First of the gangstas

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - Ash­leigh Wil­son

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

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