Five young men - Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, Eazy E and DJ Yella - walking towards us, lined up in a row coming into the picture frame like modern-day gunslingers - full of swagger and the defiant air of adolescents that have grown up and experienced the brutality that comes with being black living in one of the poorest and most dangerous communities in 1980’s America - the city of Compton, CA., south of downtown Los Angeles; these are the members of the pioneering “gangsta rap” and West Coast hip hop group N.W. A. (an abbreviation of Niggaz wit' Attitude) whose “rags-to-riches” story is told in the biopic STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON directed by F. Gary Gray.
A group of locals, some of whom had been friends since childhood band together to express the rage they feel at society’s inequities; to bring to attention the destructive nature of racism practiced by the authorities in their neighborhoods; police who were the supposed “enforcers” of justice interacting with urban black men treating them like enemies with no regard for their civil rights. N. W.A. fought back with raw screaming authenticity - lyrics that told their stories, attacking with the rat-a-tat of drum-machine beats and rhythms - words sprayed out with the ferociousness of thundering cannons - gesticulating and shocking their audiences with facts that were harshly bitter, crude. and all too real. N.W. A. became heroes to an expanding audience - their voices had been unleashed - fighting back not with guns and flying bullets, but with music that had the power to slice souls.
I listened spellbound to N.W.A.’s sounds, inhaling their cries of intense fury, but at the same time cringing at the vitriolic lyrics aimed at women who were often referred to as “ho’s and bitches” - buried in the same slimy abuse and disrespect, that the power structures so disdainfully thrust on them. The glamorized characterization of the relationship between the “perks” of fame - adulation, material acquisitiveness and indiscriminate sexual abandon - are depicted as becoming the roots of a Greek tragedy - hubris leads to nemesis.
The film follows the group’s path to worldwide fame including the oft seen sleazy ups and downs of the managerial side of the performing business; the collaboration of the entrepreneurial Eazy - E (a terrific performance by Jason Mitchell) with a scheming white businessman Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) to form a production company called Ruthless Records. Once recruited into N.W.A., Dr. Dre (a fine Corey Hawkins) is portrayed as the anchor of the group handling the music, and Ice Cube (played by his son O’Shea Jackson, Jr. with an uncanny resemblance to his father) is the lyricist along with MC Ren, pen and notebook in hand constantly jotting down phrases for future use. All five members were uncompromising, never giving into pressure from institutions, (including the FBI), the press and other external forces to tone down their rhetoric, many of whom were shocked by the unrelenting capacity of street vernacular to propel the public into social awareness.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON also presents the personal battles and clashing egos among the rappers, with some quitting over “royalty” issues going off on their own, but over time we witness their strong “familial” bond which is unbreakable.The movie was not filmed in a vacuum - the turbulent history of the late ’80’s and early ’90’s is woven into the plot including the 1991 police battering of Rodney King, videotaped and seen on television by the whole country, and the subsequent acquittal of the four accused police officers in 1992 sparking riots in Los Angeles - clearly foreshadowing uprisings 22 years later, where a police culture is still too ready to shoot and destroy what they perceive as “threatening” men and women of color.