Much of the gangsta rap music of N.W.A is a raw explosion of pure id: five men from L.A. manifesting their crude vigilante fantasies—stoked no doubt by institutional racism and socioeconomic stigma—into pulsing beats and street-smart poetry. This puts the rap super-group firmly in a tradition begun two generations prior by Richard Wright, whose novel Native Son sees an uneducated young Black man, Bigger Thomas, accidentally kill a white woman, Mary Dalton, in a moment of race-induced panic. He could try to defend himself, as if that would’ve helped him in the time and place (late-‘30s Chicago), but he doesn’t. Instead, he covers up his deed, frames Mary’s disappearance on another, flees when the ruse is up, and—in the novel’s most controversial moment—slaughters his Black girlfriend, Bessie, when she becomes a burden. In taking responsibility for Mary’s death, he proceeds to flesh out the paranoid white-racist fear of the Black man retaliating against his oppression in ways increasingly cunning and malevolent—and indeed, in these circumstances, that is what Bigger feels he must do to survive. Thus, through Bigger, Wright gave American literature its most defining expression of id. To act violently is an extreme measure, but to think violently—nay, to envision oneself committing violence—is, I imagine, a natural human tendency, to which we may not often admit. The power of works of art like Native Son and N.W.A’s music lies not just in how they bluntly identify our darkest temptations. More so, it lies in how they epitomize art as an act by which we may channel our id in a productive, nonviolent way.
“How is such music productive?” one might ask. “Wouldn’t it give Blacks a bad image by confirming those white-racist fears you mention—by giving those racists, hand over fist, the means by which they justify their bigotry?” It would not be appropriate to say so. Recall Roger Ebert’s famous statement regarding Justin Lin’s film Better Luck Tomorrow: “Nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers: ‘How could you do this to “your people”?’” No artist should be obligated to please or satisfy everyone, especially not at the expense of accuracy. Ensuring racial equality and respect for people of color means allowing them to depict themselves however they want, in ways beyond such narrow parameters as race, sex, class, etc. It means not pooh-poohing them into pandering to the moderate sensibility of perceiving everything in a positive, cheerily optimistic light, and it means not cramming characters of color into stock archetypes that are built to prove that people of color are people after all, and may even be good people at that—as if anyone ever needed such proof. (Whoever does is truly pathetic.) Bigots, in the meantime, will seek any excuse to vindicate their wrongheaded beliefs—and anything, much less any work of art, no matter how well intentioned, can be manipulated and distorted to achieve those horrific ends. Look at how much catastrophe has been blamed on the Bible. Dare I add, it would be even more unconscionable to call N.W.A’s music evidence of “racist self-hatred.” Those men were not ashamed to be Black, nor ashamed to be gangsta rappers if not gangstas, much less did they let the culture they grew up in sucker them into being so ashamed. I’m convinced they were proud of who they were.
These thoughts and more went through my mind as I was watching Straight Outta Compton, which covers the decade (1986-95) in which N.W.A formed, rose, splintered into solo projects, bickered, made up, and faced challenge and tragedy. I’m not into rap—my preferred music genres are classical, prog and alt rock, and electronica—but Compton got me interested in it, and I feel it serves as a strong primer for novices coming in with no knowledge of the subject. The film opens with tight introductions to the group’s three critical members, in their hardscrabble days before fame. Eric “Eazy-E” Wright is seen trying to pull off a drug deal. When his ego gets in the way, an LAPD ambush gives him time to escape—the smiley-face on the police tank’s battering ram is the first of the film’s many startling quotidian touches. Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, a disc jockey, gets the most hackneyed overture. Dousing himself in beats in his bedroom, he gets a wake-up call when his mother scolds him for missing a job interview and lectures him on how he needs to swallow his pride and forgo music if he wants to make a living. That got me worried. That worry was dispelled, thankfully, in the scene after when O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, writing rhymes in a marble journal, witnesses a Crenshaw Mafiosi hold up a school bus to give his naïve peers a taste of the gangsta life they so idolize, yet know next to nothing about. This scene, I take it, will come as a shock to those unfamiliar with the time and place. It is essentially a hostage situation, and it makes clear that what these young men proceed to rap about, they have direct experience with.
