History just happened. During its opening week, the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton raked in an estimated $60 million, making it the biggest August release in cinematic history. It is well deserved. It is an all round well shot, well acted, well produced movie. From the cast selection to music selection, this film told the story of 5 young men from Compton who only wanted to make music for their own, and ended up leaving their own notes in musical history. But the news of the development and subsequent release of Straight Outta Compton (SOC) didn’t come without its opposing viewpoints. Some liked it. Some didn’t. Some said N.W.A. killed “conscious rap”. Some say they were the voice of the generation. Let’s take a look at the movie discuss what it had, and what it lacked.
Often times, biopics about well known artists and/or groups will have an A-list star as the lead main character. SOC deviated from this plan by using primarily all lesser known actors, save for Paul Giamatti who played Jerry Heller. Given that this is a biopic about a hip hop group, something very rarely done, if at all, one may assume that the producers would stereotypically cast rappers. SOC choosing lesser known actors not only prevented the audience from being distracted by stardom, but also gave the audience a chance to focus not on who was acting, but the acting itself. Even Oshea Jackson, Jr who is a spitting image of his father, gave a convincing performance as Ice Cube. Voice and all. The stand out performance of the movie was that of Jason Mitchell who played Eric “Eazy-E” Wright. Mitchell masterfully portrayed a side of Eazy that many of us didn’t see. The Eazy that even though was the bonafide gangsta of the group, still had a vulnerable side to him that made him more human and relatable to the public.
SOC was successful in casting actors that could portray and convey the essence of the person they were playing, exemplified perfectly by small yet poignant performances of Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and Suge Knight.
With Oshea Jr. portraying his father, there was speculation as to whether or not the sons of Dr. Dre and Eazy-E would portray their fathers. Oshea Jr. actually had to audition for two years to get the role of his father. Ice Cube spoke with The Breakfast Club in regards to Lil’ Eazy-E portraying his father, saying that they needed a more experienced actor to successfully play the part of the founding member.
NWA vs. Law Enforcement
The most prominent theme in the film was that of police brutality. The scene where the crew gets harassed outside of the studio speaks volumes. Even their manager Jerry Heller, a white jewish man, could not protect them from the institutionalized racism that fuels the profiling of black men in this country. Interestingly enough, was the African American cop, the main aggressor in the situation, who quickly dismissed the group because they looked like “thugs” and were rappers. Whether he, being a member of the older generation, disliked what the youth of the time were doing, or whether he was power trippin’, one could not help but assume that there were some self hate issues going on. The denial of the fact that once he takes off that uniform and badge, he would in the same position as those he was harassing. The scene, as well as previous scenes of police harassing black men, bore an eerie resemblance to the current state of police/community relations. It isn’t just a resemblance, it’s an exact mirror image. The anguish and anger they felt watching the Rodney King beating on television and then watching the officers get off scotch free is the same anger and disappointment this generation feels when when they watch Eric Garner or Tamir Rice or *insert name* killed on video and their murderers go home with paid
vacation administrative leave. NWA’s way of responding was the well crafted F*** the Police, penned by Cube. The movie portrayed the song as a form of self defense. We can’t physically hit you back, so we’ll use our words. In response, the assistant director of the FBI office of public affairs Milt Ahlerich sent a letter to NWA claiming the song encouraged violence against police officers. This in turn sparked outrage from congress members and other activists who say the letter infringed on their 1st amendment rights. The movie successfully showed the direct correlation between the police/community affairs at the time, and the infamous song.
Non-Glorification of Their Situations
When news broke off the production of SOC, many voiced their disapproval in the production of the movie sighting NWA’s “glorification” of gangsta life and misogynistic lyrics. Many felt and still feel that NWA contributed to the “downfall” of conscious rap and perpetuated and promoted a message counterintuitive to the messages of hip hop acts such as Public Enemy and KRS-One. While this will be a debate for the ages, the film itself focused on the artists, rather than the art. Sure we heard some of the lyrics from Boyz N the Hood, Straight Outta Compton and F*** the Police, but instead of focusing explicitly on the songs themselves, the movie gave us insight to the circumstances that created the songs. I’m not justifying the lyrics in all the songs, but I am acknowledging the fact that some of their lyrics had a direct correlation to the situations surrounding them. Ice Cube may have grown up in a middle class household, but he still saw and experienced some of the hardships felt by his peers and put that in the lyrics for he and Eazy to spit.
Part 2 coming Friday!