Go back to the dawn of gangsta rap with this entertaining biopic
It might surprise you that, as fresh and energetic as it is, Straight Outta Compton follows two different long-going cinematic traditions. The first is the musical biography, which is essentially as old as movies themselves – well, as old as the first ones to talk, that is. Let me remind you that 1927’s The Jazz Singer, arguably the first so-called “talkie”, while not a biography, was also very much a “singie.” The first talkies were full of music and singing, and at some point the musical biography appeared and never looked back. Just about everyone would try their hand at it, even Hitchcock, in the now-forgotten Strauss’ Great Waltz, a mostly fictional story revolving around the classical composer Strauss. It was then a popular genre throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s and even ‘60s, almost exploitation-like, starting with 1948’s The Jolson Story and The Mozart Story, and following with “the this-story,” “the that-story”—you get the idea.
The second tradition is a more recent one. I’m talking about the African-American drama, to which belongs the iconic Boyz n the Hood, a major influence on Straight Outta Compton—or “The N.W.A. Story,” as it would have been called in the ‘50s. As in the ‘90s John Singleton film, we’ve got “boyz”—5 of them—and we’ve got a “hood”—Compton, California. This is a film about them coming “straight out of it”—but also about it being more than a physical place, a state of mind that they are cursed to carry with them even as multi-millionaires. Meet the “boyz”: Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren. If you don’t like gangsta rap, all you just saw was a series of seemingly unconnected words and letters, but if you do, you know this is the stuff of legend.
They weren’t born into stardom, not even close. As the movie opens, the number of guns drawn grows by the minute, and the police have to use what looks like an assault tank to storm a drug lord’s house. We meet each of the protagonists and witness through their eyes the realities of their neighborhood and the environment from which they would emerge. In a place like that, a good day means you live to see the next one. The area is ruled by gangs—it still is, to this day—and police are only there to intimidate and oppress. Young men need an outlet for their raging discomfort, and these protagonists find an excellent one—music. They’re all gifted musicians and singers—or, some will say, shouters—and soon enough, they find a manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) and are on their way to nationwide fame. The movie documents the bumps on the road as they get there.
Purists will know it’s not entirely accurate, although it comes rather close in most aspects. Film critic Roger Ebert once wrote, “Those who seek the truth about a man from the film of his life might as well seek it from his loving grandmother.” Straight Outta Compton was produced by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, two of the protagonists, so clearly the view you get is ever so slightly biased. Some important people remain in the shadows. Much of the crime and evildoing is conveniently ignored. But the movie seems to have captured something about the lives of the regular people who lived through these times that most others have not.
Straight Outta Compton works on several levels. Most importantly, purely as a piece of history. These guys, whether you like them or not, helped push forward a multi-billion-dollar industry, and created music that has shaped the culture of an entire generation. The movie illustrates a time and a place, and, as all good historical films do, draws parallels with our own time. It was filmed while the Ferguson protests were happening, and while watching this movie you may shiver when you notice how little things have changed when it comes to police brutality towards the black community in the U.S.A. A high point in the movie comes as the N.W.A. are forbidden to perform their infamous “Fuck the Police” at a packed concert. After a stare-down with a police officer, they decide to go ahead anyways, and in that moment, they are no longer just self-proclaimed gangstas, troublemakers without a cause—they are national heroes resisting in the face of oppression, people who have legitimate grievances but are being forbidden to express them in a system that is biased against them.