When I saw the trailer for Straight Outta Compton I knew that the film would represent a seminal moment in The Culture. And by The Culture, I mean hip-hop culture, Black culture, pop culture. History has a funny way of changing people’s perception, and I’m glad that my personal recollections of the group NWA informed my perception of the film. For those of you who don’t know, NWA (Niggas With Attitude) ushered in the so-called “gangsta rap” era, introducing us to rap luminaries Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and Ice Cube. MC Ren and DJ Yella rounded out the group, a collective who expressed a raw, unabashed musical style that hadn’t been heard before. Straight Outta Compton was their debut album, and the film borrows that title as both a reference point and descriptor for its member’s origins. My discussion of the film will be twofold, as I’ll address its cinematic merits first, followed by its significance within The Culture.
Director F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen, Friday) has crafted a superior biopic. The film was as informative as it was entertaining, expertly incorporating the music that influenced the legendary group’s sound, as well as new music (Dr. Dre’s Compton soundtrack). Gray opens the movie by painting a picture of Reagan-era Los Angeles while introducing the audience to NWA’s charismatic front man Eric “Eazy-E” Wright. Ideally the first few moments of a film will capture your attention, and the opening scene set the tone in its depiction of Eazy narrowly escaping a botched drug deal. I was astounded at the images of a militarized police department, as they drove a battering ram through the front of a “trap” house, demolishing it and nearly killing its occupants. Gray shows us the environment that birthed the group, all the while making the obvious parallel between the LAPD’s tactics and what we’ve seen recently around the country regarding the unrest surrounding young Black men and women and the various police departments who brutalize them.
While Eazy contemplates a life beyond slanging dope, Ice Cube cultivates ferocity on the microphone, penning rhymes in a composition book he carries daily. Meanwhile Dr. Dre moonlights as a deejay at a local nightspot while trying to support a young family despite still living at home with his mother. His musical influences are made of some of the very best soul, funk, and rhythm & blues ever recorded – a subtle reminder that without sampling rap music wouldn’t be what it is today. NWA was formed partly by happenstance, partly by design. Dre was the visionary who crafted the sound, Cube wrote the lyrics, and Eazy had the voice. Eazy was no rapper, and one memorable scene showed how it took a few tries for him to perfect his style and unique cadence. However, their star power was undeniable, and eventually their brand of self-described reality rap propelled them to stardom.
Inevitably the group fell victim to dissension, as manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, San Andreas) drove a wedge between Eazy and the others by withholding royalties from Ice Cube when he failed to equitably account for the significant writing Cube had done for the group. Cube left the group with Dre eventually following suit, and when NWA unofficially disbanded, things were never quite the same. The members had somewhat mended fences before Eazy’s untimely death from AIDS, but by then it was the end of an era.
The film is almost too grand to effectively summarize, but a few scenes captured the immense cultural impact NWA had on America and on music as a whole. Freedom of speech was essential to the group’s image, as they faced criticism at every turn. Their adoration from fans was met with equal parts disdain from law enforcement, as “Fuck the Police” was emblematic of the frustration of young Black men across America. Gray showed how the Rodney King verdict and subsequent L.A. riots affected the community, validating the song and the maverick spirit that created it.
One aspect of NWA’s criticism that was hinted at but never fleshed out, was the misogynistic nature of their lyrics. Yes, the violent anti-law enforcement lyrics drew ire, but so did the prolific barrage of lyrics that seemed to degrade women. The film portrayed the group as heroes (or anti-heroes, at the least), and I suppose that is to be expected since Cube and Dre have production credits here. I won’t say the portrayal was sanitized, but of course some things were omitted. However, I did enjoy the balanced humanization of the group, particularly a scene in which Dre is comforted after the death of his brother, and another towards the end as they grapple with Eazy’s impending death.
F. Gary Gray brilliantly captured the group’s inception and pivotal musical moments in the recording studio. The performances were above reproach. O’shea Jackson Jr. bears an uncanny resemblance to his famous father, from voice inflection to mannerisms. Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E) and Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre) infused their roles with authenticity and surprising vulnerability. Mitchell particularly showed a different side of Eazy, as he ruefully realizes that Cube and Dre’s respective stars have eclipsed his own. A few things were glossed over, in my opinion – like the extent to which Eazy fell out with the rest of the group. I remember the diss tracks, and I don’t think they made peace as easily as the film indicated. Nevertheless, this is a small quibble. The movie is a must see for anyone that loves The Culture. I got chills watching Ice Cube in the booth and when I heard him rhyming over Steve Arrington’s “Weak At The Knees” instrumental in an early scene. Some shit you just have to see, period. Not perfect, but pretty close. Grade: A.