Straight Outta Compton is the story of Los Angeles rap group N.W.A’s rise and fall, particularly focusing on Eazy-E (real name Eric Wright, played by Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (real name Andre Young, played by Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (real name O’Shea Jackson, played by his son O’Shea Jackson, Jr). It starts with the stars-to-be as young men in Compton, CA, where gang-violence and drugs are banal everyday features of life. They are trying to develop their ‘reality rap’ against pressure to stop: from family wanting Dr. Dre to earn some proper money, to the owner of the nightclub where they play wanting a different style of music – less gritty and realist, more sexy – determined this is what the punters want. After Eazy-E finds success with the song Boyz-n-the-Hood, a music manager named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) arranges to team up with N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes), and helps them rise to fame and infamy. Much of the film shows them on tour across the States, playing like rock stars in heaving, bouncing arenas. However, disagreements between Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Heller over the division of the profits lead to acrimonious public splits. The rappers have little understanding of the contracts, and are unable to agree on whether Heller is exploiting them. There is jealousy at Eazy-E’s status as leader, and his close links to the manager. The film ends after Eazy-E’s death from AIDS, at which point there had been a reconciliation between the music trio.
The band’s story is put into a clear social context of police brutality and racism in Los Angeles. Police harassment of the black youth is ever-present in the first section of the film: officers stop them for no reason, assume they are guilty with no evidence, and use violence and intimidation. As N.W.A become more successful, they grow out of this world to some extent, but remain engaged with it: the montage of black youth Rodney King being beaten by police, and the subsequence acquittal of the policemen responsible, touches members of the group. The incident led to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots in which over 50 people died and over 2,000 were injured. N.W.A’s song Fuck Tha Police was the soundtrack.
This song provides the most powerful moments of the film. It is written (at least in the film) after the gang are stopped by police for loitering outside their studio. The police officers, one of whom is black, assume they are gang members because of their clothing. It is only when Heller, who is white, comes out and orders the police to leave them alone that they are able to go. The resultant song is a hit, exuding raw energy and power, yet its glorifying of violence against police leads to fierce criticism. After threats from the FBI and the Detroit police, the group go ahead with the song at a Detroit concert, leading to their arrest. Yet the group are the real winners: they are aware that being branded as dangerous only increases their publicity and appeal.
The film succeeds in a large part because the story on which it is based is so well-suited to drama, following the classic media trope of rise, fall and redemption. Questions about the accuracy and objectivity of the film are inevitable given it was co-produced by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre themselves, however getting the protagonists involved undoubtedly helped in other ways, particularly with access to the music. The bad language and ever-present violence restrict the film’s appeal to all, but the wider social and musical themes mean you don’t have to be a hip-hop lover to enjoy it.
Whether these rappers are progressive role models is questionable. ‘Reality rap’, as N.W.A. called it, projected a view of America’s downtrodden neighborhoods which was radically different and welcome, in giving a voice to those who lacked it. Yet its flaws must equally be pointed out. Its glaring sexism is in abundance in the film, even without it mentioning Dr Dre’s violence against women like TV presenter Dee Barnes (who gave her opinion on the omission). Practically all the women in the film are either semi-naked hangers-on to provide the band with entertainment at parties, or long-suffering family members and partners who must massage the protagonists’ egos. Song lyrics are awash with sexism (as well as homophobia and racism). Yet within the film, sexism is neither discussed nor tackled.
Another problematic aspect, which the film does portray, is the atmosphere of violence. A gun is a mandatory fashion accessory for rappers and their entourage. Suge Knight, manager of Death Row Records which ends up managing Dr. Dre, is portrayed as a thug who beats up people for kicks and power.
The end credits illustrate the meteoric rise rap has enjoyed since N.W.A: it shows Dr. Dre’s protégés Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Eminem (who George H. W. Bush famously called “the most dangerous threat to American children since polio”) and the sale of Dre’s Beats company to Apple. N.W.A. joked about occupying the ‘Black House’. In 2015, the real President is friends with Jay-Z and Kanye West announces he would like to take over the job in 2020. Yet tensions between African Americans and the police are high. Comparing today’s era to the time when N.W.A were on the rise makes this film all the more interesting.