The story behind the world’s most explosive, belligerent, and dangerous gangsta rap group hits the big screen in the larger-than-life biopic about N.W.A. in Straight Outta Compton. Here is an energetic and timely film reflecting ideas and attitudes of the time, many as relevant today as then, chronicling the rise and fall of the influential and iconic rap group.
The year is1986. O’Shea Jackson aka Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Cube’s real-life son) is just a kid trying to make it in school, writing rhymes in his free time, Eric Lynn Wright aka Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is a petty drug dealer; Andre Romelle Young aka Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is a promising young music aficionado with no tangible prospects for the future – at least according to his mother.
These kids, along with MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr), are set to explode onto the scene of hip-hop with their eponymous 1988 breakthrough album Straight Outta Compton, with the aid of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Director F. Gary Gray does a fantastic job juxtaposing the various lives of N.W.A members with the harsh social conditions of the South Central L.A. area. These range from unwarranted run-ins with the police to ever-present gang violence of street life. One early scene stands out in particular, where a gang member boarding a school bus gives a “motivational speech” at gunpoint to some wannabe gangsters.
On the surface Straight Outta Compton feels much like most any other musical biopic; an overview of the most pivotal historical moments in its respective act’s careers, ones chosen to most please that act’s respective fans. However, Compton has the distinction and benefit of showcasing a group of musicians whose lives appear less than ordinary, whose mere existence probably wouldn’t engender sympathy to those onlookers who’ve never been a part of their world.
After all, the members of N.W.A were just some thugs from the ghetto, kids most never expected to amount to much in the first place. However, their success was a defining moment for black musicians and hip-hop, much to the chagrin of their critics. Their music was scrutinized not only for its use of brash language, but for what many could call misogynistic and violent lyrics. All of which aren’t without merit.
However, wasn’t hardcore punk music of the Reagan era a similar reflection of societal concerns on a regional scale? Regional hardcore bands, largely composed of angry white men, never received the critical mainstream attention, or scrutiny, a group of young angry black men from Compton received for their predilection towards violence, drugs, and sex. Wasn’t rock ’n roll all about sex and drugs as well?
As Compton illustrates, there are two Americas at play during this era and N.W.A became the voice of black America that often went unheard. The important distinction was that the groups’ success and impact wasn’t limited to the streets of LA but the entire nation – and soon nations.
The N.W.A story is handled with care and it doesn’t thread into glamorized idolatry or continue the mainstream demoralization that rap music has always had to deal with. But it’s not a lollipop fantasy, either. Race, is an important issue that is as strongly relevant in the public and political sphere now as it was then and the film is a strong reminder that for all the great things this nation is, it also has a legacy for discrimination – a place where the color of your skin reveals a different America. Compton is a microcosm of that America, but if one was to turn on the news today the issues are still very much a part of our culture.
A few scenes illustrate the police state that these neighborhoods exist in, innocent men (and women) mistreated for the color of their skin profiled for what they look like regardless if what they are doing is right or wrong, but simply because they are black. One scene illustrates this masterly, where N.W.A stand outside of their recording studio in Torrance and are accosted by officers for looking like trouble. Gray handles these scenes not with preacher like conviction, but with a timely honesty and brutality that isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem. Gray allows us to understand these men by putting us in the streets with them through the only way to ever reach racial harmony – humanism.
The film isn’t without its shortcomings. As I stated earlier, the film is a typical biopic, only one with subject matter more interesting than most. At times the film feels far reaching and begins to bite off more than it can chew, log-jamming its flow with Hip-Hop moments. Furthermore, as a film primarily about an black rap group from Los Angeles that was popular during the Rodney King trial, the film begins to thread into Cavalcade (1933) territory.
To those unfamiliar with the 30s film, it chronicles a British family from 1899 through 1933, going through all the dark moments of that time frame in history, from the Boer Wars, World War I, sinking of the Titanic…you get the idea. It is no surprise this happens here, but at 147 minutes the film already runs a little long. This comes as something of a surprise considering the original cut is rumored to have run around three and a half hours.
Nevertheless, the film’s scope widens as it covers Cube’s solo career, Dre’s exit from Ruthless Records, and his affiliation with Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), the “discovery” of Snoop Dogg, Tupac in the recording studio, and Eazy-E’s eventual downfall with his financial troubles and his ailing health.
Despite all this the film comes back to it’s roots, that tight knit circle that was N.W.A, injecting some much-needed pathos and fun when necessary. I’d be lying if didn’t say this film elicited feelings in me like no other ‘hood’ film had since Boyz N the Hood (1991), a film with its own connection to the N.W.A. legacy.
Jason Mitchell, the man behind Eazy-E, gives one hell of an Oscar worthy performance, especially in the latter half where the focus largely shifts to the late Eric Lynn Wright. Mitchell has some of the best scenes and moments in the film and steals the show with a humane touch to his performance.
Straight Outta Compton is a smashing success that exceeds expectations, shedding light on these icons of rap music while taking a stance on race relations in America. The film is much more than just about music; it’s social consciousness is prevalent throughout, a reminder that race relations are far from dissipating from politics and the public sphere. These artists, crass as hell and spewing lurid lyrics, actually did have something important to say about their realities and existence – which is more than I can say about many of today’s artists. Fans of hip-hop music, like myself, will celebrate this triumphant achievement and those audiences new to this world will surely leave with some satisfaction and plenty to ponder about.