‘Compton’: much more than musical biopic

At a time when too many news stories about racial tension fill too many outlets, the film Straight Outta Compton delivers a serious lesson on how history can repeat. Within the framework of a traditional music biopic, director F. Gary Gray reveals the anger that misunderstanding between races can ignite. And he offers a serious look at the lasting tragedy that prejudice can create.

On its surface, Straight Outta Compton suggests a formula narrative. A young group of friends, responding to the conditions they share in Compton, Calif., in the 1980s, uses music in new ways to express their reactions to violence in their community. When the music takes off, and the crowds respond, the kids are poorly prepared for fame and fortune. And, as they continue to prosper as performers, they find themselves at odds with the excess that success can bring.

While we have seen this narrative many times — from Coal Miner’s Daughter to Dreamgirls — what makes Straight Outta Compton special is what director Gray does with the material. From the conventions of the music biopic he creates a seering look at the barriers that racial tension can build, a cautionary tale about people who prefer to be blind to what happens around them, a reminder that everyone in a community is responsible for how its people behave. What surprises is how Gray delivers such a significant lesson within a movie framework as predictable as the music biopic.

The director offers everything we expect from a musical entertainment. We see the creative process, the thrill of success, the challenge of setbacks, the rewards of fame. But Gray doesn’t stop with the performances. We observe the musicians’ courage to articulate the intensity of relationships in their neighborhood. We experience the prejudice they experience when others refuse to reach beyond limited views of others. And through the music — so effectively performed in a series of thrilling sequences — we see how these innovative observers of the human condition remind their followers how people must account for each other.

As Easy-E, the emotional center of the film, Jason Mitchell reveals layers of drive, humanity and bitterness. Matching his intensity is O’Shea Jackson, Jr., playing his own father, Ice Cube. Family resemblance aside, the young actor lets us see inside a man with so much to say and such a natural approach to expression. As the controversial Dr. Dre, Corey Hawkins suggests the complexities of a man with a cool exterior hiding many layers, while Paul Giamatti, again playing a music group’s manager, balances the positive and negative energy that defines Jerry Heller.

With too many of this summer’s films offering too little, Straight Outta Compton delivers a compelling message within a thrilling entertainment. At the end of a brisk 147 minutes, we recognize the talent of the musicians and respect the damage of the prejudice. By telling such a tough story without compromise, Straight Outta Compton delivers an important lesson that feels especially relevant today: When it comes to treating people fairly, people everywhere share the responsibility. No matter where we live.

Film Nutritional Value

Straight Outta Compton

* Content: High. As the film recreates turbulent moments in our nation’s history it reminds us that, unless we are careful, it could happen again and again.

* Entertainment: High. The serious messages come to life in the framework of a traditional biopic filled with engaging music.

* Message: High. Anyone who cares about a community, and the fairness that people share, should savor this picture of what can happen when people fear.

* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with children about the relations between races is essential.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Despite its “R” rating, you and your older children should share this film for the messages it so thoughtfully conveys.

Straight Outta Compton is rated R for “language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use.” The film runs 147 minutes.

5 Popcorn Buckets