"Straight Outta Compton," the 1988 debut album by N.W.A., not only gave birth to gangsta rap but sparked a nationwide case of hand-wringing. The music became the center of a debate: Was a song like "Gangsta Gangsta" a reflection of reality, or just a violent fantasy marketed to at-risk youth? Either way, N.W.A. forced white America to have a conversation about racism, poverty and crime. Most listeners agreed on only one thing: Man, those beats were dope.

F. Gary Gray's riveting biographical film about N.W.A., which shares its title with that landmark album, feels surprisingly urgent for a movie set roughly 25 years ago. It argues that whatever ugliness we heard in N.W.A.'s music hasn't gone away. It also implicitly draws a straight line from the police harassment that inspired the band's most incendiary track, "[expletive] tha Police," to the recent killings of black men by cops in Ferguson, Cincinnati and elsewhere. Set to N.W.A.'s pugnacious rap tracks and crackling with the energy of a charismatic young cast, "Straight Outta Compton" is the rare biopic that resonates beyond the music.

Among its main attractions are a dazzling O'Shea Jackson Jr., playing his father, Ice Cube, and newcomer Jason Mitchell as the insouciant Eazy-E, both founding members of N.W.A. along with MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and future super-producer Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins).

Gray, who has directed music videos for Ice Cube and Dr. Dre (both producers of this film), paints Compton as an inner-city minefield of gangs, drug dealers and cops that informed the band's hard-boiled sensibility. Paul Giamatti is terrific as Jerry Heller, the faded but still-savvy manager who helped turn N.W.A. into a double-platinum-selling sensation.

In keeping with rap tradition, "Straight Outta Compton" can be self-aggrandizing, vengeful (rival rap mogul Suge Knight, played by R. Marcus Taylor, comes off as Satan incarnate) and more than a little misogynistic (the women here are mostly groupies). Still, the movie deserves credit for its sensitive treatment of Eazy-E, whose 1995 death from AIDS served as a wake-up call to the hip-hop community. In the end, "Straight Outta Compton" feels as relevant and necessary as the music at its center.

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FOUR MORE: STORIES OF RAP AND HIP-HOP ARTISTS

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Though the lives of musical performers have provided material for screenwriters since movies learned to talk, "Straight Outta Compton" is one of the few films to focus on hip-hoppers, in this case the group N.W.A. Here are some others that were inspired by the true stories of rap and hip-hop artists.

8 MILE (2002) -- Though star Eminem didn't want this film about an aspiring rapper nicknamed "B-Rabbit" to be autobiographical, the movie borrowed many details from his life, from its bleak Detroit setting to the strained relationship between B-Rabbit and his mom (Kim Basinger).
GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN' (2005) -- Star Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's life served as the backbone of this story about an inner-city youth who turns to crime and drug dealing after his mother is murdered. He finds redemption in rap and hip-hop.
ATL (2006) -- Musician-record exec Dallas Austin and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins of the group TLC produced this movie based on their experiences growing up in Atlanta, where personal dramas and hip-hop played out at the local roller-skating rink.
NOTORIOUS (2009) -- Not to be confused with the Alfred Hitchcock thriller of the same name, this biopic was a no-holds-barred retelling of the life and murder at age 24 of rapper Notorious B.I.G. (played by Jamal Woolard).

--Daniel Bubbeo