"F*** tha police!" -N.W.A
Such a blunt statement is bound to be polarizing. Fortunately for those performing the line, polarization is the exact effect the legendary hip hop group N.W.A constantly strove for and achieved- and the exact effect that permeates F. Gary Gray's terrific biographical drama Straight Outta Compton. If you're unfamiliar with N.W.A or their seminal first album from which this film borrows its name, it is a group of Compton based rappers- Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren- that is largely responsible for the popularization of gangsta rap in the late 1980s. Their music walked (and often crossed) the fine line between straightforwardly expressing the violent marginalization of the Compton culture they were raised in and offending the majority of conservative America by means of profane lyrics woven throughout touchy social themes. It also changed the hip hop genre forever, providing Gray with a hugely entertaining true story on which to base his film.
It is no surprise, then, that Straight Outta Compton is one of the most unashamedly entertaining and important films of the year, even if it is occasionally weighed down by its own ambition. It balances out its polarizing nature and political message with dedicated performances, a surprising amount of humor and heart, and an engrossing story visualized with as much grandeur as possible. The performances are worth mentioning straightaway for an interesting reason: the actor portraying Ice Cube is Ice Cube's actual son, and he does a fantastic job. The visage of his father combined with his strong performance adds gravitas to the film, especially alongside the actors portraying the other four N.W.A members- all newcomers to the acting field who turn in career making performances- and a consistently sympathetic Paul Giamatti. The film wisely focuses on N.W.A's rise to fame as a personal journey, letting the actors powerfully emote and react to the Compton rappers' intimate lives from the get go, rather than presenting the historical story beat by factual beat. Its inward focus is what imbues Straight Outta Compton with its humor and heart: by honoring the complicated but playful friendships between N.W.A's members and their friends and family, it ends up simultaneously being one of the funniest and most emotional movies of the year so far.
What really sets the film apart from its summer movie contemporaries is its cultural importance. Its timeliness is no mistake: the last year brought a swarm of documented cop-on-black violence in America and marked the start of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Many artists have recently used their work to propel the purpose behind this movement further into American hearts and minds, from Selma director Ava DuVernay to To Pimp A Butterfly musician Kendrick Lamar. Grey tosses this film into the mix in an aforementioned polarizing manner: much like N.W.A did with their rally cry songs, Straight Outta Compton clearly but deftly picks a political side, as if saying, "This is what they experienced, and this is what is still happening now. You should have a problem with that." The film has a unique advantage in conveying this message, as cop-on-black violence is integral to N.W.A's story (the Rodney King trial plays a significant part in the setting's political landscape), so the message never feels unnecessary or heavy-handed. While the film does lose sight of this focus as it powers on, its aggressive stance on the issue is sure to be appreciated by more audiences than it angers.
Among all of Straight Outta Compton's entertainment and importance is an overwhelming sense of excess. At times, this plays to the film's strengths: concerts, the streets of Compton, and protests are shot with sweeping grandiosity (thanks to Noah cinematographer Matthew Libatique); much of the film feels boosted with excess to maximize pure enjoyment. Eventually, however, the film trying to dramatize every event as much as possible begins to throw off the pacing. The second half of the film's overlong two and a half hour runtime attempts to sensationalize financially-focused stages of N.W.A's story that aren't as exciting or involving narratively as their beginnings, and it becomes exhausting by the last 30 minutes. This isn't a problem that breaks the entire film, but it's certainly a distracting undercurrent later on. N.W.A's inner conflict and its members' multiple accounts of misogyny are quite smoothed over for the film- perhaps injecting these narrative elements with a bit more drama would have been better, more honest choices.
That said, with the amount of meat this movie offers to digest, there's no way you'll want to run straight outta the theater when the movie ends. Straight Outta Compton is a terrific biographical film that has a great true story to tell, a hugely entertaining way to tell it, and a necessary stance on more than a few modern issues.