The late eighties and early nineties were a breakthrough era for African Americans in mainstream entertainment. It was around this time that we got several great films about race relations and ghetto lifestyle, such as Do the Right Thing and Boyz n the Hood. While those films were praised upon initial release, they’re even more important in today’s world where it often feels like so little has changed. The same can be said about the music of N.W.A, the group that helped pioneer the gangsta rap genre.
Many people would argue that gangsta rap isn’t a serious form of music. Some probably don’t even consider rap itself to be real music. Behind their angry and profane lyrics, however, N.W.A really said something about serious issues that are still holding us back as a society. Straight Outta Compton is a gripping account of the prejudice and controversy the group endured from their rise to fame to their eventual falling out. After watching it, you just might see and hear hip-hop in a new light.
N.W.A. consists of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). These young men have been harassed their entire lives by the LAPA, who shake African Americans down merely for standing around. Even a black cop treats them disgracefully. Their fury only fuels them to fight the power through their music, writing songs such as F$&@ tha Police. The group gets their big break upon being approached by a manager named Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giammatti in a great supporting performance. While the media claims that they’re glamorizing crime and violence, N.W.A’s brutally honest music truly commentates on the discrimination being executed by authority figures.
The film notably addresses Rodney King, a black man who was savagely beaten by the LAPD. The officers were all found innocent, which would ignite the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It’s shocking to think something like this could happen in the nineties, but it’s even more shocking that such injustice persists in modern America. In retrospect, many of N.W.A’s songs almost sound like cries for help insisting that people open their eyes. Yet, not nearly enough people listened to what they had to say.
Straight Outta Compton touches base on numerous themes that we’ve seen in other music biopics, like greed, fame, ego, and betrayal. The film never feels like its just rehashing old clichés, however. The dead-on performances and screenplay do a genuine job at portraying the friendship our protagonists share. Rappers are usually written off as violent thugs and every member of N.W.A certainly has a temper. They also maintain a strong family bond, however. Hateful things may be said when Ice Cube goes solo, but they all have each other’s backs when a loved one dies or when one of their own contracts AIDS.
A couple familiar beats and an overly long running time aside, Straight Outta Compton is a powerful biopic about artists expressing how they see the world. It’s fitting that F. Gary Gray helmed the film, as he previously directed the real Ice Cube in Friday. You can tell in every frame of the movie that Gray has passion and respect for these performers and their work. Like Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, Gray tells a compelling story concerning African Americans through wisdom, culture, and music.