"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.
FOUR MORE: STORIES OF RAP AND HIP-HOP ARTISTS
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).