The triumphant story of N.W.A. is delivered with pungent whiffs of an unfortunate element in their rise to rap prominence.
Today’s sociopolitical climate finds millennials discovering relevance in the quotes, speeches, books and art of yesteryear – and Straight Outta Compton adds N.W.A to the list. Masterfully relaying the rags-to-riches story of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.), the latest display of director F. Gary Gray’s affinity for telling layered stories rings all too familiar with regards to the corruption of the powers that be. In short, the film named after the legendary rap group’s debut album highlights that N.W.A’s success was marked by America’s thickest, darkest scar: racism.
With outright stellar performances by a group of young thespians challenged with the onerous task of relaying hip-hop history, Straight Outta Compton succeeds at both pulling your heartstrings and sending you into bouts of genuine laughter. Opening with an action sequence Michael Bay would be proud of, the film sets the stage for a recurring theme of fleeing from oppression. Eazy-E’s roof-hopping escape from the police serves as the thematic foundation on which the group–and rap music itself–ascends. And in telling the dramatic story of their leading the exodus of “gangsta rap” into the mainstream, lighthearted banter paints a likeable band of brothers while providing much-needed comic relief.
The crafting of Dre’s genius, Cube’s architecture and E’s business acumen make the N.W.A. biopic a tale of triumph. Scenes of their confrontations with police officers however, highlight that their triumph was weighed down by a heavy burden. N.W.A’s anti-law enforcement anthem “F**k Tha Police” earned the group a set of handcuffs in the on-screen depiction of their notorious 1989 show at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. Ice Cube and company belted out the controversial single despite official orders (a story that has since been told a number of ways), landing them in the back of a paddy wagon. They collectively laugh as they are hauled off in the film’s version of the event. Complemented by a few other not-so-cordial encounters with the LAPD, the colorful account pushes forward as a cloud of inequality hovers throughout.
Artistic license aside, the movie also includes actual reels from Rodney King’s brutal 1991 beating, the acquittal of his abusers, and the L.A. Riots that followed. As the “Boyz-N-The Hood” enjoyed the fruits of chart-topping success, America reeked of misfortune for the very people they represented. “Black Lives Matter” wasn’t yet a slogan for marches, protests and viral hashtags, but it was the basis of the same outcry. The inclusion of these heart-shattering news clips in Straight Outta Compton immediately bring to mind the fates of Michael Brown Jr., Freddie Gray, Sam DuBose and countless others who continue to lie face-down under the boots of blue-uniformed, shiny-badged wielders of lawlessness. It also evokes the thought of whether the nation–or hip-hop–have moved far enough in the right direction. Dr. Dre and company succeeded at giving a voice to the voiceless, but what has been done with it nearly three decades later? While N.W.A birthed a legion of young artists who now tell their uncensored stories with a similar lack of apology, only few are ringing out as voices of the new revolution.