I watched the entirety of Straight Outta Compton, the thrilling new N.W.A. biopic, not knowing that Ice Cube’s son was playing Ice Cube. It’s not like the guy is named Ice Cube Jr. He’s actually named O’Shea Jackson Jr., his dad’s birth name with a Jr. tacked on to the end.
Jackson Jr. is the No. 1 reason to see Compton, a blast of a film that chronicles the rise of rap group N.W.A., the eventual infighting, and the birth of some gigantic solo careers and record labels. Along with Jackson Jr., Jason Mitchell is a revelation as Eazy-E, while Corey Hawkins provides a nice anchor as Dr. Dre.
The film works best when covering the early days and the creation of the legendary album that shares the movie’s title. It also spends plenty of time on the band’s management problems with Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti in a moderately distracting wig), and Eazy-E’s eventual death from AIDS. At a running time of 2 and a half hours, plenty of ground gets covered, and covered in a way that never gets boring.
Jackson Jr. is the spitting image of his dad, in physicality and especially in the way he talks and raps. This lends an invaluable level of authenticity to Compton. It’s a real blessing that Ice Cube’s kid is a supremely capable actor in his film debut, because he blows up the screen in a way similar to Ice Cube’s own Boyz N the Hood film debut back in 1991.
The movie’s music is a mixture of original N.W.A. and the actors doing their own vocals. Watch and listen closely, and you’ll catch the moments where the likes of Jackson Jr. and Mitchell prove they are more than capable of recreating the N.W.A. sound. According to Rolling Stone, the actors re-recorded all of the original Compton record as an exercise, and that’s an exercise that pays off.
Also adding to the party is Aldis Hodge as MC Ren, Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella, and Keith Stanfield, who totally embodies the part of Snoop Dog. R. Marcos Taylor is quite fearsome as the cigar-chomping Suge Knight. (The real Suge Knight currently sits in jail awaiting trial for a hit-and-run death that occurred during a promotional shoot for the movie.)
There is one brief scene featuring Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) laying down a track and hearing the familiar refrain of “California Love” for the first time. The scene feels tacked on and obligatory, and probably should’ve been relegated to the cutting room floor.
The depiction of cops in this film is borderline cartoonish and always evil, but what do you expect? This is a movie about the creation of the gangsta rap group that sang “Fuck tha Police.” I didn’t go to this one expecting to see any warm and fuzzy cops scratching their heads and protesting their fellow officers while the likes of Cube, Dre and E are unjustifiably face down on the pavement.
Save the good cops for another movie. This is about Compton in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a war zone where nobody was doing anything right, and the likes of Ice Cube were definitely not feeling the love from the boys in blue. The real life former members of N.W.A. had a hand in producing the movie, and I think they’re perfectly OK with the depiction of bad cops in this movie. This movie isn’t about the good ones.
Compton was directed by F. Gary Gray, who worked with Ice Cube two decades ago on the original, very funny Friday. Compton actually has some good laughs to go with its drama. Gray has stumbled a bit with some bad films (Be Cool, Law Abiding Citizen) since his last time with Ice Cube, but Compton shows he still has plenty to offer.
Straight Outta Compton is a solid cinematic time capsule that gives some deserved glory to an influential group that forever changed the landscape of hip-hop and brought much needed attention to a very troubled part of the world. It does the band, and the biopic genre in general, proud.