well executed by director F. Gary Gray (the man behind ‘Friday’ doing his best Scorsese impression here) and an immensely talented cast. Then the usual rifts form in the group in the usual ego-driven ways, and the movie gradually falls apart. It has many high points from then on, however. The way R. Marcos Taylor emerges as friend-turned-monster Suge Knight is handled fairly well. The montage of beef-tracks between the group as solo artists makes for a damn fun sequence, and the way N.W.A’s music and the issues they raise factor into the Rodney King incident and subsequent L.A. riot is sensitively and powerfully presented.

The problem with ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is ultimately that the filmmakers have too much story to tell for a single feature, and co-producers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre try to keep things a little clean. It’s sad to see the movie devolve into tedious arguments about contracts (well, aside from Ice Cube’s baseball bat negotiation scene). Likewise, the decision to use Eazy-E’s death as a structural hanging point in the third act might have been good for narrative economy, but also leads the film into music bio-pic clichés straight outta ‘Walk Hard’. Many of the darker beats in Dre’s later life are ignored to make him seem like a good guy poisoned by Suge’s presence, and Ice Cube essentially disappears from the story at a certain point since he was off in another world.

There are rumors that the first cut of the movie weighed in at a hefty 3.5 hours, so perhaps a lot of the missing material was there at one point. (It’s hard to believe that the infamous tale of Suge Knight dangling Vanilla Ice off a balcony to blackmail some cash to fund Death Row Records wasn’t at least considered for inclusion.) It certainly feels like the back half of the movie was chopped to bits with obvious ADR redubbing desperately trying to condense and connect scenes. The last 40 minutes or so of the movie feel pretty darn awkward in ways that clearly weren’t intentional.

Still, as frustrating as it is that certain material was glossed over and as irritating as it can be to see paint-by-numbers clichéd writing drag things down, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ has an undeniable power and significant entertainment value. After all, this is a pretty fascinating story that comes laced with bitter commentary on police brutality that’s quite possibly even more relevant today.

This is probably the best this movie could be while trying to tell the entire labyrinthine tale of N.W.A with the involvement of surviving members who come to the movie with their own point of view and understandable interest in looking good. There’s a chance that in a few decades this tale will be spun in a more honest and efficient way, but even if not, a pretty damn good N.W.A movie exists and that’s sure as shit something that most people around in the 1990s never imagined possible. That’s gotta count for something, right?


  1. As someone who doesn’t have any interest in hip-hop, this was obviously not made for me. However, a good movie is a good movie regardless of subject. I didn’t think I’d like Hustle & Flow but that movie was awesome.

    Still, I find the trailers and TV ads for this really annoying. Every line of dialogue is “You’re the greatest genius of our lifetimes” and “I may not know anything about hip-hop, but I can tell that you boys are something special” and “Your message is too important. The people need to hear it!” That’s one of the biggest problems with so much hip-hop music, a lot of which consists of rappers boasting about how awesome they are. “I’m the greatest in the world. Everybody else sucks. My amazing rhymes are gonna blow your mind…” Blah blah blah…

    This movie kind of looks like some totally bullshit Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story about plucky kids who put their heads down and work really hard until they’re inevitably rewarded by hitting it big – just with some ‘hood trappings and violence and sex to spice it up for modern audiences. Maybe I’m totally off base about that and the movie’s nothing like that. If so, the trailers are doing a really lousy job of selling it.

    • Timcharger

      Yes, you’re correct that every other rap song is about how
      so & so is the best at everything.
      John Oliver had an hilarious rant about that (8:00 mark):

      But this is NOT about how someone has the best rhymes
      or hottest chicks. Not everyday does someone/group
      actually create a revolution in a music genre. So it’s quite
      apt for the trailers to sell that.

      And Josh, you must appreciate the irony of bringing up
      the Horatio Alger myth to criticize the NWA trailer. They
      raged against the system. Alger was about how the
      system will reward all your hard work through merit.
      The vast majority of their peers died or jailed young
      without any real opportunity. Hardly a good-things-will-
      come-if-you-just-conform story.

      NWA (and others) connected with many fans who didn’t
      believe in the Horatio Alger myth. Those fans didn’t see
      the meritocracy of the system too, despite not being from
      Compton. Though I’m sure many fans just liked it, because
      their parents forbade it. Or cuz the cool kids liked it. But I

      • Yes, I recognize the irony, which is why I pointed it out. N.W.A was supposed to be all about fighting back against The Man, and yet the movie’s trailers feature a white music executive (The Man himself) praising their amazing talent and immediately signing them up for a huge record deal.

