This visceral hip-hop biopic documenting NWA’s meteoric rise to fame at times struggles to avoid stumbling into Hollywood cliché. Still, Straight Outta Compton (2015) proves as infectiously entertaining as it is educational thanks to F. Gary Gray’s richly textured direction and a thumping soundtrack that confirms rap as the protest music of its time. Although gangster rap is now the stuff of legend, Straight Outta Compton reminds the viewer that for some it was – and still is – a way of life. The opening sequence reveals Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) stomping his way out of the grilled window of a dope house, after a police military tank, without warning, rams its way right through the front door.
In mid-eighties Compton, Los Angeles, there’s no preliminary foreplay to violence. This includes corrupt cops who don’t hesitate to seize and arrest any black men on the streets with impunity. In this milieu, the friendship of lyricist Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), aspiring DJ Andre (Corey Hawkins) – aka Dr. Dre – and neighbourhood drug dealer Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright results in NWA and Ruthless Records. Interested in more than just a fierce display of raw talent and braggadocio, rap becomes their way of voicing their anti-heroic reality with brutal honesty. At first, a local club owner discourages their “hardcore shit” and all-black audiences remain somewhat sceptical.
The boys can’t even stand on the pavement without being immediately shaken-down and ridiculed by cops; but injustice only serves as fodder for art, when NWA later explodes with their controversial Fuck Tha Police. In the wake of white fans bulldozing piles of their CDs in protest and the FBI’s sanctimonious threat of arrest, the members of NWA refuse to censor themselves on-stage in Detroit. A raging Ice Cube leads the chanting arena crowd in what amounts to civil dissent; except instead of a Black Power salute, he gives them the triumphant middle finger. Unsurprisingly, as soon as NWA transitions to commercial success, the swindling starts. Their entanglement with music industry predators requires a different set of street smarts, as white music manager Jerry Hall (Paul Giammati) suavely promises, “I can make you legit”.
The group’s growing internal division over unfair contracts is tempered by the spectacle of hoopties bouncing up and down Crenshaw Boulevard, hotel orgies, and unapologetic bling. Despite the obvious sexism, Eazy-E’s Wet N’ Wild Party – where female nonentities are more likely to appear topless than speak – makes same-era MTV Pool Party look incredibly tame by comparison. By the time footage of the Rodney King beating and 1992 LA riots rolls around, Straight Outta Compton cements itself foremost as a tale of solidarity: Jackson and Hawkins provide vibrant, moving performances in the face of Eazy-E’s premature death from AIDS. However, while NWA have long since gone mainstream for white and black audiences alike, disturbingly, the African- American struggle against police brutality remains all-too-familiar a theme.
Christine Jun | @ChristineCocoJ