Straight Outta Compton ★★★★½

If the measure of a biopic is its ability to combine veracity with myth while underscoring its narrative with thematic notes and social commentary, F. Gary Gray's "Straight Outta Compton" measures out excitingly. With a cast that looks and sounds like its real-life counterparts, an insistence on keeping certain legends intact, and a potent subtext that examines institutionalized racism, the film about the rise and fall of N.W.A. excels on all three levels.

With standard biopic plotting, "Straight Outta Compton" follows the creation of rap's N.W.A., the hip-hop act who set the world aflame with uncompromising lyrics and equally uncompromising posturing. The hardcore musicians rise from having nothing to having everything as the public, the media, and those who would exploit them look on. The narrative misses the opportunity to get under the skins of the artists and examine both their humanity and creativity, but, in broad strokes, it tells their story. Again, those strokes fall into the perfunctory biopic plotting categories of bad managers, angry artists, and steep falls from grace.

Beneath the recognizability of its plot, swirl undercurrents that supply the film its power. Buoyed by the truth and potency of street poetry, the film surges and scratches to entertaining and attention-grabbing highs. This is not the elegance of the Harlem Renaissance, but it is something, in its profanity and hammering anger, that may be just as historic and important.

That anger also manifests in the depiction of law enforcement versus the black community of Los Angeles. It is in this depiction that the film fires torrents of commentary about ingrained racism and about societal prejudice set in action based on skin color. The system is one that devalues and victimizes black men and women, regardless of station, and shrinks in fear of them when they speak any sort of truth. Though the film is not concerned with social justice spurred by art or equal treatment for all, its statements are, nonetheless, valuable.

Gray composes a work that bristles with energy and the burnt sunshine of Los Angeles. Set-ups are sleek, and Gray assembles long-take sequences that can be riveting. The film is set to the rhythms of hip-hop, flowing with sampled, bass-heavy life. Gray's cast outstandingly captures the look and sound of the men it portrays. The actors do not interpret the artists they play; they provide mirror images of them. These images go to great lengths to offer loud and larger-than-life reflections of N.W.A., the actors seemingly working to communicate reputation and swagger more than the men's hidden reality.

"Straight Outta Compton" easily engages and provides a thrilling look at artists whose work is forged in a crucible of race, fear, and the need for expression. It is an important and accessible film that does nothing to puncture the myths behind its subjects but offers truths that citizens of any nation seeking harmony among its people must examine.