I remember hearing “Boyz-N-the-Hood” and watching the film, ages ago.
I remember how it gripped me, that street music of ethnic rage and violence though I knew nothing of gangsta-rap, of Black Americans in a faraway land, where men die too young in riots, in the hands of brutal police and drug-fired gang wars.
Compton, they called that place, in the City of Angels.
In the 80’s, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) waged war on crack cocaine and targeted every black male in sight, trapping the working-class neighborhood of Compton in the crossfire.
Compton became one of the most dangerous places in America and provided the setting for the debut album of West Coast hip-hop quintet Niggaz Wit’ Attitude – N.W.A., for short.
Now, they converted that signature song, “Straight Outta Compton”, into a biopic of the group’s middle finger-like rise to stardom, dissolution and downfall.
The movie tells the story of Ice Cube, the 16-year old emcee whose incendiary rhymes became a voice for the disenfranchised, Dr. Dre, the deejay turned mega-producer and Eazy E, the dope-selling hustler whose vision brought them together, along with other Compton talents, McRen and DJ Yella.
In “Straight Outta Compton”, newcomer O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s son, played his father. Stage veteran Corey Hawkins played Dr. Dre and Jason Mitchell, also a newcomer, played Eazy-E. Aldis Hodge was cast as MC Ren and Neil Brown, Jr., as DJ Yella.
For a film produced by the main characters themselves, the F. Gary Gray-directed biopic was brutally honest with the group’s excesses, from the crack cocaine to the offstage orgies.
The actors did a good job too.
O’Shea Jr. gave a high-octane performance as a younger version of his dad. Despite his lack of acting experience and being nervous about taking the role, performing and touring with Ice Cube worldwide most of his life prepared him for the part.
“I’ve basically been studying this part for 20 years. Dad told me these stories my whole life. To re-enact them on screen is the coolest thing in the world.”
Besides, “Dad’s always accessible. He’ll call and let me know where his head was for certain scenes so it can be as authentic as possible.”
Father and son looked eerily alike, down to their swagger. The young man even did his own rapping in the film. He sounded uncannily similar to his father and moved so hauntingly like him that Dr. Dre had flashbacks of Ice Cube onstage as they filmed O’Shea Jr. in the concert scenes.
While his fellow actors Corey and Jason didn’t know how to rap, they performed like they did, mastering their N.W.A. character’s signature style, cadence, tonality and delivery for the cameras.
Everyone had the procedural elements down pat, from how DJ Yella approached working the mixing board to how Dr. Dre’s spun his turntables.
Corey and Neil learned how to deejay, how to scratch, cut records, to be able to mix. A coach taught them how to set up equipment, how to tear them down plus everything in between.
And they did the routine over and over until it became second nature, so they were convincing.
Jason studied Eazy-E’s videos and spent time with his widow, Tomica, daughter, Erica and son, Eric Wright (Lil’ E). “It’s a gift and a curse to not have him here to coach me along this ride.”
Although Jason’s audition tape wowed the filmmakers from the get-go, he’s only racked up a handful of acting credits to his name and no formal training. Nevertheless, the 28-year-old fully embodied the man known as the Godfather of Gangsta rap.
Corey, a graduate of Juilliard School, is an ardent N.W.A fan. Yet he doubted at first if he could pull it off because he didn’t possess the voice, the physicality or even a passing resemblance to Dr. Dre.
But Dre mentored him, saying, “You don’t have to mimic me. I’m not looking for you to do any of that. I’m looking for you to represent N.W.A and what we stood for. If you put that first, everything else will follow.’”
For the actors, access to their real-life counterparts – the Compton Kings – came as a huge bonus. Not many get such career-defining roles plus the personal phone numbers and emails of rap royalty.
As for the antagonist’s part, Golden Globe Award-winning actor Paul Giamatti delivered a poignant portrayal of the unscrupulous N.W.A manager Jerry Heller.
A lesser actor could have rendered a cardboard impersonation but Paul refused to be sidetracked by controversies surrounding the man who handled the likes of Elton John, Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye, Ike and Tina Turner as well as The Who.
Upon seeing the film, Heller withheld comments, warning “sooner or later it may be part of a lawsuit”.
On the downside, the 150-minute movie did take on too many stories, skimming the surface for the most part.
While energies hit the ceiling in the first half, the film dragged by its second hour, dwelling on the decline and demise of Eazy-E with heavy sentimentality.
Worse, those in-the-know, the women victims of N.W.A.’s misogyny and violence, in particular, lambasted the biopic for being revisionist.
The film showed no significant women figures – glossing over mothers and wives, the rest being naked props in the hotel room orgies and in the rappers’ wild pool parties.
And it swept Dr. Dre’s violence towards women under the rug.
