Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read it below.
Since its mid-August release the group biopic Straight Outta Compton, depicting the rise and demise of controversial and influential hard core rap unit NWA has been a box office bombshell. Taking its name from NWAs blistering debut album, like its subject Straight Outta Compton is as raw, gritty, violent and unforgiving as the South Central Los Angeles of legend and fact. It seeks triumph within a tapestry of tragedy.
Straight Outta Compton, directed by Felix Gary Gray, whose previous works include The Italian Job, Law Abiding Citizen and Friday seeks to recreate the social, economic and cultural conditions that gave rise to three of the granddaddies of gangsta rap. Andre Young, known as Dr. Dre, O’Shea Jackson, better recalled as Ice Cube and Eric Wright, Easy-E, came together in a joint venture blending beats with searing street sagas of brutal police beatings and black lives assaulted by rapid fire weapons, gang banging and hard knocks. In doing so they helped set a standard for West Coast rap.
In documenting this film version of the NWA story, director Gray and screen writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff use a familiar form to make a statement about intersections of ostensibly insurgent message music, mayhem and money-making.
Straight Outta Compton has already come under fire for what it omits or downplays concerning the deeply misogynistic masculinism of the hyper macho gangsta rapper archetype. The objectification of women, reduced to their bodies and body parts, is abundantly evident, particularly in the lavish pool parties reconstructed in the film.
Yet, Cube, i.e., Ice Cube (played by his son O’Shea Jr.) defiantly situates himself as a journalist of sorts, stating in an interview that his social commentary equals that of other reporters in its ability to chronicle what he sees in the street scenes he relates.
The villains of the piece, apart from the LAPD, are first, promoter Jerry Heller, who, seeing a payday in the unfiltered rage of this Compton crew, steered them to greater planes of visibility, but at great cost, catapulting Easy-E at the expense of his cohorts. Heller introduces NWA to what in sports is called a higher level of play. From their own independent Ruthless records label, Heller cuts deals with Priority, increasing distribution while simultaneously rerouting the profits, from artists to management. As each member of the group comes to understand this, the unit’s cohesion will fray.
The world of Straight Outta Compton, rooted in mid to late 1980s and early 1990s urban blight is now often romanticized as a golden age of hiphop and gangsta rap. It saw the schismatic successors of NWA, Ice Cube’s Lench Mob and Dr. Dre’s Death Row, the latter dominated by Suge Knight. Death Row records eventually signed Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, and a host of rap luminaries. But not without cost.
As gangsta rap became a national and global phenomenon, it brought a mixed bag of attributes reflective of its origins. Thus South Africa, already riven by violence as part of the legacy of apartheid, had in its post 1990 “liberation” phase its first drive by shootings, emulating North American thug life. The brilliance of the acting and detailed recreation of Straight Outta Compton should not obscure the toxicity of the site that produced it, a brutal initiation for Boyz N The Hood. Everything has a cost.