No need to rehash the history; the film outlines it very well. The three coalesce with Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson, pop out their first single “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” and get the attention of manager Jerry Heller. It’s a new breed of music, and it’s not for everyone, but Heller sees it stir crowds and recognizes its innovation, and that to him means money. The film does not sugarcoat the controversy of the lyrics; the charges of misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, violence against police, etc., are not invalid. (What the film leaves out about the more immediate ways in which the men objectified women in real life, we can assume.) It may thus strike more P.C. viewers as ironic that such content did not diminish N.W.A’s popularity among concertgoers, in particular among women. But it is not ironic at all because N.W.A’s fans understood what they were about: brutal honesty, releasing stress, fully taking advantage of the First Amendment. They didn’t have to present themselves as likable or agreeable because sometimes, they just weren’t. They wanted to fight urban injustice and give a voice to the oppressed, and often, that involved embracing their egos and removing their filters. Their music was never really meant for the privileged, nor for the sensitive, and that makes it stronger; there were no audience expectations to indulge. Why does the FBI send them a gag order? Why do Detroit police try to ban them from performing “Fuck tha Police”—which one cop terms “F. the Police”—in concert? These bodies accuse the group of trying to incite riots, but they know as well as their fans do that they’re not doing that at all; they rap, in part, as an alternative to riot, as an escape from the violence of Compton. What the FBI and the police are concerned about, I believe, is that these men are challenging their power, which they reassert through censorship. N.W.A knows this, and exploits it ingeniously.
There’s plenty of history to cover in these two and a half hours—the murder of Dre’s brother, Heller’s financial antics, Cube’s early departure and the ensuing dissing match, the Rodney King fiasco, Dre’s move to Suge Knight’s Death Row Records, Knight’s thuggish antics, Dre’s mentoring of Snoop Dogg and Tupac, Eazy-E’s ugly fate, etc. The film has rightly been accused of rushing and cramming, and of playing with facts and sidelining women. (Dre and Cube were producers—a curious conflict of interest, to some.) The way I see it, its breadth and ambition give it the feel of an epic rap anthology, complete with inserts, homages, name-dropping, masculinity to a fault, political bravado, egotistical one-upmanship, and a paradoxical notion of fragmented vignettes linked together to create a fluid, logical arc. This is not just appropriate. Even if unintended, it is a novel approach to the cinematic form—a depiction of rap history using the structures of rap, fraught with commentary on the effect of media on history and our daily lives. Not to mention, the performances are terrific. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. pulls no punches playing his father, and his casting is far from nepotism. Witness the scene in which he trashes the Priority Records office with a baseball bat over an advance dispute, and the later moments when he is softened by fame, fatherhood and a film career. (An early mentor of his was F. Gary Gray, a clever choice to direct this film.) Corey Hawkins, as Dre, captures a similarly wide transition from naïveté to moral confrontation, culminating in a climactic choice to abandon Death Row for good. Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown, Jr. make strong impressions as Ren and Yella despite limited screen time; Paul Giamatti perfectly negotiates Heller’s esteem for N.W.A’s music with his insidious money grubbing; stuntman R. Marcos Taylor, as Knight, switches from tenderness to brute menace on a dime. Best in show is Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, the baitiest role, played with boyish simplicity and not a shred of sentiment.
Compton made me wonder: have we really come that far? Even with Obama, has much changed at all? The scenes of racial profiling—of cops making impulsive decisions based on dumb, lazy associations between race and predilection for crime—feel fresh, and they’re not without a contemporary, if avant la lettre, veneer of classism. (Exhibit A: the Black cop who disagrees with Heller on whether rap is art.) Speaking as a white man who can admit he has made some stupid comments about race in his lifetime and who has thus written this review with care—if we want to make America as free and equal as it aims to be, we all have to contribute to stop these systemic issues. Slogans and soundbytes have always struck me as unreliably incomplete. In that sense, I do not feel it is enough to say that Black Lives Matter. What we must say is: Black Identities Matter. People of color have the right not just to live and live in peace, but to thrive, to enjoy life, to fulfill their goals, to speak loud, to be listened to, heard and understood. In art and narrative, we have a duty to give them representation and depict them faithfully. American cinema today is neglecting that duty. Straight Outta Compton is a move in the right direction in that regard, and it is much more than that: flaws and all, it is a bracing, innovative portrait of a quantum shift in music history, juggling searing character studies and provocative moral dilemmas. The scenes and songs hit hard, and weeks after watching this film, they are still looping in my head.
In memory of Sandra Bland, Raynette Turner, Alison Parker, Adam Ward, and all others.