Straight Outta Compton drops audiences into the hood of the late 80’s, where a group of young teens hangout, deejay and pen rhymes, hoping for a way out that doesn’t involve prison or an early grave. They band together as "N*ggaz With Attitudes"—N.W.A.—and convince a dope-dealing friend to join the group and bankroll a record label.
Early buzz on the film has swelled around how much the young actor who plays Ice Cube looks like him. That’s because Cube—O’Shea Jackson—is played by his 24-year-old son.
“Technically, I’ve been doing my research for 20-plus years,” said O’Shea Jackson Jr. at an early August press conference with his father smiling nearby.
Director F. Gary Gray, who directed videos for Cube and Dr. Dre before launching his features career, sat between the two, who were flanked to the right by newcomers Corey Hawkins, who portrays Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, and Jason Mitchell as Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, while to their left was original NWA member Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby.
Wright died of AIDS in 1995; his widow, Tomica Woods-Wright served a producer on the project.
Only together a few short years, the group went on to sell more than 10 million albums, with such hits as the film’s title song, and “F*** tha Police.” The latter put racial profiling and police brutality on blast decades before the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.
The film may be stirring nostalgia for the 80s throwback rap culture, but laid down over those beats by Dre are misogynistic lyrics that have opened Dre and the rest to criticism with regard to their attitudes toward and violence against women. In a piece for Huffington Post Black Voices, scholar Sikivu Hutchinson reminds audiences that the title track "Straight Outta Compton" trivializes the murder of a neighborhood girl.
A number of N.W.A. members have gone on to enjoy successful and varied solo careers, most notably Ice Cube as an actor, and Dr. Dre whose Beats business sold for $3 billion; the film also chronicles how the group aided in the rise of Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dog, and the notorious Suge Knight.
The Straight Outta Compton actors come from disparate circumstances. Hawkins, who plays Dr. Dre, attended Juilliard, has performed Shakespeare on Broadway, and is the son of a female cop; Mitchell had few screen credits, but tons of street cred, and spoke at the August 2 press conference about losing friends in circumstances similar to those in the film. Veteran actor Paul Giamatti plays the impassioned Jerry Heller, who helps N.W.A. distribute its music, but later his motives are questioned.
“Our mandate was performance first then street cred and likeness to the member of NWA they were portraying,” said Gray, who worked with Jackson for two years to ready him to play his father.
The young performers not only had to walk and talk like the men they were portraying, but Gray directed them to the gym to lose weight or gain it, sent them to deejay school, and ordered the young actors to the studio to record an entire N.W.A album—while learning to perform it and affect a “west coast vibe.”
All five of the actors did a great job, said DJ Yella, also referring to Neil Brown Jr. who plays him, and Aldis Hodge, who portrays fifth member, DJ Ren.
The strength of the film is the camaraderie of the young men who write about their lives, begin to perform the work, and go from showcasing other’s music, to performing it own around the world.
“Since I started producing in 1995, it’s been a dream project in the back of my mind.” Cube said of Straight Outta Compton. “It’s such a good story: happiness, sadness, all kind of issues we’ve been through, passion. And 26 years later, the music still sounds fresh.”
Moments in the film that are most affecting are where young group members are harassed by police, as when they’re walking home from a writing session, or step outside to take a break from a recording session in a white neighborhood. Gray shows the encounter from the perspective of the musicians: head against car hood, chin against pavement—all happening pre-internet, pre-camera phone, pre-body cam.
“They have to be heavy handed with criminals,” Cube said, “but why they have to be that way with citizens? That’s why we did these songs. But don’t get me wrong,” he said with a laugh, “somebody break in my house, I’m calling the g*****n police, I’m not callin’ the homies.”