It really shouldn’t raise too many hip eyebrows that the N.W.A biopic, “Straight Outta Compton” is the most artistically and financially successful Hip Hop biopic to date, joining movies such as “Ray”, “Lady Sings the Blues”, “The Five Heartbeats”, and “The Doors” in the pantheon of the better music films. The Los Angeles based rap group, with it’s snarls and mean mugs, Raider gear, Jheri Curls, Rupert Wainwright directed videos, Dr. Dre’s Westside version of The Bomb Squads manic productions, and Ice Cube’s vivid street reporting lyrical narratives, were tailor made to represent the turmoil of ’80s L.A, and by extension, urban America. N.W.A didn’t just rap about the attitudes and circumstances that young black men found themselves in, inside of a Reagenomics practicing crack infested nation, they used their L.A instincts to embody them in sonics and appearance. Director F. Gary Gray’s film goes beyond simply recounting the details of N.W.A’s rise and troubles, to painting one of the best portraits I’ve yet seen of the perilous decade of the 1980’s in urban America. It throws you for a loop when you realize the young men being repeatedly slammed and thrown to the ground by the police would go on to become cultural icons.
Th movie begins in the action, with scenes to introduce the principals of the group and film, Jason Mitchell as the diminutive , charismatic Eazy E, Corey Hawkins as the angsty music lover Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube’s own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr, playing a youthful Ice Cube, talented, thoughtful, and resolute. One of the historical points I appreciate is a chance to see the “Batterram” in action, which was a Tank the LAPD used to bust down doors of residences in the inner city. The brutality is crucial when the vehicle uses it’s large gun to push a young lady into the wall, forcing Eazy to run through backyards and hop on roofs as he makes his escape.
Dr. Dre is introduced as a young man lost in music, laying on pile of vintage funk, soul, and jazz records, listening to Roy Ayers anthemic “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” on headphones while his little brother shares the next bed. He’s soon kicked out of the house by his mother because she feels he’s wasting his young life. We meet Ice Cube at the end of a school day, being bused from a rich white neighborhood, riding a school bus with notebook in hand, scribbling rhymes, as a gangster boars the bus to warn the youngsters about fronting. The montage provides something all too rare in film, presenting the troubles a young black man might face in terms of humanity rather than pathology, dangerous and life threatening as they may be.
N.W.A is already very close to forming as the film begins. D.J Yella is introduced as an appendage of Dre, and comes off as a fun loving, Morris Day cum Ron Johnson type figure, which is brought across well by Neil Brown Jr. The “Villian” M.C Ren on the other hand, is introduced with Eazy, and Aldiss Hodge does as much as he can with a fairly limited role, about the only thing notable is the fact that Ren is a serious M.C and writer. The movie includes cameos of other rappers who would make up the grand, dynastic saga of L.A Hip Hop, including the D.O.C, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Tupac Shakur.
The main villains of the movie are Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller, and R. Marcus Taylor as Suge Knight, and on a larger level, the police. Giamatti’s Heller is portrayed as a typical show biz guy who latched on to some black kids nobody would touch and ended up with unexpected, tech start up type windfalls, getting in on the gangster rap business on the ground floor. He’s dowdy, frumpy, and therefore credible enough to sneak his slick show biz hands around N.W.A’s necks. He only flinches mildly when leaned on by the great black Villian, Suge Knight. Suge’s character is not as loquacious as Don King, but he got to members of NWA on the same premise, that his familiarity, blackness, and muscle would give them a Better cut than they were getting from the white boy. He’s exposed as a brutal, bullying gangster, of the kind that has always existed behind the scenes in American show business. The members of the group struggle to come out from under the grip of the white devil on one side, and the black devil on the other. And victory is reached in this movie by surviving the control machinations of both. Ice Cube is the first to break free, refusing to sign a contract giving up his rights for $75,000.
The main villains in the movie though are the police, both white and black (“Black police showing out for the white cops”) who serve as the living face and hands of white supremacy. I literally lost count of how many times members of the group are “jacked” and “ganked” by the cops, thrown on the ground and cuffed up. It happens in front of their parents, their siblings, before stardom, on the way to stardom, and after stardom. There was one sequence where the audience was laughing at something said, and as soon as the group members step out of the door they’re immediately jacked by the police, a jarring example of how regular young men get criminalized in the urban environment.
The rise for the group happens relatively quickly, as they strike gold with their first recordings. The objections of the old school are represented by World Class Wreckin Cru founder Alonzo Williams. The group rises to stardom, women, and parties, but begins to fall apart when Ice Cube realizes they’re being exploited by Heller. Soon he is in New York recording “The Nigga You Love to Hate”, with stand ins for Public Enemy’s Shocklee brothers and Chuck D in the control booth. This forces the group to go after Cube, after which he records one of the greatest diss records of all time, the Brick sampling “No Vaseline.” The story progresses through the rest of the saga, well known to fans of ’90s Hip Hop, from the triumph of Death Row and “The Chronic”, to Ice Cube writing “Friday”, to Eazy E’s success with Bone Thugs N Harmony and tragic death from AIDS.
One of my favorite things about the entire movie is the use of the old school funk music that NWA built their music on. Steve Arrington’s “Weak at the Knees” appears in THREE different forms, first with Ice Cube free styling over it at the club, to it’s use behind N.W.A’s “Gangsta Gangsta”, to it’s manipulation by The Bomb Squad for “The Nigga You Love to Hate”. Big party scenes are underscored by late P-Funk hits like “Knee Deep” and “One Nation Under a Groove.” I already mentioned how Dr. Dre is introduced listening to Roy Ayers “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, which could serve as an anthem for the Sunshine State.
“Straight Outta Compton” puts flesh on the story of “The Worlds Most Dangerous Group.” It has the distinction of being produced by Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy’s widow, Tomica Woods Wright. As such it provides a first person view of who N.W.A was and who they thought they were, which I applaud. In doing so, many have complained it glosses over the groups attitude towards women. But I think several scenes make that clear, and should become even more clear when people go back and do their wikiapediang. What the movie does show is how central their wives and significant others were to their success. Love stories for N.W.A? Who would’ve thunk it? It does not quite reach the level of a love story, but Cube and Eazy’s significant others were shown to have very sizeable parts to play in their careers. I think the movie is doing so well because it’s one of the first that covers the historic environment of the ’80s and ’90s Hip Hop explosion, with a group that represented both the best and worst of that time. It sticks right in the 20 year zone of nostalgia, which sadly “Get On Up” missed, but it also does not make the mistake so many make when telling a black story of not dealing with the larger community. The depiction of the hectic environment of ’80s and ’90s Los Angeles takes us behind the Jheri Curl and the frown, and I believe viewers will be better off for it.