Since Straight Out Compton came out, I’ve seen quite a few comments online that show people remember the first time they heard the 1988 NWA album. Personally, I didn’t realize what a seminal work it was, but I also remember my first encounter with the music vividly. In my case, my friend’s older brother had a copy of a cassette tape, and we listened to the lyrics with fascination. Part of our interest was extremely juvenile—we were still in elementary school—and we would laugh thinking, “That guy just dropped 37 F bombs in a three minute song.” NWA’s message of inner-city youth anger intrigued us. I knew my parents would be absolutely horrified by this music, so I immediately made sure my friend dubbed a copy for me as well.
The NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton is a stereotypical show business story in the vein of Dream Girls or even A Star is Born. You have the exciting first act in which you see the rapid ascent to stardom, then you have a more complicated second act in which the protagonists discover the price of fame. What makes Straight Outta Compton stand out is that it places the rise of NWA in the milieu of the early ’90s race conflicts following the Rodney King verdict, and by extension, the racial tensions we face today.
NWA created stars out of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E. Cube and Dre would go on to make pop culture history with their subsequent efforts in music, movies and business. Eazy-E suffered a harder road ahead. Jason Mitchell’s portrayal of scrappy rapper Eric (Eazy-E) Wright was my favorite performance, and his interaction with their shifty manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti in a bad rug) is sure to draw accolades. The movie is successful in that in paints an exciting myth.
One thing that disappointed me was that there was little insight into how NWA created their music. In the movie, Dr. Dre would be in the studio and they would play a famous hook and suddenly you realize “Wow! They’re creating ‘Nuthin’ But a G Thang'” or “Geez, now they’re making ‘California Love.'” Though the movie is successful as entertainment, I still have little understanding of what inspired them and how they came up with their lyrics since the movie takes a lot of artistic license with the actual historical events.
Furthermore, woe be the feminist that sees this movie. The virgin/whore dichotomy is very much apparent as you have a few angelic women and a bunch of sex-crazed hoochies. For example, Dr. Dre’s mother is the voice of reason who bitch slaps her son for not becoming a janitor or whatever and is otherwise portrayed as a saint. Then you have a multitude of other women who appear for no other reason than to jiggle their parts and seduce the guys. Some portions of the myth of NWA are best left in the ’90s.
Despite its shortcomings, for me this movie was enjoyable on a number of levels. Young people will hear some of this music for the first time and might find inspiration in the spirit of resistance NWA embodied. Also, now I’d now like to read a book to find out what actually happened.
Moral of the movie: Suge Knight is not the one.
Can I take the kids?: Unless you want your small children to start quoting “F*** the Police,” then I recommend against it.