‘Straight Outta Compton’ Film Review: How N.W.A.’s Gangsta Rap Was Ghetto Journalism
The birthplace of gangsta rap—Compton, California, was a place angels feared to tread. In the mid-1980s, America became aware of its very own nightmarish thug life, festering not far from the Hollywood Hills.
Los Angeles, 1986. Picture, if you will, gangs called Blood Stone Villains, and the Rollin’ ’60s Crips. Picture insanely bouncing “Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake” lowrider vintage Chevy Impalas, with mega-bass car-speakers blasting monster funk by Zapp (band) down Crenshaw Boulevard in the 100-degree California dusk.
It was a time when terms like “gat” and “bust a cap” entered the vernacular, gangs packed military-grade weaponry, and the “heaviosity” of gangsta rap inexorably began transmogrifying the USA into a hip-hop nation.
The origin of the black-and-white “Parental Advisory Explicit Content” sticker can be traced to former Vice President Al Gore’s wife Tipper listening to Prince’s song “Darling Nikki,” but N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” was one of the first albums to get label-slapped with a resounding “thwack!” heard around the globe.
Why? It had harsh words unfit for children’s ears, certainly. But it also told grim truths about a little-known, deadly lifestyle. Such was the forbidden ghetto journalism of trailblazing hip-hop/rap group N.W.A.
‘Straight Outta Compton’
Endorsed by the band itself, “Straight Outta Compton” is the excellent chronicling of the rise and fall of N.W.A. It stars among others, the now legendary N.W.A. lyricist Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who’s the spitting image of his famous dad, and is filmed by the same director who filmed junior’s dad in Ice Cube’s breakout comedy, “Friday.”
O’Shea senior was the group’s undisputed powerhouse charismatic star. His incendiary, prescient poetry shows—as depicted here—how little has changed racially in certain respects, in America, since the album for which the movie is named came out in ’88.
Spanning roughly 10 years, “Straight Outta Compton” focuses on three members of N.W.A: entrepreneurial drug dealer Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), lyricist Ice Cube, and DJ Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins).
They and the other two band members, MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) formed the band, the acronym of which is now, 30 years later, widely known not to mean “No Whites Allowed.”
Being young American men, they were interested in having fun at the local dance hall, but they were also fed up, and weren’t going to take it anymore. They quickly began talking about poverty, racism, police brutality, and thug life as they saw and experienced it, in verse form, preferably danceworthy, and definitely uncensored.
At the outset, we see Dr. Dre in artistic sponge-mode, listening to a sea of records and practicing his turntable skills, while the soon-to-be Ice Cube watches the world and waits and writes. The group comes together the way most groups do; 20-something musicians hanging out and jamming, and pretty soon a vibe sparks and takes on a life of its own.
Out on the airwaves, the explosive lyrics that mirror these young musicians’ day-to-day lives are like blood in the water, and soon attract a circling music-biz shark—manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti).
Speaking of sharks, dorsal fins in the form of flashing L.A.P.D. turret lights circle constantly, as do those of law enforcement in general. The Detroit riot ignited by local cops’ promise to shut down an N.W.A. show if a certain lyric popped out of the microphones is shown. You know the line—”(Something) tha Police.”
Police paranoia was understandable in this case, but the censorship and especially the arrests were ultimately unwarranted—these weren’t vengeful, subversive rants but political commentaries meant to shine a spotlight on issues not discussed enough in American society.
After Heller gets in the mix, the film fairly quickly moves on to the band’s inevitable rise to fame and fortune, followed by the inevitable downward spiraling, due to financial inequities and artistic differences.
A movie about the full scope of N.W.A.’s influence necessarily has to include its breakup, and the resulting solo careers that included a period of vitriolic, internecine rap-war sniping.
This is pretty funny; the cutting back and forth between Ice Cube in a New York recording booth and the remaining West Coast band members listening to the resulting record with angry but chagrined faces (all girlfriends present stifling snickers) and the sullen but respectful admission of, “He got us.”
Much of the latter half of the film falls prey to the tendency of biopics to re-sort and condense—in short—to make stuff up. Much like its Broadway cousin, the “Jukebox Musical,” the music biopic rewrites history to match up with the hit parade, meanwhile cameo-ing in famous figures known to have been involved with a particular story—in this case a little sprinkling of Tupac and Snoop Dogg.
This but Not That
Unfortunately, the movie errs on the side of hagiography as opposed to taking a good hard look at the shadow side of N.W.A. lyrical content.
The hypocritical downside of most gangsta rap is the extending of an expectant open hand toward racial equality, while offering a handful of misogyny and homophobia with the other, thereby gat-shooting itself in the proverbial foot.
The film reflects this disturbing dichotomy: most females in “Straight Outta Compton” are in various (advanced) stages of undress, and engaged in various pursuits that run the gamut of groupie activity, from latter-day Romanesque pool parties to the unmentionable. Which begs the chicken/egg question: which comes first—the misogyny or the gold digging?
Giamatti shines as music-biz shark Heller, the scariest kind of bad guy because he really thinks he’s helping the band with the left hand, while surreptitiously blood-letting them with the right. Heller divides and conquers, dining on steak and champagne and talking business only with Eazy-E.
Scarier still is the figure of former Los Angeles Rams defensive end turned notorious Death Row Records CEO, Suge Knight, who muscles in on the action, played handily by R. Marcos Taylor.
O’Shea Jackson Jr. may or may not unfairly get the most accolades in the acting department just for looking and sounding so much like his dad. Is it acting, or is it Memorex? How’d he do his research? He grew up in Ice Cube’s house. Still, in showbiz—take it however you can get it. He’s got a sure-fire career ahead of him.
The Music, the Moment
It’s a slammin’ soundtrack—how could it not be? All scenes involving musical performance are great fun, such as Eazy-E getting on the mic for the first time when there’s no one else to rap his lyrics and morphing from high-pitched geek to cocksure gangsta before our eyes.
This is a large-scale biopic about a musical genre perceived by the public as so dangerous that it prompted one group to name itself Public Enemy. Thirty years later, while it’s not yet entirely a completely accepted, ho-hum genre, America’s at home enough with it by now that the movie’s getting promoted in a manner befitting a more mainstream offering.
N.W.A. wasn’t the first group to rap shocking lyrics, but it was the most successful. The guys weren’t angels with clear consciences and pristine values solely trying to promote social and political change. Who gangsta raps? Gangstas. And as anyone in showbiz knows, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. So just as Led Zeppelin sold albums like hotcakes due to their late ’70s reputation as being incredibly dangerous, N.W.A. used its street cred as branding.
Still, gangsta rap as ghetto journalism was much-needed truth telling. Ice Cube, in a scene where a guerrilla journalist attempts to sandbag him in an interview, deftly sidesteps the ambush, saying, “I ain’t mad—you’re just doing your job. I’m a journalist just like you.”
And yet, has any good come of the last 30 years of telling the truth? “The truth will set you free”? There are more African-American male youth on lockdown now than at any time previously, and the police’s relationship with the black community lately … enough said. A definite downside is young teenagers idolizing gangsta lifestyle and trying to live it in, say, Iowa.
As if to address that very phenomenon, in one of the movie’s most electrifying scenes, a full-blown Blood gang member with many teardrop tattoos (signifying multiple murders) pulls over a school bus and menaces a young teen for daring to throw up a gang sign. “Y’all need to keep gang-banging those books and stop trying to be something you’re not! I kill Crips for breakfast!”
Amen. See the movie. Stay in school.
‘Straight Outta Compton’
Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor, Paul Giamatti
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Release Date: Aug. 14
3.5 stars out of 5