N.W.A is simultaneously the best and worst thing to happen to hip-hop. The group’s contribution to the culture cannot be classified as solely “bad” or “good,” and any attempt to do so would be to remove the human element from their legacy, which undoubtedly exists.
I have seen several social posts calling for a boycott of the recently released “Straight Outta Compton” biopic, the sentiment being that there are plenty of other, more positive groups from hip-hop’s history more deserving of the attention. While the argument holds some weight, the fact is there were few groups that had as large a cultural impact as N.W.A.
Biographical films are rarely based on the morality of their subjects, but more often the effect the subject had on a particular time period. And while N.W.A did create violent, misogynistic tracks such as “Boyz-n-the-Hood” and “Dopeman,” they also had songs like “Express Yourself” and the forever controversial “F*ck tha Police” which, in their own right, were groundbreaking social commentary. In my mind, there was no question the new film was justified, but I questioned whether N.W.A.’s story would be done justice.
Entering the the theater, it became obvious that many of the moviegoers were not at all familiar with N.W.A past the name recognition, which is perfect because the film does a great job at giving a very entry-level understanding of the group. Their rise to success and subsequent fallout is chronicled in a way that’s enjoyable for both casual and die-hard fans.
The film achieves this by highlighting each member’s unique motivation, namely money, music and a message. The members of the group were driven by their motivations, almost to a fault.
Eric Wright, aka Eazy E, who is portrayed by Jason Mitchell, is obviously motivated by money. Tired of selling drugs, he sees music as a way to legalize his hustle. Andre Young, aka Dr. Dre, who is played by Corey Hawkins, is motivated by music. Not too keen on business, he’s obsessed with sounds and crafting them to perfection.
O’Shea Jackson, aka Ice Cube, who is played by his son O’Shea Jackson Jr., is motivated by the message. As the primary songwriter for the group’s classic debut album, “Straight Outta Compton,” Cube was dedicated to conveying the realities — both the spoils and perils — of growing up in Compton, California.
The film can serve as a cautionary tale to any youngsters trying to make it into the industry today. Director F. Gary Gray does a great job of showing that while all three motivations are needed to make a group successful, if they aren’t prioritized and respected by each member of the group, they can lead to disaster.
Another interesting theme throughout the film is the subject of police brutality. Naturally, it would have to be covered in some length to explain how their iconic protest song against heavy-handed, racial police tactics evolved. But instead of highlighting any isolated event, Gray dedicates a good portion of the film to the subject.
The first half of the film shows multiple instances in which members of the group were wrongfully harassed by the police, while the second half focuses on the Rodney King case and verdict that led to the Los Angeles riots of 1994. In one of the movie’s more powerful scenes, Cube takes a ride through the riots. In the midst of the chaos, he sees two men, fists in the air, tied together by red and blue bandanas. The bandanas, of course, represent the rival street gangs, the Bloods and Crips.
Despite the passage of time, it was hard to watch the film and not draw similar parallels to the present. For some in the audience, it could serve as a reference point from which current frustrations about racial disparity grew. For others, it could be a reminder that not much has changed socially or racially.
“Straight Outta Compton” does have one flaw. True hip-hop historians will notice quite a few holes in the story. For instance, the film chronicles Cube’s departure and subsequent battle with his former crew. The end result was Cube recording one of the most scathing disses in history, the track “No Vaseline.”
But it conveniently leaves out the path Dr. Dre took after his own departure: co-founding Death Row Records, falling out with Eazy E, assaulting Dee Barnes, etc. One could assume those details are omitted to make Dr. Dre seem like the main protagonist. It’s understandable, seeing as he’s currently the group’s most recognizable figure. After all, show business is more about perception than reality.
Much like the group N.W.A themselves, “Straight Outta Compton” is indeed imperfect, controversial and polarizing. Those who loved the group will love this film, those who loved to hate the group will love to hate this film. Both groups of people can learn from this film.
Clyde Foster is a writer and artist in Mobile.
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