There was a time when we lost our damn minds. In the 80s, the country’s guns, gangs, and drug problems were finally getting national attention, and those problems were seen as spiraling out of control. Police brutality cases were on the rise, but because it was poor black kids in low-income neighborhoods, we were more worried about the crimes than the enforcement. We were looking for someone to blame. Someone that wasn’t the government for its backwards drug laws, someone that wasn’t our educational system for its repeated failures, someone that wasn’t our economic system that routinely stacked the deck against those kids. So we turned to music. Actually, to put it more aptly, America turned on music. We turned on the young black men making it, blaming the very victims of the problems our society had created. As Ice Cube says in the film, “speak a little truth a people lose their minds”.
It was this unusual confluence of events that gave birth to the rap supergroup known as N.W.A., and it’s their rise — and fall, and in some cases rise again — that F. Gary Gray’s fantastic new film Straight Outta Compton shines a bright light on. Dealing with the teenage-and-beyond lives of its core members — Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson, and Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby — it tracks them starting at their roots, the rough urban wasteland of 1986 Compton, California. From there, we see how each of them came up, though the film concentrates on the core talents of Dre, Cube, and Eazy-E. Dre and Cube’s family struggles, E’s gang involvement, and the hardships of living in a city that the rest of the country would rather pretend didn’t exist, where the police treat everyone as a suspect unworthy of even basic respect, and where human life has begun to lose all meaning. Yet in the midst of all that chaos, five young men came together and created a musical style, a rough-hewn lyrical poetry, and a movement that ultimately changed music as we know it.
It sounds like exaggeration, and the film makes it feel that way, too. There’s a great deal of emphasis on the revolutionary nature of N.W.A., their anti-establishment tactics, and the struggles they faced as a result. At the same time, the film doesn’t flinch from many of the bad decisions they made — their manipulative agent Jerry Heller (played marvelously by Paul Giamatti), the rampant and destructive partying, their inability to leave the ‘hood behind them sometimes, and their involvement — particularly Dre — with the violent, psychopathic bodyguard-turned-media mogul Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor). Yet much of the film is firmly grounded in reality and truth. N.W.A. was branded one of the most “dangerous” acts in America. They were arrested for performing “Fuck The Police,” ironically a song written after they were all illegally rousted by cops for simply standing on a street corner. And Gray’s film does a fantastic job of touching on all the critical moments, while still giving you enough time to catch up and learn about most of the main players.
Straight Outta Compton is a story about a rap group, and we learn a lot about them, flaws and all (all though it’s worth noting that the group’s often horrible misogynistic tendencies are wholly ignored). It has such a tight focus on them, never giving you a scene without them, showing their birth and the camaraderie and brotherhood that they formed with such intimate detail that you feel like you’re there, like you’re one of them. You feel —regardless of your roots or your taste — like you belong. And that’s such a critical component of what they were, giving a voice to a place and a people that so many knew nothing about, making them feel like they belonged to something. It’s bolstered by blisteringly good performances by a mostly unknown actors (most notable is probably O’Shea Jackson, Jr., who is actually Ice Cube’s son). The chemistry between them is wondrous, and any roughness or unevenness in their performances actually serves the film better, giving them that raw edge that suits the roles that they’re playing. When they experience their highs — that first record deal, Ice Cube absolutely igniting a nightclub crowd in one of his early live performances, their first stadium show, you feel it, their joy and elation. And when the lows come around — the death of Dre’s brother and Eazy-E’s eventual AIDS diagnosis and subsequent death, you want to weep with them.
It’s immensely impressive work by director Gray and the film’s screenwriters, taking a group and a music so foreign to many people and making you feel such empathy. That isn’t to say that the film lets you forgive their faults, the strife they cause with each other and those around them, but the focus is certainly more on their successes. You get to delve into their excesses, wince as you see them make mistakes, and bristle as you watch them face every adversity. The back third of the film certainly starts to drag, and that’s in part because it deals with the group’s breakup and each individual’s efforts to find their feet. It’s not the fault of the screenplay or the director — those stories are solid and the performances remain good — but it lacks the raw emotion and chemistry of them as a group. There’s less music being performed, less of that intimacy that makes the rest of the film as entertaining and engaging.
There are going to be those who say that rap isn’t music, that NWA’s message was nothing but violence and drugs. That they glamorize something shameful. To which I suppose I’d say that no one gets to dictate what art is, and the poetry of the poor, the angry, the disenfranchised, even when they’ve walked a path to darkness, is worth listening to, even if you don’t like you what you hear. You can say you don’t like it, but you can’t say it’s not music. You can say they’re not worth your time, but you can’t say they didn’t work for what they have. This is a story of five young men who came from nothing and changed the game completely, and it’s a story told in bold, beautiful strokes that touches on all that darkness that surrounded them. Does it soften some of the blows? It does, which is to be expected of all biopics. In the end, it’s just a damn well-made film. You may not like the music, but you don’t have to. You never had to. You just have to respect the message.