Dre assaulted Dee Barnes, host of hip-hop show “Pump It Up!”. He straddled her, tried to throw her down a flight of stairs, slammed her head against a wall, kicked and stomped on her.
They settled out of court yet in his lyrics, Dre made hyperbolic claims about his heinous acts on women.
“But then he went out and actually violated women,” Dee stressed after watching the biopic. “He should have owned up to the black eyes and scars he gave his collaborator Michel’le. And he should have owned up to what he did to me. That’s reality rap.”
Michel’le, former Ruthless and Death Row Records singer-songwriter, Dre’s ex-girlfriend and mom of one of his kids asked, “Why would Dre put me in the movie? I was just a quiet girlfriend who got beat up and told to shut up.”
Dee accused the “Straight Outta Compton” Director of erasing that ugly episode from NWA history in his film, which has hauled in $200 million todate.
Gary happened to be Dee’s cameraman for “Pump It Up!”. He lensed the moment that launched Dre’s attack.
“Creating brilliant art (like N.W.A. did) does not absolve you of your faults. Excusing pop culture icons from scrutiny over their history of violence against women because they’re elevated to hero status is wrong,” Dee argued.
“You can’t have it both ways. With this biopic, they’re trying to stay hard and look like good guys.”
A couple of months back, Dr. Dre publicly apologized to “the women I’ve hurt.” Apple Inc., which last year bought his Beats Electronics for $3 billion, supported him, stating he’s not the same person he was three decades ago.
That’s when the first scene of “Straight Outta Compton” began, with Dr. Dre as a local deejay who spun regularly at Compton clubs.
Eazy-E was a drug peddler then. As the movie opened, he was rummaging in his car trunk for a gun and cocaine. Trying to sell the dope, he found himself in the middle of a bust and took off over the rooftops as the police smashed the place with a battering ram.
“At the time, I looked at our music as our only weapon, our only way to bring some attention to the ’hood,” Ice Cube reminisced.
Of course, “The political aspects of the records turned me on just as much as the gangster aspect, just as much as the flowing beats and rhymes. But we also laced our music with comedy because we laughed at shit that would make most people cry.”
N.W.A.’s lyrics – including their most notorious “Fuck tha Police” – were visceral, no-holds-barred, social commentary combining straight-up candor with bawdy gallows humor about black urban life, brutality and racial profiling which the group members experienced firsthand.
Surprisingly, “I had no idea ‘Fuck tha Police’ would’ve any kind of impact worldwide,” Ice Cube admitted. “I knew people in every ghetto, every poverty-stricken area feel the same frustration and would feel the song. But worldwide? I just thought it all was relegated to America.”
Decades later, their songs still topped Best Rap Album lists, continuing to evoke recognition and intrigue, outrage and fear.
“Fuck tha Police was just like any other song in our album. But once it sparked such a controversy, everybody was mad about it, the FBI, preachers, politicians. We didn’t care. We just wanted to do music,” recalled MC Ren.
And they wanted their ‘hood recognized.
“Thank God for Eazy, who saw this music as the future,” says Ice Cube. “He used to be like, ‘Everybody, y’all in Brooklyn. Everybody, y’all got Queens in the house, the Bronx, uptown. Nobody here on Compton. What about Compton? He’s adamant to put Compton on the map if that’s the last thing he did.”
As for the biopic, “I don’t know any other movie where you can mix Gangster Rap, the F.B.I., L.A. Riots, HIV, and fucking feuding with each other. This movie has everything from Daryl Gates and the battering ram.”
At first, Andre Young, better known as Dr. Dre, hesitated about bringing their story to the big screen. Those early years were very personal, defining moments in his life.
Only after discussions with Ice Cube and then his own family, did he come onboard to help produce the film. The widow of Eazy E, Tomica Woods-Wright, also joined as producer while McRen and DJ Yella served as consultants.
“N.W.A’s story doesn’t only encompass the universal themes of friendship, brotherhood and triumph, it also shows betrayal and tragedy that surrounded the group,” Producer Scott Bernstein pointed out.
“At the same time the guys pursued the American Dream, they experienced a Greek tragedy. Eazy was the most tragic in this story, starting out with guile and energy only to be betrayed by his own ego and belief in Jerry Heller that Ruthless Records and Eazy-E were more important than the group. By the time he realized his mistake, it was too late. ”
Like the N.W.A. rappers, Director Gary also grew up on the streets of Compton, memorizing details of undercover police cars, watching the influx of crack cocaine and imported automatic weapons in the ‘hood and LAPD’s battering rams annihilating homes.
“When I look at the faces of the actors in the film, I see the kids from my street 30 years ago. This is our coming-of-age story.”
Strangely, Dr. Dre wouldn’t have it any other way.
“In retrospect, I wouldn’t change anything, the bad or the good.”