        (What middle-aged white guy in the 1980s would have used the phrase “hip-hop” anyway? It was all “rap” back then.)

        Let’s also not forget that, regardless of the message they were selling, N.W.A were ultimately a bunch of street kids who became millionaires. Look at where Ice Cube is today.

        Like I said, maybe that’s not what the movie is at all, but the trailers are giving me a really big case of cognitive dissonance.

        • I also have to say that it takes a truly special brand of narcissism for Ice Cube (a producer on the movie) to cast his own son to play himself in a self aggrandizing origin story.

          Talk about living in your father’s shadow…

        • Timcharger

          Josh: “regardless of the message they were selling, N.W.A were ultimately a bunch of street kids who became millionaires.”

          Rags to riches stories existed before Horatio Alger.
          The fact that the end was successful for NWA (and
          others) does NOT make them an Alger story.

          It is precisely the message they were selling that
          counts. Horatio Alger’s message was that the
          system will reward those who conform to it. That’s
          the opposite message. Rags to riches AND that
          “the Man” will out of his generosity reward you,
          is Horatio Alger. “The Man” is greedy and won’t
          give you a thing, is NWA (and others).

          Defenders of the system love to cite that if someone
          from the depths does make it big, then the system
          is perfect & needs to no change. Because Oprah/
          Jordan/NWA exists, there is no racism and no
          injustice in the system.

          I’m not saying Josh that you have that position. It’s
          clear that you called it, Horatio Alger bullsh*t. It’s just
          ironic to apply it here to the NWA trailer. Hey, maybe
          now that they are rich, they are saying: Obey the Man!
          I could be wrong.

          • Timcharger

            Perhaps my comments are somehow spamming into
            your inbox. Sorry. I feel that I too must read every
            comment in every article, wait, that’s not true.

            And conversations engaged by others on the net, we
            got to put a stop to that. Sign me up.

            Googling “Horatio Alger myth” didn’t add wisdom to
            your head?

            Instead of discourse, I should make “rap is crap”
            comments? That’s the contribution that suits you?
            Enjoy that deep-thinking conversation in these same
            comments. Comments by others, that you simply
            can’t ignore. Must. Read. More. Comments.


            Josh engages in a rant against a film trailer, and we
            have a conversation (with nuance & references to
            history/literature/economics)… that’s the crime I’ve

    • Bolo

      I did see the movie and I liked it. In my opinion, the story isn’t really presented the way you seem to think it will be, however I still get the feeling you won’t like the film and shouldn’t watch it.

      In its broadest strokes, yes it is a movie about guys who start with very little, apply themselves, and achieve success. I don’t feel the movie presents the story as being all about the end goal of selling records, making money, getting famous etc. It doesn’t have that ‘Flashdance’ structure of a movie that all comes down to the big gig or audition where the heroes prove themselves.

      I would say the material was presented more as a coming-of-age type of story. The film focuses more on how success plays these guys against each other, and how business and the responsibilities and consequences of adult life creep up on them. They quickly become nostalgic for simpler times when it was all about the joy of creating and performing with their friends, but they all realize there’s no going back to that time.

  2. Well, as Chris Rock said: “In the old days, it was easy to defend rap music. It was easy to defend it on an intellectual level. You could break it down intellectually, why Grand Master Flash was art, why Run-D.M.C. was art, and music. You could break it down intellectually. And I love all the rappers today, but it’s hard to defend this shit. It’s hard to defend: “I got hoes in different area codes.” It’s hard to defend: “Move, bitch, get out the way” …”

    Hip-hop used to give a voice to those without a voice (Ariel?). Nowadays, it’s all glorification and “look how awesome I am!!”. With a few exceptions. Macklemore is very genuine, talking about his child or his gay uncle.

  3. By that logic, because some mainstream movies suck, all movies suck. Well they don’t. As is the case with most art, you have to do a little digging to find the best stuff.

  4. C.C.

    “Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is the musical genius with the beats and the brains and the vision to create a whole new type of music.”
    That is a hilarious sentence. If you think he created hip-hop, wow. NWA were in the mix, but they came around after the invention of the style.

  5. Clemery

    While I am sure the movie will be great for the fans, I personally can’t wait for it to be forgotten so we can get past the whole “Straight Outta…” meme fad that is dominating all forms of social media.

  6. Tim

    I enjoyed it, but there were many points where I kept thinking back to Fear of Black Hat from 25 years ago. It would be like seeing a Zeppelin biopic after Spinal Tap

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