Hollywood has struggled in recent years with developing a broad appeal for its critically popular staple of biographical films, dubbed “biopics,” despite large portions of accolades being heaped upon the genre which brought us Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Stephen Hawking in the little seen “Theory of Everything.”
For every Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood helmed “American Sniper,” there’s at least a half dozen biopics that also hit the big screen to little commercial fanfare, with 2014 bringing audiences retrospectives on Martin Luther King Jr. (“Selma”), Alan Turing (“The Imitation Game”), Louis Zamperini (“Unbroken”) and James Brown (“Get On Up”) to mixed results at the box office. Already, Hollywood has slated films on Apple creator/genius Steve Jobs, jazz musician Miles Davis, chess champion Bobby Fischer and Lili Elbe, a transgender Danish artist.
Like “Sniper” the year prior, one of this year’s best biopics will ultimately be its biggest box office smash as the iconic gangsta rap group N.W.A. is profiled by director F. Gary Gray in “Straight Outta Compton,” which made $60 million domestically in just its first weekend in theaters. The film borrows its name from N.W.A.’s 1988 smash-hit debut studio album and chronicles the adult lives of its three leading members — music producer, DJ and rapper Dr. Dre; MC and future movie star Ice Cube; and the late Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, who died in 1995 following an HIV diagnosis.
Littered with racial slurs, drug usage and footage of the Rodney King beatings, “Compton” — as a film about the evolution of hardcore gangsta rap — has to accurately reflect the era and life conditions that brought about N.W.A. in the first place, as Ice Cube eloquently states during a press conference about the group’s most controversial song “F*$# Tha Police” when he says “Our art is a reflection of our reality.” The film makes this difficult time in American history — with high racial tensions and gang warfare — grounded in the minds of audience members despite how hard it may be to endure as a viewer.
Because of the controversial nature of the film and his relative unknown status as an actor, Jason Mitchell likely won’t receive much acclaim during award season for his performance as Eazy-E, a key member of the group that younger audience members likely may not remember as well as Dr. Dre (for his Beats headphones) and Ice Cube (for his acting in popular comedies).
Corey Hawkins does well with a limited character in Dr. Dre, who seems more like a third wheel helping to keep the group on track from the background while Eazy-E and Ice Cube do most of the talking. Playing the third banana is a relatively thankless job that Hawkins attacks with quiet aplomb. Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., does a tremendous job filling his father’s shoes as well.
The group’s other members — MC Ren, DJ Yella and The D.O.C. — are represented in the film, but largely pushed to the background in order to make room for Mitchell, Hawkins and Jackson Jr. to have larger roles in the film.
“Straight Outta Compton” also features Paul Giamatti’s best performance in several years as N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller, who subtly guides N.W.A. to stardom while secretly ripping off lead producer Eazy-E and the group as a whole, who fracture beyond repair when Ice Cube becomes aware of Heller’s manipulative ways. If there is a villain in Gray’s “Compton,” it’s Heller, though infamous rap producer Suge Knight of Death Row Records haunts the film in the fringes, with a separate biopic on Death Row just begging to be produced.
To be fair, Gray’s film begins to peter out toward the conclusion as “Compton” jumps from one plotline to another at the drop of a hat, leaving audiences reorient themselves mid-scene and missing a great deal of the action. However, once Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube are reunited in one cohesive storyline at the conclusion of the film, “Compton” offers a satisfying, yet emotional ending.
Well-made and well-liked films are especially hard to come by in August, which seems to be typically the last month of the year movie studios like to slate films they have less confidence in before the award season push ramps up in October through the holidays. “Straight Outta Compton” hits theaters at just the perfect time, reminding audiences that films can be emotionally challenging, thought-provoking and entertaining all at the same time.
While some audience members may not agree with the film’s conclusions or understand all of the history behind the iconic rap group, “Straight Outta Compton” is a must see event as one of the year’s top films deserving both mainstream appeal and critical success.