It's often been said that the best way to get the difference between East Coast and West Coast rap is to listen to the groups Public Enemy and NWA. The lyrics of East Coast group Public Enemy are political and a bit cerebral. NWA (Niggaz With Attitude), on the other hand, are raw and vulgar, rapping about the thug/gansta ethos of Compton, CA. Their groundbreaking 1988 album “Straight Outta Compton” is the definitive West Coast, gangsta-rap album. The single “Fuck tha Police” was an important part of the zeitgeist of what became the Rodney King era, either a defiant anthem against police brutality or a symbol of all that was wrong with black, inner-city culture, depending on where you stood politically.
F. Gary Gray's “Straight Outta Compton” tells the story of the group, starting with their early days in Compton, their meteoric rise, and their dissolution over money and contract issues, then continues to follow Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube into their solo careers. It's an expansive musical biopic that runs a bit long, but is definitely worth seeing for those who are into rap music.
The casting is visually accurate, with actors that look a lot like Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins), Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), and Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson, Jr, who is actually Ice Cube's son). These guys' acting gets the job done, but it's nothing inspiring. The best performance belongs to Jason Mitchell, as Eazy E, and the movie winds up being more his story than anyone's.
O'Shea Jackson, Jr. is fairly good as Ice Cube, particularly in the scenes where he pushes back against the media regarding the First Amendment battles surrounding NWA's music. His claim to be a type of reporter, honestly portraying poor, black culture, rings a bit hollow, though. These guys have every right to make their music, and they were right to fight censorship, but there is no denying that this music glorifies violence, drugs, and misogyny.
As raw as it is, I like this music, and “Straight Outta Compton” gives music fans what they want, with tons of songs from NWA and the solo projects, including some of the hilarious musical dueling that went on between these guys after they split up. I especially enjoyed one scene where Eazy E and the remaining NWA members listen to a track in which Ice Cube disses them and manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Jerry is incensed, but the other guys can't help laughing at Cube's lyrics.
One really striking thing about the film is the footage of the Rodney King beating, the riots over police brutality, and the many scenes of police harassing young, black men. I am struck by how little progress we have made 25 years later.
If you remember all the “Oscars So White” noise around this year's Academy Awards, this was one of the movies that protestors held up as an example of a black movie that should have gotten nominations. If you love the music, as I do, then “Straight Outta Compton” is well worth watching, but it isn't really Oscar-level. If you have an old album or CD of “Straight Outta Compton,” or better yet a cassette tape, in you r collection, however, then you should definitely put this on your watchlist.
3 stars out of 5