Straight Outta Compton bears witness to the strength of street knowledge

MC Ren, DJ Yella, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre’s story hits the big screen

MC Ren, DJ Yella, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre’s story hits the big screen

The most striking image in Straight Outta Compton is of two bandanas tied together. One is red, the other is blue, and the men holding them in front of a wall of police officers are members of two rival gangs: the Bloods and the Crips. It's a fleeting shot, part of an impressionistic segue into the L.A. riots of 1992, and has little to do with the film's ostensible subject. Which only makes it more arresting — it's a reminder that F. Gary Gray's N.W.A movie has more on its mind than most musical biopics.

It's preceded by many other promising signs. Straight Outta Compton instantly displays the kind of energy and authenticity that's only seen in films that truly understand their subject. The societal forces that the gangsta-rap innovators were responding to are front and center here, which is fitting given the artists themselves considered "reality rap" a more accurate moniker. N.W.A didn't exist in a vacuum, and neither does this movie.

Twenty years ago, the prospect of a Hollywood studio even making a movie about Compton, California's most famous export would have been a pipe dream. The genre innovators had sold millions of albums and were signed to a major label, but there's a world of difference between being successful and being canonized. They've reached that point now, and with good reason — the album from which Straight Outta Compton takes its name marked the arrival of something that's yet to leave. That the surviving members of the group now rank as elder statesmen in a genre far less controversial than when they first introduced it to the mainstream helps as well.

N.W.A consisted of five members, three of whom stand out in the popular imagination: O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson, Eric "Eazy-E" Wright, and Andre "Dr. Dre" Young. Straight Outta Compton follows suit, with MC Ren and DJ Yella relegated to background roles. Eazy-E is the first to appear, first seen entering a house in the eponymous neighborhood for a drug deal. Police descend upon the home minutes later, annihilating the front door with a battering ram as Wright escapes out the back. Dre is next, eyes closed in a trance with headphones covering his ears as he lies on his bedroom floor surrounded by records. Ice Cube has a notebook full of rhymes as armed gang members board his bus and flash guns in a brutal display of dominance. He stays silent for this encounter, but expresses himself soon thereafter.

The pieces are all there: spitfire lyricist who delivers jeremiads on life in the ghetto like no other, big-picture thinker whose unrivaled talent for producing comes from a studied knowledge of their genre predecessors, and the genuine article who's lived their songs even more than his cohorts. Running from the cops soon gets old for Eazy-E, so he takes notice when Dre suggests that they go into the music business in earnest. Thus begins a ground-level movement that, at least in the film's telling, takes off almost instantly. People in their marginalized community haven't heard music that reflects their world to such a hyperreal extent, and greet it as a declaration of independence from the slow jams dominating the late-'80s airwaves.

But being authentic and talented isn't enough to hit it big — when is it ever? — and so they need someone to make them "legit." Enter Jerry Heller, a manager played by Paul Giamatti who serves as the go-between N.W.A's world and that of corporate America. With his help, the quintet graduates from nightclubs to stadiums and from getting shaken down by cops to being tied up in court, though the one isn't necessarily more dignified than the other.

The group's time at the top is short-lived, but the fallout isn't. A contract dispute sends Ice Cube packing at the height of their fame, and the split isn't entirely amicable. Before Drake and Meek Mill there was Ice Cube and N.W.A, a spat that included the former being called a Benedict Arnold and him responding in kind. The sense of a brotherhood being torn apart from both within and without is wrenching.

Straight Outta Compton devotes equal attention to the main troika, though Ice Cube gradually emerges as the de facto protagonist. Whether this is due to the nature of his story — he was the first to go solo after the royalty dispute, as well as the most gifted on the mic — or the strength of his performance is difficult to pin down. O'Shea Jackson is played by none other than O'Shea Jackson Jr., whose resemblance to his old man is even more uncanny than most father-son pairs. He nails every mannerism and gesture, not imitating so much as embodying. (It doesn't hurt that Gray also directed Friday, which Jackson the elder starred in and co-wrote.)

That authenticity carries over into nearly every other aspect of Straight Outta Compton, which could have so easily co-opted N.W.A's legacy instead of honoring it. "We left a lot of good records on the table," Cube says late in the film; it isn't a boastful declaration so much as a lamentation.