When my friend texts: “Do you want to go to the BAFTA screening of Straight Outta Compton?”, my thumb can’t type “ohfuckyeah” fast enough. Are you kidding me? Go see the NWA biopic before it comes out in theaters? Um, where and when? I’ve been waiting on this film for what feels like forever. He texts back with the theater and time.
Then I realize, wait… hold up! Did he say a BAFTA screening? For those not in the know, BAFTA is the British film academy. It hands out its version of the Oscars to British films. That also means I’m about to go watch the rise and fall of NWA surrounded by a bunch of silver-haired white folks. Not quite the same as watching the premiere in Compton. But whatever, I’ll take it. I want to see this movie more than Kanye loves Kanye.
I meet my friend at the theater, and he’s already found us good seats. As I look around, the crowd is what I feared they’d be: mostly white, a lot of middle-aged, along with many of the senior members of the British film community. It feels like we’re watching a film at a Denny’s during the Early Bird Special.
Before the film starts, the silver heads gab and gossip. They only fall into a hush when the head of BAFTA approaches the podium. She greets us, updates us on BAFTA’s recent successes, and then introduces the film. She tells us to get ready to enjoy Straight Out of Compton. I fight back a laugh. She may not have the foggiest idea how to say “outta.”
The lights go dark. The theater grows quiet. Time for all these old white people to watch the life story of NWA. It feels kind of like I’m taking my grandmother to a Tijuana donkey show. Like, I fully expect these older folks will soon be very shocked by what they see.
We open on a crack house in the 1980s. A drug dealer, who will one day be one of the most famous rappers of all time, knocks on the front door, demanding to be let in. The opening scene is tense. A sweaty lesbian with a sawed-off shotgun measures the bravery of this man we’ll one day call Eazy-E. She gives him the evil eye. Guns are drawn. Tension tightens like a finger curling around a trigger. Is Eazy-E about to get himself shot?
No… the LAPD arrives! They demolish the crack house with a tank. Yes, a fucking tank! This is South Central LA in the 1980s. The silver-haired Brits are aghast as the LAPD tank destroys the whole front of the crack house. The cops rip it open like a scab. It sounds like some of the older Brits just swallowed their dentures. They gasp with such force you can feel the air move. But then, the old Brits surprise me. Eazy-E decides he isn’t about to get popped on some bullshit. He breaks loose by shattering his way to freedom. As he bounds over a rooftop these old Brits start clapping like he’s goddamn Robin Hood. No, seriously, they’re wildly clapping!
And so begins the tale of NWA, as told by filmmaker F Gary Gray.
Okay, one thing that’s abundantly clear to me: there are six to eight other black folks in this roughly 300 seat theater, and these old white Brits are watching a much different movie than we are. Obviously, the film that’s being projected is the same. But our immediate understanding of it is so different that it’s really two different films. And, interestingly enough, both are good.
I won’t ruin the whole plot for you, but trust me when I say that this film fully covers the rise and dismemberment of NWA. Why did Ice Cube bounce and do his solo album so soon? They cover that. How and why did Dr. Dre start a label with Suge? They cover that. Why was Yella even in NWA? They got that, too.
This film covers all the hip-hop history you hope to see. Obviously, moments are fictionalized. They’re sanitized, they’re dramatized, and written to play out as scenes. But that’s this film’s real appeal: you witness hip-hop properly mythologized by someone who clearly loves the group, its history, and the history of rap. F. Gary Gray gets NWA. And he offers them up.
For those who love hip-hop, the movie is rich with references. Like, there’s a quick shot that shows Suge Knight has off-duty cops on his payroll at Death Row Records. This reference was probably lost on all the silver head Brits. Later, as we leave the theater, I will explain to my British friend how the shot of the cop was a nod to the never-solved deaths of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. And how, in the case of Biggie, it’s rumored his murder was orchestrated by Suge and the plot involved off-duty LAPD. These little touches of layered authenticity are what make the film so damn good. (For instance, there’s a “Bye, Felicia” joke that’s worth the price of admission alone.)
There are points of the film that feel staged and/or apocryphal. Such as when Dre and Cube meet outside Eazy-E’s hospital room. There are moments when the dialog must encapsulate so much, and yet move the plot, that it comes off as sounding like something no real living person would ever say. But, throughout, the acting performances are solid. Some are excellent.
O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays his father and the resemblance is uncanny. He looks nearly identical to his pops. He even wrinkles his forehead with that same Cube look. His performance anchors the film. And side note: how weird must it be playing your father? What a rare opportunity for a son. And the dude kills it as Cube. No, for real, he has that same principled intensity that made his dad great. He should get a nomination.
PLAYBOY’S INTERVIEW WITH O'SHEA JACKSON JR.
