First of the gangstas
There’s an early scene in this brisk but oddly unsatisfying film where a young lyricist called O’Shea Jackson, aka Ice Cube, takes the microphone to rap. He’s in a club, and he lights the room up with rhymes soon to be known worldwide as the song Gangsta Gangsta: “Do I look like a motherf.. kin’ role model? To a kid lookin’ up to me / Life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money.” Lest there be any doubt, Straight Outta Compton is no place for sentimentality: cards are stacked against young black men in Los Angeles, crime and poverty are a way of life, women stay in the shadows (they barely get more than a few lines) and the police — well, they hold everyone’s faces to the ground. Directed by F. Gary Gray ( The Italian Job, The Negotiator and Ice Cube’s 1995 comedy Fri--- day), the film documents the rise and demise of NWA, the west coast rap group that gave a muscular voice to an otherwise marginalised segment of Americans. For those who don’t know, the initials stand for Niggaz With Attitude — as opposed to “no whites allowed”, which was their manager’s first guess.
The story opens with the main players: EazyE (Jason Mitchell, a pocket of mischievous humour and volatility) standing tough during a drug deal gone awry; Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr, a spitting image of his father) writing rhymes while gangsters storm his bus; and Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins), missing job interviews because he’s focused on “this DJ stuff”. They form NWA, quickly attracting an opportunistic manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti).
All the while they face police prejudice, including a confrontation outside the recording studio — “these rappers look like gang members” — that leads to their best known anthem, F..k tha Police. Soon a song that teenagers will know by heart as far away as Australia, the song finds no fans among the authorities. So when NWA prepare to perform in Detroit, police tell them not to play it.
This is one of the film’s great scenes, five minutes of energy and defiance. It’s almost reminiscent of The Blues Brothers as NWA acknowledge the police presence, then play F..k tha Police, only to be arrested afterwards. As their popularity grows, conservative America questions their morality: “Our art is a reflection of our reality,” Ice Cube says. The rest of the film shows what comes next as the band splinters over money, Dr Dre and Ice Cube pursue solo careers and Eazy-E dies from AIDS.
Indeed, so much is passed over so fast that it feels like a highlights reel, with passing glimpses of Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube as a filmmaker, east coast rivalry and so on.
Much has been made of the absence of Dr Dre’s violence towards women, but the focus could have been even narrower. What’s missing, for instance, is the evolution of their music, the kind of storytelling done so well in biopics such as 8 Mile and Walk the Line.
Instead it’s a film about power, money-making and struggling for respect. The producers include Ice Cube and Dr Dre, and the final moments detail their remarkable success postNWA. Ice Cube became an action star while Dr Dre signed the likes of Eminem and sold a company to Apple for $3 billion.
No longer outsiders, they became serious players, part of the establishment, which neatly suits a film that feels like it has the stamp of approval from Hollywood.
A scene from the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton