The infamous street artist Banksy once said that art should "comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable."
Straight Outta Compton follows other street artists who did exactly that, standing up for their oppressed peers and frightening the forces that tried to bring them down. The words of these rappers rose from the bloodstained streets of Los Angeles and echoed across America for years to come. Like the best biopics, this film not only transports us to the past; it holds a mesmerizing mirror up to the present.
Straight Outta Compton starts in 1986 and follows three inner-city teens who were later immortalized in hip-hop history as Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre — the founding fathers of the groundbreaking rap group, N.W.A.
A major strength of the film is how it succinctly breaks down the genesis of the group through each man's distinct behavior. Eazy (Jason Mitchell) timidly steps forward as "the businessman," eventually jumping out of his comfort zone and into the recording booth. Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr., Cube's son) is "the brain," drinking in the dangerous world around him and spitting out resonating, truthful lyrics. And Dre (Corey Hawkins) is the bedrock under their feet, holding them steady rhythmically and personally. Screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff pay equal attention to these men, admirably exploring them as individuals and three sides of the same coin. The lead actors poignantly show the bruised souls beneath the rappers' bravado. You can see the vulnerability behind the vitriol they spew in their songs.
The most important character in the film is time. The screenplay concisely captures the social climate of '80s-era LA with a scene in which the musicians are nearly arrested outside of their recording studio for merely looking like gang members. (LAPD Chief Daryl Gates declared a war on gangs at the time that turned into simply a war on young Black men.) N.W.A. fought back with the hit song "Fuck tha Police."
Director F. Gary Gray makes the performance of this song a spectacle worthy of the big screen. Focusing on the policemen cutting through the crowd during a concert, Gray conveys the danger of N.W.A.'s music. It's one of the most memorable moments you'll see on screen this year. Together, the scene and the song stir up the kind of movie magic that sends chills up your spine.
In the wake of Michael Brown's murder and Sandra Bland's wrongful arrest, "Fuck tha Police" is as cathartic now as it was 27 years ago. Therein lies the power of the film. Unlike most biopics, which rely on our nostalgia for another time, Straight Outta Compton reels us in with its raw reflection of our current reality.
I knew little to nothing about N.W.A. going into this film. And I sat in awe as the group’s actions in the ’80s shed light on atrocities happening today. Straight Outta Compton is one of the few films in theaters at the moment that you need to see right now, this minute.