The movie is also really good-looking. Like, it’s spot-on perfect for the period. F Gary Gray submerges you in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And, he does it subtly. When Ice Cube records his solo album, Gray doesn’t need Flavor Flav to act a fool for the hip-hop heads in the audience to get that Cube is hanging with Public Enemy’s production team, the Bomb Squad, making his solo album, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. No one has to say it.
The film is certainly kindest to Cube and Dre. You get the feeling that it tells the story they wanted told. Thus, you will find there’s no mention of Dre beating Dee Barnes. Instead, at the end, we see how Dre sold his Beats to Apple.
But that’s really the whole point of this film. Were they sexist, misogynistic, violent thugs? Yes. And these were wildly underprivileged young black men who had the talent for insanely big things. Which they fought like hell to get. But more than admire them for being hustlers, or excuse their mistreatment of women, it looks at them as they were as complicated artists. NWA were (flawed) spokesmen for a generation. Before Jay Z, they were hip-hop businessmen with tycoon minds. They were examples of black excellence that “shook up the world” just like Muhammad Ali. They were unapologetically black.
The members of NWA were political artists in a way that most rappers don’t even attempt anymore. (Yes, we know, you can put your hand down, Kendrick.) These days, the biggest names in rap, like Jay Z and Kanye tend to use political protest and social rebellion like it’s a fashion film. The director of this movie, F. Gary Gray, is smart to frame the NWA story thematically against our modern moment. To make these connections without hammering his point, he weaves the Rodney King case throughout the story. We immediately recognize the parallels.
First, it’s mentioned as a news story. Another black man is beaten by the LAPD–only this time, “we got on videotape!” Then in the background of the NWA story, the Rodney King case develops into the Trial of the Decade. Finally, it’s the trigger for the LA riots that tear the city apart and reveal the seething anger. There’s a scene of NWA driving through the riots as people chant “Fuck the Police!” It’s doubtful this ever happened, but in the film, at that moment, it all comes together. We feel the undeniable physical validation of NWA’s warnings. The whole world will forever understand the strength of their street knowledge. They put the CPT on the map.
But the film’s greatest strength is how F Gary Gray thematically connects NWA, the video footage of the Rodney King beating, and the LA Riots, directly to today and to #BlackLivesMatter. He connects the past to present. And his sly commentary also speaks to how little America has changed. The videotaped beatings and deaths of black men are still headline news.
Despite all the racial tension evident on the screen, I have to say, it’s still a lot of fun to laugh at this movie right along with the silver head Brits. And they laugh a lot. They get all the big jokes. Even if they miss some of the best ones. Like, when Eazy-E makes fun of Dr. Dre for wearing some wack early ‘80s-style satin club gear. (You know, that photo.) It’s the look that later Eazy-E uses to dis Dre on a track for leaving NWA. Little touches like that abound.
It’s kind of killing me that none of these silver head Brits move when the music plays. Like, whaaaat? How do you not feel that beat? How do you fail to nod your head? This is some of the best hip-hop that’s ever boomed from these theater speakers. Not only are they playing all of NWA’s greatest hits, some multiple times, and in multiple contexts, the film plays tracks from Cube’s solo work, Dre’s solo work, and you hear the first bars Snoop ever recorded with Dre. Even Tupac shows up to make a musical appearance in the film.
To its credit, judging by how much these old white Brits are enjoying the movie, you could say this film works in layers. Like, you can go in knowing absolutely nothing about NWA like the tea-drinkers next to me, and you’ll still walk out of the theater blown away by their place in music history and in American history. Or, you can go in, remembering exactly the first time you heard Eazy-E spit rhymes in his high-pitched whine, and you’ll fully enjoy this film. Like, you’ll immediately get how the “new music” that’s so often playing in the background, is there to let you know what year it is. For instance, you’ll hear Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear,” or Wu Tang’s “Enter the 36 Chambers,” and you’ll know it’s early in 1994.
Okay, I have to be fair: the ending of the film could’ve been stronger. And there could’ve been more of MC Ren. But that said, both the old white Brits and I agree, Straight Outta Compton is a “must watch.”
As the credits roll, the silver head Brits and I give the film a rousing applause, some stand to clap. Once it’s all over, I walk out wondering: will this movie help old white people see #BlackLivesMatter differently? The message of the movie is the ongoing struggle for black liberation. Did they see that? Will they see that? The rampant examples of racism that we all see shared everyday online are not part of a problem that’s just recently gotten worse. No, it’s something that’s now easier to document with cellphones and shared videos. It’s the same old problem NWA warned us about.
The greatest power of Straight Outta Compton is how it captures NWA’s myth, the group’s struggle, their meaning, and their moment in time, as well as how the movie speaks to our time.
I recommend you go see it.