It’s a scene that’s all too familiar nowadays. A group of black men, standing on the curb in front of a legitimate business establishment, are minding their own business. Without warning, the “whoop” of a patrol car can be heard, the red and blue lights flashing before any real need for their “emergency” warning can be detected. The officers, mostly white, step out of their vehicles and immediately go on the defensive. They want names. They want explanations.
But mostly from their actions, it appears they want blood, and they want it from the minorities standing right in front of them.
The men are belligerent. They’ve been targeted before, and they’ve heard the lame excuses the cops are giving for their interrogation. As the demands are made (“Hands behind your head!” “Get on the ground!”) they complain, and then comply, the police offering nothing but epithets as they hit the pavement. Even when a white man steps up and offers explanations, John Law ain’t having it. They even threaten him, making the possibility of violence all the more real.
Luckily, tensions ease off, and the officers retreat, leaving yet another instance of police brutality and harassment on a supposedly post-racial America’s agenda.
No, this isn’t a description of Ferguson, or recent actions in Baltimore, Chicago, or New York. This is Torrance, California circa 1987 and the group in question was a “gang” in name only, the talented collection of rappers and DJs who rightfully tagged themselves N. W. A. (which stands for N****z Wit Attitudes). Made up of future superstars Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre, along with neighborhood pals MC Ren and DJ Yella, this undeniably influential group took the hated musical genre and turned it mainstream, lifting it from its “fad” declarations and making it a part of every urban (and suburban) cultural talking point for the next three decades.
There was an entire world beyond the pop of previous crown holders (Run DMC, The Beastie Boys) and the radicalism of others (Public Enemy). Suddenly, there was a music to match the contemporary mindset, one that mythologized guns and gang signs, the problems of the Projects placed in a single, incendiary city of Compton. When Ice Cube claimed he was coming “straight outta” that legendary LA ‘hood, it wasn’t just an announcement or a birthright sentiment. No, it was a declaration of war, a battle N.W.A. would win, though the group itself ended up losing much in the process.
Today, white America is as much a part of the fanbase as African Americans, and here’s hoping they turn out for this stellar biopic. Like recent reminders of our disturbing past (12 Years a Slave, Selma), F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton argues that much hasn’t changed in the racial dynamic since this story played nearly 27 years ago. The bigotry, and well as the calm media response to it, is all there and it’s all on point. In another reminder of events like Ferguson and names like Trayvon Martin, Ice Cube is hassled by police coming out of his buddy Dre’s house and heading across the street to his own. When his parents show up to defend him, they are threatened with a “bad day” by bias with a badge.
Each of the actors here do a remarkable job of inhabiting these well known icons. We meet Easy-Z (Jason Mitchell) as he’s running drugs. He barely makes it out with his life, and decides to get out of the game by funding pals Ice Cube (the rapper’s own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Dr. Dre’s (Corey Hawkins) dream of starting their own music label. Eventually dubbed “Ruthless”, the guys recruit Ren (Aldis Hodge) and Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and quickly record a single. “Boyz N the Hood” establishes their style and gets the attention of old school music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti).
Thus begins the rise and fall, the rags, the riches, and most importantly, the racism that would follow the group until they eventually disbanded (Cube left after the first LP, Dre followed shortly after). Money would play a big part in the split, as would E’s unswerving support of Heller. At first, the film does these pioneers right. Even with their music on the radio, they are still hassled mercilessly. Then the FBI comes after them for their most notorious track, “Fuck tha Police”. One of the highlights of the movie is the moment when Detroit law enforcement — almost all white and all ready to railroad them — make it very clear that said song will not happen during the upcoming N.W.A. show. What happens next should bring anyone concerned with free speech and that kind of intimidation to their feet.
When the band breaks up, when Cube becomes a bigger star than N.W.A. and Dre hooks up with Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) and Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield), Straight Outta Compton loses a bit of its fire, but just a bit. Gone are the reminders of hatred and disenfranchisement (even as the Rodney King trial and eventual riots are referenced) and instead, we are into Behind the Music territory. Granted, it’s still intriguing and wrapped around the amazing music these men made, but by the time Eazy discovers that he has AIDS, the first two hours of the film feel like folklore.
Still, as a biopic, as a social commentary, as a reminder of our current cultural limits and liabilities, you couldn’t ask for a better film. Modern rap would not exist without Straight Outta Compton and N.W.A. We should have learned more from those lessons. A lot more.