Gritty and raw, this is no film for the feint hearted. During the late ’80s, the streets of Compton, California were some of the most dangerous in the country. The plague of crack cocaine was escalating at a rate as alarming as the violent, gang-driven business that propelled its use. The LAPD and its specialised gang unit were leading the merciless drug crackdown. Residents of the Southern Californian community were not merely tense, but shell-shocked, distrustful of authority and sorely embittered.
Eazy-E, a charismatic dope-selling hustler with the smarts to see a future in LA’s burgeoning rap scene, had a plan. Deciding to leave the street life behind, he reached out to his friend Dr Dre, a local deejay who worked regularly at Compton clubs with counterpart DJ Yella. They, too, were tired of dead ends and hungry for change and Eazy-E had the resources and connections to make a change happen. Joining them in the venture were two young emcees from the block: MC Ren and Ice Cube, a talented 16-year-old whose explosive rhymes caught Dr Dre’s attention. It was time to use their frustration as fuel for their art and give their people the one thing they desperately needed: a voice.
Taking us back to where it all began, Straight Outta Compton tells the story of these cultural rebels. The quintet used brutally honest rhymes and hardcore beats, transforming their frustration and anger about life in their inner-city Los Angeles neighborhood into the most powerful weapon they had: their music. Armed only with their lyrics, swagger and raw talent, they stood up to the authorities and formed the world’s most dangerous group, N.W.A. (an abbreviation of Niggaz Wit Attitudes). They spoke in a way that no one had before and exposed life in the ‘hood. Their voices ignited a social revolution that is still reverberating today, but don’t for a moment think it wasn’t one rocky road that they trod.
The five artists portrayed are played by O’Shea Jackson Jr (Ice Cube’s son as Ice Cube), Corey Hawkins (Dr Dre), Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E), Neil Brown Jr (DJ Yella) and Aldis Hodge (MC Ren). Paul Giamatti, who not long ago featured as the exploitative therapist of Beach Boys’ leader Brian Wilson in the excellent movie Love & Mercy, is at it again here. This time, he plays Jerry Heller, a manager who recognises N.W.A.’s talent early on and rushes to sign them up and then do with them what he will.
Straight Outta Compton is a lifelong passion project directed by F. Gary Gray (Friday, Set It Off, The Italian Job, Law Abiding Citizen). The screenplay originated from several years of interviews and research compiled by music documentarian S. Leigh Savidge (Welcome to Death Row) and screenwriter Alan Wenkus. That early draft would lay the foundation for what would become Andrea Berloff’s working version. She, along with screenwriter Jonathan Herman, fine-tuned the material into the shooting script.
While overly long, the film feels “real”. It exposes the bigotry and passion during a volatile time in American history. Likewise, it shines a light on the naiveté of the young musos and the exploitation they endured, as well as the partying and the drugs and the women and the sex. Of course, the music is a prominent feature in the screenplay and there will be plenty who don’t exactly warm to hip hop or gangsta rap, which is a sub genre of hip hop, and better describes what you hear. Nevertheless, the story is an important one in signaling a community fight back and drawing a line in the sand in terms of what is acceptable and what is not.
It was 2009 when Ice Cube came across a script that proved too tempting to overlook and he jump-started the idea of a viable feature-film biography based on N.W.A.’s experiences. I, for one, am pleased he did. Appropriately, the film is dedicated to the group’s founder Eric “Eazy-E” Wright.
Rated MA, Straight Outta Compton scores a 7 out of 10.
Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti
Release Date: 3 September, 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television