Photos Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Straight Outa Compton hits theaters on August 14, during the ongoing state of emergency in Ferguson on the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown. The timing is uncanny. This week also marks the one-year anniversary of the LAPD’s shooting of mentally ill Ezell Ford and the beating death of Omar Abrego, plus the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 Watts riot. The movie, a biopic named after the album of the same name by N.W.A, or Niggaz Wit Attitudes, portrays the gangsta rappers who exploded out of L.A.’s “’hood” in the 1980s to denounce excessive use of force by the police.
The movie version of “Straight Outta Compton”, directed by F. Gary Gray (1995’s “Be Cool” with John Travolta and The Rock) and co-written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, illustrates how police routinely roust and abuse Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., who - in a remarkable bit of casting is actually Cube’s son and bears a remarkable resemblance to his father), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and other N.W.A members in their South Central Los Angeles neighborhood and beyond, before and after they attain national notoriety as a seminal gangsta rap group. They are slammed up against the hoods of vehicles, forced to lie down on the streets and otherwise roughed up by the “pigs” for doing absolutely nothing - other than being Black at the wrong time and in the wrong place (i.e., contemporary racist America).
The film clearly shows how these embittering experiences led to the creation of what is arguably N.W.A’s signature song, “Fuck tha Police”, which appeared on their 1988 debut album also called “Straight Outta Compton.” The song’s lyrics cleverly invoke a courtroom setting where N.W.A places the police on trial. The tune’s title is also its refrain, which is defiantly, exultantly repeated, as well as lyrics expressing their angst at being constantly subjected to police harassment:
“Fuckin with me ’cause I’m a teenagerWith a little bit of gold and a pagerSearchin my car, lookin for the productThinkin every nigga is sellin narcotics.”
The insolent, raucous lyrics and denouncing of what N.W.A viewed as police state tactics by an occupying army in the ghettos led to a crackdown on the group as they reached fame. The FBI sent a warning letter to N.W.A about “Fuck tha Police”, which the musicians adroitly used to generate free publicity (the G-Men’s original letter is currently exhibited at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Before a sold-out concert in Detroit, police warned N.W.A against performing the song, contending, among other things, that public obscenity is against the law.
But all hell broke loose when the undaunted musicians took the stage and, showing their rabble-rousing, rebellious attitude, performed a rousing rendition of “Fuck tha Police.” In the aftermath of their bust, N.W.A emerged as champions of the First Amendment, demanding that rap music be protected under the Constitution as free speech. Ice Cube in particular insisted on rappers’ rights to bear big mouths.
Although Cube and Dr. Dre share producing credits, “Straight Outta Compton” portrays how the group’s songs about sex, women, drugs, guns, crime, et al, and their extolling of the gangsta life generated controversy. As in other biopics about musicians, N.W.A’s rise to fame and fortune has its ups and downs. Their orgiastic poolside parties are depicted, along with partial nudity. But Eazy-E moves from these blithe, freewheeling scenes to a bout with AIDS contracted through unprotected sex.
There is also the inevitable infighting between singers and clashes with purportedly exploitative management, including Suge Knight (portrayed by a chilling R. Marcos Taylor) and Jerry Heller (depicted by perhaps the cast’s best known actor, Paul Giamatti, who plays a similar role in another 2015 musical biopic about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, Love & Music).
Heller is shown “discovering” N.W.A, founding Ruthless Records with Eazy-E and propelling the hip hop artists upward in their careers. But in the early 1990s, after Ice Cube left N.W.A over business differences, Cube was denigrated as a traitorous “Benedict Arnold” in one of N.W.A’s songs. Cube retaliated, attacking remaining members of the group with biting lyrics that some contended contained anti-Semitic references to Heller (Cube is shown denying being anti-Jewish). Ice Cube’s association with the Nation of Islam is covered, briefly.
Ice Cube may well be “Straight Outta Compton’s” main protagonist and strongest character, as he evolves from an angry young man lashing out at authority to master lyricist, screenwriter and actor. Cube is shown writing the screenplay for 1995’s “Friday”, the first of a string of lighthearted, Black-themed comedies he co-wrote and/or starred in, including 2002’s “Barbershop”, 2005’s “Are We There Yet?” and their sequels, including the third installment in the “Barbershop” franchise currently in production.
“Straight out of Tehran” comedian Maz Jobrani co-starred with Ice Cube in 2002’s “Friday After Next”, playing Moly, owner of a donut shop and strip mall where Cube and Mike Epps’s characters worked as security guards. Moly’s famous catchphrase was “Hey buddy!” The Iranian actor/comic told The Progressive: “It was great working with Ice Cube. I learned a lot seeing how focused he was on the business side of filmmaking. He is smart in surrounding himself with comedians and letting them have fun. Moly was one of my favorite parts to this day.” Jobrani, who was featured in the April issue of The Progressive, has a new television special, “I’m Not a Terrorist But I’ve Played One on TV”, which premieres August 21 on Showtime.
“Straight Outta Compton” is at its best when a pre-funnyman Ice Cube and his fellow rappers fight the power (as Public Enemy put it). The infamous video clip of unarmed Black motorist Rodney King’s savage beating is repeatedly shown and the ensuing 1992 riot after the courts basically exonerated the LAPD officers who viciously brutalized King is dramatized, mixed in with actual news footage. Members of N.W.A are shown cruising the streets observing rioters during one of America’s largest twentieth-century urban uprisings.
These scenes provide stark, corroborating evidence for N.W.A’s claim that their music was “reality rap,” documenting and chronicling the stark social realities of inner city African Americans in a musical medium. Unfortunately, those grim realities have not improved since N.W.A hurled its verbal Molotov cocktails at the police. In that sense, this feature film should be required viewing not only for hip hop fans, but for every American law enforcement officer and agent.
“Straight Outta Compton” begins its theatrical release on Aug. 14.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is The Progressive Magazine’s “Man In Hollywood.” His Progressive interview with America’s former Poet Laureate is in the new book “Conversations With W.S. Merwin.” Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).