This is a heavy-duty docu-drama that is more than a picture of the beginnings of rap and its appeal; Straight Outta Compton illustrates very well for us some of the reasons for the extreme rage felt by people in the black community—all over the country. A number of times we are shown how the men would just be on the street or in a parking lot and policemen would stop and order them to get on the ground with their hands locked behind them and search them with no legal justification. It’s sobering to realize how long this has been going on largely unchecked until recently (which is thanks to videos)—and perhaps not even now. It remains to be seen how much actually changes in the near future.
The film does a great job in introducing those of us largely unfamiliar with the genre to some of artists who got the movement started. The names of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Tupac, and Snoop are well known, but I for one never listened to their music that much. As an aside, the film’s putting names to faces in the beginning helps a great deal. Most impressive are the emotional tone of their songs and the reflection of their immediate experience in life that is expressed so grippingly.
The rap songs created a great deal of concern, especially by law enforcement officials and particularly by the number “Fuck tha Police.” There was a riot at a concert in Detroit after the song was performed, when someone (we don’t know who) started firing shots in the air. The rappers always defended their lyrics on the basis of the right to free speech.
The account of the artists’ personal relationships is another feature that keeps the viewer locked in. Easy-E, Dr. Dre, and DJ Yella were members at the start of the group N.W.A. (Niggaz wit Attitudes), and Ice Cube and McRen were brought in early on. After their success with “Boyz-n-the-Hood” and “Easy Does It”, an agent, Jerry Heller (Giamatti), approaches Easy-E about representing N.W.A., and he does indeed bring them to fame, starting out with the major release, “Straight Outta Compton”. (Compton, California, is where the core group members lived.) Thousands attended their concerts, and as a testament of their music’s power, almost everyone attending knew the lyrics and could rap along with the performers.
But after a couple of years, first Ice Cube, then others, like Dre, had suspicions that Heller and Easy-E were not giving them their fair share. So Ice Cube set out on his own as a solo act, and sometime after Dre went with another group (Death Row Records and Suge Knight), although he too ended up wanting to be on his own. His statement is “You can’t put a price on peace of mind.” These discords were powerful and emotionally draining, but perhaps not surprising, given their artistic, creative personalities.
Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job), is very well done, and seems as relevant today as ever with the issue of race relations heated up. The actors bring every character alive, and the part of Ice Cube is played by his son in real life (O’shea Jackson, Jr.). Paul Giamatti is in his element with this type of role, and easily portrays the transition of the rappers’ regard for him.
Enlightening picture of how Hip Hop came of age.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland