***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***
The true story of N.W.A, one of the most controversial and influential groups ever, and their rise and fall in the golden age of hip-hop.
The year is 1986, in Compton, California — one of the roughest cities in the United States.
Eric “Eazy-E” Wright is a crack dealer who decides to team up with his good friend, aspiring DJ Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, to create some new rap music. The laid-back, charismatic Eazy-E prefers to rap just for the fun of it, but Dr. Dre embraces all things hip-hop and has a passionate work ethic to boot. He convinces Eazy-E to start up an independent label called Ruthless Records, and they cut a demo, offering a raw, uncensored view of life in the hood and the challenges thereof.
Together they join with talented lyricist O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson and also enlist the services of Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson, forming the group Niggaz Wit Attitudes, or N.W.A.
N.W.A’s demo becomes a hit among the fertile hip-hop grounds of Los Angeles, and the group regularly starts selling out small shows in town and drawing passionate fans. Veteran record producer Jerry Heller catches wind of this and offers N.W.A a deal with Priority Records. He takes a particular interest in Eazy-E, becoming a mentor to him along the way.
N.W.A’s debut album, called Straight Outta Compton, becomes a massive hit in 1988, with its profane, violent lyrics and unfiltered look at life on the streets. Police brutality is rife on the streets of L.A., and N.W.A takes aim at the boys in blue on more than one occasion, most notably with the hugely controversial single “F-ck Tha Police.”
The quintet becomes both undeniably important and notorious within the hip-hop scene — N.W.A’s 1989 tour is an unprecedented success, although it’s also marred by riots, protests, and even cease-and-desist threats from the FBI. The tour reaches a boiling point both professionally and personally after a riot following a performance of “F-ck Tha Police” in Detroit, as well as the unexpected tragic murder of Dr. Dre’s younger brother, Tyree, back in Compton.
However, the controversy doesn’t faze N.W.A, with Ice Cube proclaiming at a press conference that “our art is a reflection of our reality….freedom of speech includes rap music.”
Meanwhile, Cube grows jealous of the Heller/Eazy-E relationship, and he tries to get Dre on his side, eventually leading to a rift among the three primary N.W.A members. When Heller tries to convince Cube to sign his individual artist contract without a lawyer present, Cube quits the group. While refusing to take sides in the Cube/Heller dispute, Dre leaves N.W.A to focus on producing, as well as his solo career. Ice Cube embarks upon a successful solo career, too, releasing a vicious diss track towards both Heller and his former bandmates in the song “No Vaseline.”
Dre joins forces with fellow Compton native Suge Knight and the two found Death Row Records. In addition to Dre’s best-selling debut album The Chronic, Death Row also churns out some serious up-and-coming hip-hop talent, including Tupac Shakur, the D.O.C., and Snoop Dogg. After his breakout performance in the 1991 film Boyz in the Hood, Ice Cube chooses to primarily focus on writing and acting, while Eazy-E and Heller remains business partners but struggle to find much solo success.
Despite plenty of commercial success with Death Row, Dre becomes increasingly disturbed by Suge Knight’s violent and shady tendencies, while Eazy-E struggles to pay child support and discovers potential embezzlement on Heller’s part, eventually firing him. Amidst all this, Los Angeles becomes a virtual war zone following the not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King beating and the subsequent Watts riots.
Cube, Dre, and Eazy-E soon agree to mend fences and reunite, but the plans are derailed following Eazy-E’s HIV/AIDS diagnosis. He dies tragically at the age of 30, ending any plans for an N.W.A reunion. The film concludes in 1996, the following year, as Dre leaves Death Row to form his own company, Aftermath Records.
In a lot of ways, N.W.A were hip-hop’s equivalent of the Sex Pistols — a short-lived, extremely controversial group that remain undeniably important and influential to this day. It’s hard to look at the group’s discography with fresh eyes now. And even to this day, you can see Ice Cube in multiple summer blockbusters, and Eazy-E’s likeness is still graffiti’d on back alleys all across the world. And of course, Dr. Dre, who even at age 52, is still ubiquitous and still a multi-millionaire.
As for the film itself, it’s about what you’d expect for a film about N.W.A — it’s raw, uncompromising, and riveting. The cast all give remarkable performances, and it’s cool to see Ice Cube played by the man’s actual son, O’Shea Jackson Jr. However, in my opinion, the real revelation is Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre. He gives a powerful, evocative performance that doesn’t shy away from Dre’s temper, talent, and complexity.
Straight Outta Compton is pretty accurate for a film biopic overall. The sheer hysteria about N.W.A’s profane lyrics is captured quite vividly, as is the unacceptable behavior of the cops that the group so famously railed against. The real-life Jerry Heller was unhappy about his depiction in the movie and sued the producers; despite Heller’s death in September 2016, the case is still pending.
The movie is quite long (two and a half hours), but that won’t be a big deal for the majority of viewers, especially ones who are already hip-hop fans. Even though the film takes place over about a decade of time, it’s still very well-paced and doesn’t wear out its welcome (kudos to veteran director F. Gary Gray for that, as well as for his passion for the source material).
Some people — mostly film critics or rap historians — also took issue that the movie glossed over some unpleasant allegations against N.W.A members, particularly Dr. Dre (ostensibly the film’s protagonist) and the time he slapped reporter Dee Barnes at a Hollywood nightclub in 1991.
(Note: This scene actually was filmed, but was left on the cutting room floor. In real life, Dre served two years probation and paid six figures in fines, and has since apologized for the incident on several occasions.)
However, I feel like such controversy was kind of missing the point of the film. Make no mistake: Straight Outta Compton doesn’t pull punches when it comes to violent behavior (from N.W.A or anybody else), and it makes no excuses for it either. It’d be easy for the film to take the proverbial high horse, but it chooses not to. It’s simply the true story of a fearless group that wanted to bring their own reality as they saw it to the masses — and just so happened to change hip-hop history while they did it.
- Directed by F. Gary Gray
- Screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff
- Story by S. Leigh Savage & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff
- Produced by Matt Alvarez, Scott Bernstein, F. Gary Gray, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Tomica Woods-Wright
- Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Paul Giamatti, R. Marcus Taylor, Marlon Yates Jr., Carra Patterson, Alexandra Shipp, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Corey Reynolds, Tate Ellington
- Director of Photography — Matthew Libatique
- Music — Joseph Trapanese
- Editors — Billy Fox and Michael Tronick
- Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use
(This’ll be a new section in any film/TV reviews that I write from now on. Enjoy!)
- Straight Outta Compton is the highest-grossing music biopic ever, grossing nearly $202 million worldwide against a $50 million budget.
- Dr. Dre and Ice Cube both served as the movie’s co-producers, as did Tomica Woods-Wright, Eazy-E’s widow.
- The actors playing N.W.A. re-recorded the entire Straight Outta Compton album before filming started to help them get into character.
- Film debut of O’Shea Jackson Jr.
- The film’s script was written all the way back in 2004, and was originally intended to strictly be an Eazy-E biopic. After acquiring the music rights from Tomica Woods-Wright, the script was moved forward, but the project languished until Ice Cube and his producing partner Matt Alvarez got involved. Cube wanted the film to focus on all of N.W.A and not just Eazy-E, so he hired Andrea Berloff to re-write the script. F. Gary Gray and Dr. Dre weren’t hired as director and producer, respectively, until much later.
- The filmmakers originally wanted Eazy-E’s son, Eric Jr. (AKA Lil Eazy-E), to portray his dad in the film, but they decided against it. Despite this, Lil Eazy-E was involved with the production as a consultant.
- The movie grossed over $56 million its opening weekend in August 2015, making it the highest-grossing opening weekend for a music biopic since Walk the Line.
- The film’s director, F. Gary Gray, is a long-time friend and colleague of Ice Cube. They first worked together on the cult classic black comedy Friday in 1995.
- Early in the filming process in August 2014, a drive-by shooting took place less than a block away from where the movie was being shot on location in Compton. Thankfully, there were no fatalities, although one civilian was injured.
- The real-life MC Ren was upset that he wasn’t featured more in the finished film, although he said that he liked the movie otherwise.
- Another real-life person who disputed some of the movie’s narrative was club promoter Alonzo Williams, who appears in several early scenes, in which he praises Dr. Dre’s talent but forbids him from playing gangsta rap in his club. Williams claimed that this part of the film was inaccurate and also stated that he was the one who originally introduced Eazy-E to Jerry Heller.
- There’s an ongoing conspiracy theory about Eazy-E contracting the HIV/AIDS virus, and that Suge Knight had one of his hitmen inject Eazy-E with infected blood. Eazy had seven children with six different women, none of whom have since tested positive for the virus. Eazy’s son has gone on record as saying that he thinks there may have been something sinister going on with Knight (as he and Eazy were frequently at odds with each other). Similarly, a transcript from a grand jury indicated that Knight sent threatening text messages to F. Gary Gray during filming, although Gray did not confirm that while under oath. Knight, who is currently in jail on an attempted murder charge, has also been accused in the past of being involved in the still-unsolved 1997 murder of the Notorious B.I.G.