Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise is perhaps the only gangsta rap song I can claim to know. There is this thing I do with my sister, she and I take turns singing one verse after another, both having weak lungs, solo singing of one whole rap song to completion will lead to asphyxiation. Anyway, I digress. All I’m saying is that I am not particularly into gangsta rap (or rap in general), nor do I know much about it. I haven’t even heard of N.W.A, not until this movie. I do know Ice Cube and Dr. Dre but I am not at all familiar with their body of work. So my enthusiasm for seeing Straight Outta Compton is very low. But I ultimately had no regrets because the movie is “dope”, as they would say it in the hood. And you certainly don’t have to be a hardcore hip hop fan to appreciate it.
Straight Outta Compton (2015) is a biopic that chronicles the meteoric rise and eventual fall of the influential American hip hop group, N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). Under the direction of band manager Jerry Heller, band members Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella and MC Ren find themselves making history through their music.
Straight Outta Compton is brimming with righteous anger. And I am not only talking about the songs, but the movie’s tone pulsates with rage. How could it not when the boys grew up in the violent neighborhood of Los Angeles, Compton during the 1980s recession. F. Gary Gray’s dark and dim lighting, and visceral images of gang violence, police brutality, racism and injustice makes everything all the more heart-pounding. Two LAPD squad cars had the boys on the ground just for standing in the corner outside of the music studio. When asked what the problem was, the cops said they looked like gangbangers on account of being black. Parts of the film will take the audience back to the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri unrest, and one will wonder just how long will this keep going?
The film feels honest, although upon fact checking they did some omissions, additions and tempering, as biopics are wont to do. But what was it that Julian Barnes once wrote in his Man Booker winning novel The Sense of an Ending? “History is the lies of the victors”. The victors could very well be Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E whose back stories are given much more screen time. With barely anything in it regarding DJ Yella and MC Ren. And completely erasing Arabian Prince. So yeah you can make twenty different movies out of N.W.A’s history and you still won’t be closer to the truth, if there is such a thing as truth. I have learned to view N.W.A’s biopic (or any other biopic for that matter) as less about finding a definitive truth and more about storytelling. And this movie presents one exhilarating storytelling. It has a pacing that never breaks its stride. It has compelling performances from an amazing cast. Notable is Jason Mitchell’s portrayal of Eazy-E as the magnetic frontman and hustler. And Paul Giamatti’s Jerry Heller, whom you never truly know if he is being a sleazebag or a benevolent father figure.
“You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” goes the opening of N.W.A’s hit rap song, Straight Outta Compton, and it’s also the first line you will hear in this movie, even before seeing the first scene. And this signifies what is vital to N.W.A and their music. They give an insider’s perspective on gang violence and police abuse, on injustice and racism. Authorities be damned, these boys mean business and they won’t be silenced. But the movie is actually less about the music (although there is a rousing performance of Fuck Tha Police that will have you cheering) and more about brotherhood and friendship. And while it touches on epic themes, at its core this movie is a deeply personal and intimate story of what fame and fortune can do to a group of young boys from Compton. How they came together and how they heartbreakingly, fell apart.