Originally published on The Digital Fix.
Amidst the profanity that characterised much of their output, it is easy to forget that at the heart of N.W.A, the hip hop group that pioneered west coast gangsta’ rap, were five young men with a passion for music and a desire to use this as a vehicle through which to share their experiences. Straight Outta Compton reminds us of this quite brilliantly. F. Gary Gray has created a hugely entertaining film that succeeds in contextualising the group’s place within the culture and history of hip-hop while acknowledging the social context from which their music arose: an environment characterised by racism, police harassment, violence and poverty.
Straight Outta Compton follows the story of N.W.A (‘Niggaz With Attitude’) a group who emerged towards the end of the 1980s, when hip-hop was in its formative years and almost exclusively an East Coast affair. They rose to stardom with their raps about life in Compton, an impoverished city south of Los Angeles in which crime and drugs robbed many of its youth a chance of a future. The title of the film is taken from the group’s debut album of the same name. Released in 1988 to a barrage of controversy, its aggressive language and violent themes caused outrage, yet gansgta’ rap soon took the mainstream by storm. Tales of life in the street and in particular the treatment of young black men by the police would capture the attention of many, both white and black, rich and poor.
Told primarily from the point of view of the group’s most famous members, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E, the volatile de-facto leader of the group, Straight Outta Compton charts their surprise explosion onto the scene along with their attempts to navigate the treacherous waters of success and fame. The tone of the film shifts between the gritty and glamorous, visually mirroring the challenge faced by those who grow up rough before making it big in the entertainment industry. The opening scene is filmed documentary style with a shaky handheld as we follow Eazy into a crack den just before the arrival of the militant LAPD, battering ram in tow. The contrast with the eventual spoils of victory – the screaming fans at sell out shows, the mansions, the pool parties and the groupies, is stark.
Unsurprisingly it is the scenes that focus on musical creation or performance which captivate the most. The group’s performance of ‘Fuck tha Police’, certainly their most controversial and inflammatory song (and there’s plenty of competition) during a concert in Detroit is a fine example. Having been threatened before the show by the police chief to not perform this particular song, N.W.A, of course, play it anyway, ensuring the fans are privy to the police’s futile attempt at censorship in the process. It’s an electrifying performance while it lasts, and if one were to conjure up an ideal scenario to personify N.W.A, this would surely be it.
Through moments like this the film skilfully conveys the birth and evolution of west-coast hip-hop with great energy, and in doing so creates a relentless feeling of nostalgia that lasts throughout. There is also subtlety in these moments, but their power is no less. Be it Dr. Dre composing one of his now legendary beats, a brief glimpse of 2pac performing in the studio or the hilarious reaction to Ice Cube’s infamous disstrack ‘No Vaseline’, the audience are transported back through time to an iconic period, a golden era in rap music’s brief history.
The cast all do a very solid job with a script that is paced perfectly and is able to cover a lot of ground in just enough depth. A lot of the narrative’s development happens through the creation of music, performance, and moments of conflict between the characters. That the actors succeed most at carrying themselves like N.W.A, with all their swagger, attitude and boundless energy, is enough alone to warrant a pat on the back. O’Shea Jackson Jr (the son of Ice Cube, playing Ice Cube) might look a lot like his Dad, but it his ability to recreate his father’s intense fearlessness and maverick-like qualities that makes his performance utterly convincing. When required the acting also carries the emotional punch necessary to keep things believable as Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre) demonstrates when family tragedy hits early on.
As a film, Straight Outta Compton achieves a great deal. It is able to tell a fascinating rags-to-riches story while also exploring a number of themes; fame, greed, disillusionment of youth, police brutality, in enough depth to genuinely satisfy. It is also sonically emotive and visually impressive. And perhaps above all it succeeds in placing power in the hands of those reprimanded and marginalised both before and certainly after their musical success and mainstream influence. To those who have, and continue to, decry rap music as a pointlessly violent exercise – nothing but a bad influence – Straight Outta Compton puts a middle finger up at them, smiling with the hydraulics and the G-Funk turned up as it does so.