(Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures )

(Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures )

“What does N.W.A. stand for, huh? No whites allowed?” So asks Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), as he sets out to manage what would become one of the most important hip-hop acts of all time: Niggaz Wit Attitudes.

N.W.A. was a supergroup in reverse, with many of its members becoming solo stars after it broke up. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E all launched to individual fame after pioneering the gangsta rap form together. From their name to their lyrics to their postures, N.W.A. made many people uncomfortable back in its late-1980s heyday. Straight Outta Compton, the biopic that borrows its title from the group’s seminal album, may have a similar effect.

Directed by F. Gary Gray, the film’s language and sexual content are casually explicit. Even more discomforting is the depiction of police brutality, with the policies of the Los Angeles Police Department looking like stop and frisk on steroids. In 2015, however, it is unfortunately imperative to have public discourse over a film that repeatedly sees young black men slammed onto the hoods of cop cars, even if some of the scenes have a bit of Hollywood embellishment.

Not that Straight Outta Compton is a screed or a history lesson. First and foremost, it is entertainment. The story of how these young men came together, even in the crossfires of a violent war on drugs, and found their explosive sound is exciting and fun. They’re like the Rockys of rap, and the music sounds fresher than ever (perhaps thanks to some remastering).

The picture splits neatly in half, covering the group’s rise and fall, with the middle depicting the controversy over N.W.A.’s song “Fuck tha Police.” Here the screenplay, by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, is at its most eloquent, positioning the song as a protest piece. “Our art is a reflection of our reality,” Ice Cube, the group’s primary scribe, says at a press conference. Admittedly, by privileging artistic license over artists’ responsibilities, the movie sidesteps a major issue. But by recognizing the power of this song—and, again, its distressing present-day relevance—the film performs a valuable service.

The real Jerry Heller, meanwhile, feels it has done him a disservice. He has sued for damages over his portrayal. Giamatti does the most he can with the rationalizations the script offers him, but from the moment Heller shows up, it’s hard not to predict he’ll land in the white appropriation hall of shame.

Heller may protest too much, but there are other whitewashing issues with the film’s protagonists, including the omission of Dr. Dre’s 1991 assault on Dee Barnes, a female journalist. And the movie is too long, as much fun as it is seeing the second half become a who’s who of classic hip-hop. But the story remains compelling to the end, especially when the characters are allowed to put their guards down and reveal their feelings. Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre and Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E deserve special recognition for their affecting performances.

Straight Outta Compton succeeds on several counts, not least of which is the way it shows how a group of young men who achieve success and battle its attendant problems manage to put attitudes aside and find their way back to each other. It starts in a highly specific neighborhood and time and finds the universalities in its characters.

Directed by F. Gary Gray
Produced by Mr. Gray, Ice Cube, Tomica Woods-Wright, Matt Alvarez, Scott Bernstein, and Dr. Dre
Written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, based on a story by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus and Berloff
Released by Universal Pictures
USA. 142 min. Rated R
With O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, and Paul Giamatti