Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 27 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 5; Language 8; Sex 5/Nudity 6.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
I have seen the wicked oppressing, and towering like a cedar of Lebanon.
Thus says the Lord: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say: Hear the word of the Lord, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David—you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.
This gripping film, with F. Gary Gray directing Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman’s invective-filled script, is a black version of those “from obscurity to fame” stage show films of the Thirties, or going back further, the rags to riches stories of Horatio Alger. But (this little word being very important here) with the difference that the street-wise heroes in this fact-based film face entrenched racism that is far more formidable than any obstacle faced by the white protagonists of earlier climbing-to-the-top stories.
This makes the film not only important for understanding our society’s past, but also for today, with thousands marching with signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” in protest of the all too frequent police killings of unarmed blacks.
Thus the story of the rise of the rap group N.W.A. is full of racial incidents and of protests that resonate today still when many publications will not fully print out the group’s full title. The film explains it when the would-be white promoter Jerry Heller asks, “What’s N.W.A. stand for, anyway? ‘No Whites Allowed’, something like that?” Eric Wright, (Jason Mitchell) replies, “Niggaz With Attitude.” The script leaves out several of the members of the controversial group, probably so as not to confuse the audience with so many personal details and also to keep the film under three hours in length. (In a way, it is too bad that this is not a miniseries.)
One by one we are introduced to the main characters. Eric Wright is a low level drug dealer, as we see in the opening scene in which, movie thriller-like, he escapes arrest during a siren-shrieking, red light-flashing drug bust by police using a battering ram-equipped armored car. O’Shea Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a high school student writing lyrics on the school bus when it is stopped by a car load of toughs who threaten with a gun the student who had flashed the wrong gang sign through a window; and Andre Young (Corey Hawkins), Jackson’s friend, is a dj at a local club. The latter is at odds with the owner who warns him to stick with slow dance music rather than the provocative rap written by Jackson. When the three, along with MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.), get together to record a rap by Jackson, the other hired performers object to the song and walk out. Jackson persuades Young to join them in front of the mike, and when the latter does not measure up, Jackson coaches him. Soon they assume the stage names of Eazy-E (Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), naming their group N.W.A. and releasing an album on their own lable, Ruthless Records. They live up to their name—what an attitude indeed, their raps protesting against a white society whose police force brutalizes blacks with impunity. They are not just observers of unfair treatment, but experience it first hand.
After the savvy white record promoter Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, who also played the deceitful musical group manager in Love and Mercy—is he now the go-to-guy for this kind of role?) sees their record, andhe takes the group to a studio to make a recording of “Straight Outta Compton.” The youth step out onto the sidewalk for a break. Across the street a white cop spies them and, assuming they are up to no good, calls for backup. The cops rush over and demand that they lie face down on the sidewalk with their hands crossed behind them. When Jerry emerges it takes all of his persuasive powers to convince the suspicious cops, who are uttering vicious slurs and humiliating commands, to ease up and let the youth go back into the building.
It is Jerry who is able to open the door of Priority Records (controlled by whites), the wider distribution transforming N.W.A. from a local phenomenon into a group that quickly gains a national following. The film is named after their first national release under his supervision. Although their raps, with titles like “Gangsta Gangsta” and “F— tha Police,” appeal to ghetto youth, catapulting the group to fame and (eventual) wealth, they also arouse intense opposition from parents, the white media, and the police. Many of the first are whites alarmed that their teenaged children might be polluted by gangsta rap, and the police are offended by the way they are portrayed by the group. Even the Fed’s are worried that the group’s incendiary lyrics might start riots. Here I might interject that one good result from the raps is that it made a great many white youth, shielded in the suburbs from the harsh ghetto conditions by their white-flight parents, conscious of the brutal realities faced by their rap heroes. (Check out the lyrics of the 2nd of the above songs at http://www.metrolyrics.com/f-tha-police-lyrics-nwa.html.)
The sordid world and practices created by racism also envelop the record industry. One of its violent denizens is Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), a former bodyguard who muscles his way into the music industry. This burly ex-football player is a real gangsta willing to threaten any one who will not do his bidding. Eazy, after suffering a beating, agrees to sign with Knight’s company. Less dangerous, but just as thieving is Jerry Heller, whom Ice Cube almost from the very start of their relationship distrusts. When the rapper learns that the proceeds are not being shared on an equal basis, Eazy being paid the most, and that the other members had already signed without telling him, Ice Cube walks away from the signing, even though it means refusing Heller’s $75 K check. Launching a successful career on his own, which includes several successful movies, the now very famous rapper engages in a series of back and forth verbal attacks with his former N.W.A. friends.
Whereas the film shows well the obstacles the protagonists face, namely the police brutality—several times the 1991 police beating of Rodney King is shown, as well as the news that all four police officers escaped jail time despite the video evidence—we see or hear little of the group’s misogyny, so repugnant to women and feminists of all genders. (There are lots of wild parties at which there is an over supply of bikini clad women, often abandoning their tops, engaging in sex and drug use.) This glossing over probably should not be surprising in that the film’s producers are Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E’s widow. The three rappers, being young and educated largely in the streets, reflected the attitudes and views of their male chauvinist mentors.
Apparently in response to recent criticism, Dr. Dre issued an apology to women in a recent issue of The New York Times, “Twenty-five years ago I was a young man drinking too much and in over my head with no real structure in my life. However, none of this is an excuse for what I did. I’ve been married for 19 years and every day I’m working to be a better man for my family, seeking guidance along the way. I’m doing everything I can so I never resemble that man again.”
There is much humor as well as gut-wrenching drama in the film, such as the following exchange when Eazy-E and Ice Cub become reconciled. The latter says, about John Singlerton’s hit film in which Ice Cube made his debut as an actor, “I liked Boyz ‘n the Hood.” His friend reminds him, “ You called it an Afterschool Special,” and Eazy-E replies, “I like Afterschool Specials.” By now (1995) the two have agreed to revive N.W.A., but Eazy-E’s illness and death from HIV spoils their plans. The saddest of several dramatic developments, this well reflects the times, with the puzzled Eazy-E’s refusing at first to believe the doctors’ diagnosis because he was not gay.
A powerful scene depicting the group’s Detroit concert shows the impact the band has had on our society. The head security cop warns them not to perform “F— tha Police,” or there will be hell to pay. Telling the crowd what is going on, they go ahead with the song anyway. The huge audience raucously joins in. Sure enough, the cops come on stage to make arrests. By now the band members have raised their fists high, middle finger protruding skyward. Everyone in the audience raises theirs also, signaling their total agreement. This is not a ghetto audience—there are as many whites as blacks present, but there was no hesitation by any of the whites to join the gesture of protest. The cops might have won the battle by clearing the stage, but the band has won the war.
During a press conference some of the band members say such things as they were street reporters telling the truth about how things were. Virtually everyone now agrees with them, even if their reporting was laced with expletives. For people of faith, N.W.A. members can be viewed like the prophet Jeremiah, using his poetry to tell his people the hard truth they did not want to hear. (I am reminded of the line from Simon & Garfunkel’s much more gentle song protesting the deadness of our society, “The words of the prophets are written on subway walls/And tenement halls.” However, there was no “silence” at a N.A.A. concert!) Their street language might be too raw and offensive for some, but this in no way cancels out the truth of their rap reporting. The strong language ought not to keep a church group from exploring this film together—indeed, the film offers a great opportunity for a group from a so-called white church to meet with a group from a black church. Providing, of course, that the blacks have not given up on dialogue. What an eye-opening time that could be!
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of VP.