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Black Stories Film Series #18:
“Straight Outta Compton” (2015) allows director F. Gary Gray to return his roots, in the streets of Los Angeles in the late 80’s and 90’s to tell the story of N.W.A. the notorious rap group that monumentally changed the music industry, which included his “Friday” (1995) star, Ice Cube. Those who are fans of Gray’s early work (“Friday,” & 1996’s “Set It Off”) or Cube’s “Boyz N The Hood” (1991), will instantly understand the references woven into this long-awaited biographical story.
The incendiary group N.W.A. (N* With Attitude) from Compton, California was founded by Dre (né Andre Young), Ice Cube and Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, was one of the most significant voices in the music genre “gangsta rap” and solidified themselves as one of the most influential artists in all of hip hop music. Active from 1987 – 1991, their most notable hit was the controversial “Fuck tha Police” which was included on the 1988 album Straight Outta Compton (hence the films title). The song was considered a protest song that expressed aggravation about the police brutality and racial profiling that was consistently oppressive in predominantly black neighborhoods. Notably, the rise of this group came at the same time as Spike Lee’s angered call-out on the barbarity of police, and the subsequent lack of accountability in his film 1989 film, “Do The Right Thing.” This song was met with a letter of intimidation from the United States FBI, citing that the lyrics incited violence, and misrepresented the police. In 1991, Rodney King was pulled over and senselessly beaten by the LAPD, and because it was captured on tape, it fueled the infamous riots across Los Angeles from communities who were fed up with the bullying behavior of the police and the lack of government support.
This film weaves in all of these major aspects of the story with the personal touch that brings it to life, and allows fans to feel connected to the story as well. These details are accessible because the creators of the film are some of the groups original members themselves, telling their story – Ice Cube and Dr. Dre produced the film. Ice Cube is portrayed by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who is a spitting image. Corey Hawkins is Dre, Jason Mitchell is Eazy-E, Aldus Hodge is MC Ren, and Neil Brown Jr. is Dj Yella, all well-cast and uncanny.
As the group is starting to gain traction and play shows, they capture the attention of a nearly washed up music manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who paved his way in the industry by representing iconic groups of the former decades (Elton John, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Marvin Gaye, Van Morrison…). He helped the group get signed and then co-founded Ruthless Records with Eazy-E, generating controversy within the group along the way. “Straight Outta Compton” tell the ups and downs of the group within the entertainment industry, the attempts of the government to impend on their freedom of speech and suppress their plight against police brutality, and the ways in which their bravery impacted the hip hop industry and culture overall. There’s a powerful shot of the riots where the Bloods and the Crips come together by tying bandannas together, each representing their gang (red for Bloods; blue for Crips), and march towards the cops.
The film is subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) self-referential. At one point in the film, a couple of brute men pound on the door looking for one of their girlfriends, “Felicia.” After Eazy-E blazes through the naked lady clad hotel room and finds her, the group comes at the duo with heavy artillery and scares them off. However, when heading back to their room, the girl gets left in the hall, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (as Cube) slams the door on her, adding, “Bye Felicia!” (the oft-quoted phrase from his fathers popular 1995 comedy, “Friday”). At another moment, Eazy-E and Ice Cube reconnect after a few years estrangement. Eazy says, “I saw Boyz N The Hood [a hit feature film from 1991]… it was good.” Cube responds defensively, “You ain’t call that shit an after school special?” to which Eazy quickly retorts, “I like after school specials.”
There are quick appearances of other well-known rap artists in the game – in particular, Lakeith Stanfield plays Snoop Dogg, which a masterful rendering of his charm and easy-going demeanor. Throughout the film, there are plenty of “party” sequences that are shot intentionally with minimal glamour or whimsy (by cinematographer Matthew Libatique). It feels as though you have arrived at a neighborhood house party, and by the time the credits roll, we see that the imagery was taken directly from the real-life footage archived from the heydays of the group. During those credits, we are also privy to interviews were icons like Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Eminem and 50 Cent discuss the impact that N.W.A. on their own rap careers.
It’s a powerful biopic, with a special respect for their beloved Eazy-E Wright. “Straight Outta Compton” is a piece for long-time lovers of the group, but also serves as an informative look at a time in history that is inextricably linked to the current events that are sweeping the world right now. As Ice Cube says in this film, “you can’t treat people like this and expect them not to rise up. I’m a journalist just like you, reporting what’s going on in the hood,” a line that directly cues in his “Boyz” character, Doughboy, when he says, “either they don’t know…..don’t show…..or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.” At what point, will people start caring enough to listen?