If you think Straight Outta Compton is an instense, non-stop gangster rap movie you’re partially right. Starting off at a sprint, the movie shows Eric “Eazy-E” Wright showing up at a horrific drug den in the middle of the hood only to narrowly escape getting arrested by what looks like the entire Los Angeles Police Department. Next we meet buddies Andre “Dr. Dre” Young and O’Shea “Ice Cub” Jackson – the former scratching records and the latter scribbling lyrics in a notebook – who are both in their teens. Dre’s mother says to him, “I don’t care what you do for a living as long as you own the company.” She serves not only as the fire under his ass but also as the person who refuses to have her two sons amount to nothing after working her ass off to make sure they become something. Eventually Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby come into the picture as well, rounding out the notorious group N.W.A.
What makes this film great is that it blends genres in a surprising way while telling the story of a group that released only one album but changed music history. Comedy, drama, action, crime, music, and politics – it’s all there. Straight Outta Compton could have just been a biopic version of Behind the Music (a show I love) but luckily it goes deeper than that. Instead it’s a discussion about how police brutality and racism fueled the lyrics of a group that was the first to show the world “reality rap.” There are several scenes where members of the group are just walking down the street or standing in a parking lot only to be shaken down by cops (both white and black) because of the color of their skin or the way they’re dressed. Paired with actual footage from the Rodney King case and the subsequent L.A. riots, the movie reminds viewers that sadly not a whole lot has changed in 20 years (i.e. Ferguson). Watching these incidents leads lyricist Ice Cube to write N.W.A.’s most infamous song “Fuck tha Police” which reminds the audience where the anger came from. To say it was justified is an understatement.
But the movie isn’t all politics and anger. So much of what makes the story exciting are the relationships between the members of N.W.A. I found myself laughing as much as I was horrified which is saying a lot for a movie about a group of rappers who were called out over and over again for being misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and anti-authority. We learn that Eazy-E started off as the money rather than the talent. In fact his cash made their record label, Ruthless Records, a reality and paid for the production and distribution of their first hit “Boyz-N-The-Hood.”
One of my favorite scenes is when Eazy, Dre and Cube are in the studio with a group called H.B.O. (Home Boys Only) that Cube knows from the east coast. When H.B.O. decide they don’t like the “Boyz” lyrics and bail on the session, Dre and Cube tell Eazy, who had never rapped, to record the song instead. While sitting on the couch with a bottle of whiskey, Eazy laughs and tells them no and then Cube says in all seriousness: “Eric, you’re kind of being a hoe right now.” I was doubled over in laughter at that point and then the scene got even better. Eazy gets behind the mic and does a terrible job “rapping” (if you can even call it that) the line “Crusin’ down the street in my six-four…” and Dre and Cube are themselves doubled over in laughter. Eventually Dre coaches him through it and legend has it that he coached Eazy line by line in a recording session that took all night. Next thing you know an MC is born.
As the group gains popularity following the release of “Boyz,” manager Jerry Heller comes into the picture and ends up helping and hurting the group at the same time. Over the years he treats Eazy as the star and the rest of the guys as hired help which leads to an array of problems. Watching N.W.A. on the road (their only tour) depicts a series of ups and downs including Dre receiving terrible news about his brother, the group getting lectured by the Detroit Police Department, and all the debauchery anyone would expect from young artists on the road. Their hijinks are excessive but not shocking – I’m sure Motley Crue participated in similar craziness. One scene even pays homage to the movie Friday, which Cube is seen writing later in the movie, with the “Bye Felicia” line. Nice touch.
Fittingly, the movie also shows us when young Snoop Dogg and Tupac are signed by Death Row Records and why Suge Knight is the worst gangster of them all. When Dre ends up leaving Knight to start his own label (Aftermath) he tells him that “you can’t put a price on peace of mind” and never looks back. Clearly he knew Knight was trouble and he was right – in addition to years of jail time and legal issues, Knight, now 50 years old, is currently in prison in Los Angeles on $10 million bail. Hopefully he stays there.
Later in the movie we see Eazy having coughing fits which obviously foreshadows his detrimental diagnosis of AIDS. Although there are several difficult parts of the movie, watching Eazy’s reaction when a doctor tells him he has a few months to live and then watching the reactions of Dre and Cube is absolutely heartbreaking. I cried my eyes out for Eazy because his death is such a loss. I believe he made the same impact on rap as Kurt Cobain did on rock and roll so it’s painful to imagine where they would be today.
Overall the movie is well-acted, well-written, and of course well-produced. When the people in charge of telling the story actually lived it the audience can tell. Ice Cube’s son (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a fantastic replica of him – throughout the movie I forgot that he wasn’t actually Ice Cube – harnessing the anger and genius all at once. Corey Hawkins as Dre and Jason Mitchell as Eazy also steal the screen as fearless, talented, charismatic kids who are trying to change their path while remaining true to themselves and where they came from.
If you’re a fan of N.W.A. or rap music in general, go see Straight Outta Compton right now. If harsh language, drugs, racial issues, and debauchery offend you stay the hell away from this one. But keep in mind that Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are now millionaires who have gone on to succeed in both music and movies with the latter winning six Grammy awards. Not bad for a couple of boys from Compton.