Straight-Outta-Compton poster“The Strength of Street Knowledge”

Hip hop has grown up.  With over 30 years to its history, the music has transformed the very industry that disdained it, gone mainstream, impacts fashion and culture, and spawned nostalgia stations.  Now comes a band biopic of one of its seminal groups, N.W.A.

In the late 80s the country was in the throes of a drug epidemic, as crack cocaine had hit the streets, tearing up communities and devastating lives. It was beset by Reagan era policies which many felt were an assault on the poor.  At the time, the hip hop landscape was dominated by the East Coast rappers all vying for radio air play while trying to “legitimize” rap music:  Run-D.M.C., Big Daddy Kane, Fat Boys, L.L. Cool J, Whodini, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, etc.  The music was safe and radio friendly.  Then along came an iconoclastic group breaking all the rules.  Even their name, N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitude) was a jab in the eye to the system.  When N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton dropped, they shifted the axis to the West Coast scene.  They created a new subgenre to the music, “gangsta rap” (though the members apparently preferred to it call “reality rap”), cussing on record, talking about their lives, all the while just looking to become hood famous.

In 1988, their most notorious song, “F— tha Police” became the controversial anthem of the streets.  It described the treatment many young black men faced, going through life as suspects; automatically assumed or profiled to be drug dealers and gang bangers (read: dangerous). It decried police brutality and nearly 30 years later, as abuse/shootings by law enforcement are every day headlines, seems just as relevant.  It spoke to a world of black youth unreported upon.  This was why Public Enemy’s Chuck D once called gangsta rap “the CNN of the streets.”

[The initials FTP became doubly important, when Public Enemy followed up their nation conscious political album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” with the single “Fight the Power” (from the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s controversial 1989 film on race relations, Do the Right Thing).  Between those two groups, rap became a generation’s rage-filled protest music.]

Against a backdrop of gang violence, a rampant drug epidemic, the poor under siege, and simmering anger and discontent culminating in the 1992 riots, is the story of N.W.A.

“We’re always going to be brothers.” –Eazy-E

Directed by F. Gary Gray, who got his start directing some of Ice Cube’s early videos and then Cube’s movie Friday, the plot is a familiar one to those who have seen any VH-1 Behind the Music special or biopic about the rise and fall of a band.  At least on the surface.  What sets Straight Outta Compton apart is its personal observations; its tender, quiet moments which reveals the humanity of its players.

At the center of the group are three figures:  O’Shea Jackson a.k.a. Ice Cube (played by Ice Cube’s real life son, O’Shea Jr.), the 19 year old rapper and lyricist; Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), DJ and master of beats who has a vision for what the music could become [for folks wondering about their significance, think of this in terms of Beatles With Attitude with these two as the Paul McCartney and John Lennon of the group]; and neighborhood drug dealer, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) whom Dre approaches because of his business mind to fund their endeavor.  MC Ren (Leverage’s Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.)—who steals as many scenes as he can with his wry commentary—round out the group.  The relationship between the members provides the emotional core of the movie and their onscreen chemistry is apparent and feels natural.  There’s an early scene of Eazy-E’s comical attempts at rhyming, mocked by his future bandmates, until Dre coaxes a good performance out of him.  The song would later become “Boyz N the Hood” (which John Singleton took as the title of the movie that was Ice Cube’s acting debut).

N.W.A.’s swagger and braggadocio is played as more performance to survive on the streets, market themselves, and survive in the business.   The movie paints Cube and Dre as artists just about perfecting their craft and Eazy as the engine and means to power their dreams.  Eazy-E eventually forms Ruthless Records, though his business acumen eventually becomes a two-edged sword.  While it’s simple to paint Eazy-E as a villain, Mitchell’s portrayal reveals a complex character.  The portrait of a young man who values his friends, who lets money blind him, and shares a weird father/son dynamic with his mentor/manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti).

While the specter of the caricature of the devious Jewish manager who takes advantage of young black musicians almost hovers in the background (though anti-Semitism takes center stage when Ice Cube blasts him on the track “No Vaseline”), the movie fleshes out the character and doesn’t lean on stereotypes.  The arc of Eazy with Heller provides additional emotional underpinnings to the movie.  And Heller as manipulative villain seems almost counterbalanced by the presence of R. Marcos Taylor who chews up scenery as Marion “Suge” Knight. From former body guard to Bobby Brown, he helps Dre form Death Row Records and ends up ruling it like a kingpin.  Suge becomes the lightning rod for the violence surrounding the group; with most of the ugly behavior given to him, he becomes the only unabashed monster in the movie.

Straight Outta Compton“Trust is a motherf—.” –Eazy-E

However, money and rights issues eventually divide the group.  Ice Cube leaves first, going solo with a series of hit albums and a burgeoning movie career. Then Dr. Dre goes on to form Death Row Records, later ushering in a new era of hip hop superstars from Snoop Dogg and Tupac to Eminem (when he formed Aftermath Entertainment).

So much of N.W.A.’s story was played out in the news and their public beefs played out on wax.  They became the poster children for political pundits who sought to score points by scaring their suburban constituency with the specter of young black hoods brainwashing their kids.

With Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, among the producers, Straight Outta Compton crafts sympathetic characterizations, smoothing out the rougher edges of the characters to focus on making a crowd pleasing movie.  Thus, no attention is paid to Dr. Dre’s history of abuse towards women nor does it address the misogyny and homophobia rampant in the group’s lyrics.  No women become fully formed characters.  Dre’s mom looms large, but is forgotten, as is his baby momma.  Eazy-E’s wife is woefully underwritten. Largely women exist as little more than groupie/trophies, with one encounter seeming to be a long set up for a “Bye Felicia” callback to Friday.

“I’m expressing with my full capabilities/And now I’m living in correctional facilities

Cause some don’t agree with how I do this/I get straight, meditate like a Buddhist” –N.W.A. “Express Yourself”

N.W.A.’s lyrics gave voice to a generation’s frustration, demonstrating the power of voice.  They poured their passion and anger into their work which eventuated in a form of personal expression.  The most important thing an artist brings to their art is their voice, how they come at the world.  It’s an artist’s job to ask questions, to challenge the status quo, to push boundaries.  They expose themselves, their lives, their reality, their dreams, their pain; revealing or speaking from their woundedness.  There’s a reason why so much of the Bible is made up of storytelling and poetry.

Artists are reporters covering the human condition, who share their observations.  When one hears the story of another human being—their heartbreak, their pain, their love, their sorrow, their loss—they know they’re not alone.  That they are human and belong to a community of humans.  We just need to be better listeners.

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“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge…” –N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton”

Straight Outta Compton, much like N.W.A.’s music, serves as political commentary.  It’s a commentary on the American Dream and how it looks and is lived out by those the dream forgot.  In a powerful scene that serves as the inspiration for “F— tha Police,” the police have the group members on the ground on the suspicion of … being black males in public.  Heller comes out and lashes out at the police in a way that no member of the group could as a matter of survival.  In one moment, the movie shows their powerlessness and Heller’s privilege.

Even at a 147 minute running time, F. Gary Gray gives Straight Outta Compton the epic treatment while moving it along at a brisk pace.  An intriguing character study, with standout performances, most notably by Mitchell, especially after Eazy-E’s diagnosis with AIDs.

Straight Outta Compton takes us back to those early days of hip hop with music that still wouldn’t get airplay today (as the nostalgia hip hop stations still carefully tip toe around gangsta tracks). With the recording sessions and concert performances providing opportunities for audience sing-a-longs, this is very much a movie for fans of N.W.A. and hip hop, reminding us of the soundtrack of our youth.