Critical analysis of ‘Straight outta Compton’
Straight Outta Compton was released in the Cinemas in summer 2015. The film is based on the true events of the rise of rap group N.W.A in the late 1980s, early 1990s. It follows the group members from the roots of collaboration through their work and rise to fame, along with various sub-plots to do with police, record labels and family issues. The film is a re-enactment of similar accounts of the real-life events surrounding NWA’s career. It touches on social issues that were prevalent at the time of their rise such as police racism and an anti-establishment black America, as well as dealing with other issues such as capitalist ideologies and moral panics such as AIDS. The director F. Gary Gray is a black man himself who was alive during NWAs rise to prominence and knows member Ice Cube well. He has directed many films such as: The Friday Trilogy, The Italian Job and Law Abiding Citizen. In an interview prior to the release of the film, he touches on the initial stages and motives behind developing the film. He explains how the script was sent to him personally through Ice Cube and various producers and how it seemed a daunting task having to fit a ten-year span of events and characters into one film. When asked about his reaction to the initial proposition of directing the film, he says ‘especially with my history in Los Angelos and with the group, and some of the social issues they touched that I’m passionate about… I felt like man this is a great opportunity.’ This indicates the motive of the director for making Straight Outta Compton was to highlight the prominence and success of some of his close acquaintances whilst being able to touch on strong social issues that were prominent at the time and still are today.
Ice Cube and Dr Dre were both involved with the production of the film and script writing — providing real-life first-hand accounts of events. This has caused much scepticism and debate as to whether this brings to the table a bigger element of accuracy or biased. A lot of critics argued that the pair had mythologized the rap group as political pioneers and played down their violent backgrounds and lifestyles. Buzzfeed News film critic Alison Willmore summarises her article on the film in the line ‘The movie feels very much like the story of N.W.A as enabled by Dre and Cube, who got the prerogative of shaping what kind of tale gets told’. She points out that the pair would have had the power to leave out certain parts of the story and portray certain parts glamorously or less glamorously. She went on to say ‘Eazy is allowed to be flawed in ways Cube and Dre aren’t as they grow and recede into their respective successes’. This approach leaves much scepticism to be considered when analysing the film in terms of real-life grit and accuracy.
There was a strong sense of an anti-establishment attitude within NWA and amongst particular sections of society during the 80s and 90s. ‘NWA’ stands for ‘N*gg*s With Attitude’; this summarizes the overall view on authority held by young black males across America that perpetuated a trend of defiance. Throughout the film, there is consistent conflict between the police and NWA. It highlights the issue of police racism that was prominent that was prevalent in America in the 80s and 90s. It also reflects a wider depiction of various social issues that stimulate the idea of a rebellion against the establishment and a consequent revolution. NWA were stereotypical IC3s in the police’s eyes. The police’s view on young black males at the time were that they were aggressive, broke that law and were inferior to whites- especially policemen.
There is a scene whereby the group are conversing outside their studio about the music they are recording when two policemen pull over and tell them to move on. The groups’ refusal to move from the workplace soon turns into the police highlighting this defiance and is followed by threats of aggression from the police towards NWA. The police in the scene have very stern facial expressions and shout orders to the rappers This scene ends up with all group members handcuffed laying on the ground swearing at the police before their manager Jerry deals with the police and the group are uncuffed.
Jerry, the groups manager has a big role in the film. He represents a sense of authoritative superiority over the group as the police do but in a different way. He uses his industry knowledge and involvement to keep one-up on the group in terms of the passing of information. He tells them what he wants to do with finances, record-deals, music production and labels etc and they accept whatever it is he says because they are none the wiser. Jerry is white also, which could also make a link to the theme of white superiority in the sense that throughout history whites have regulated blacks- most prominently documented with the example of the slave trade that ended under 150 years before NWA’s existence (not that long). This sub-plot with Jerry maintains a constant idea of white supremacy in all forms to almost signal that it wasn’t just police authority that asserted this and therefore perhaps the rappers were victims and not criminals. Towards the end of the film Eazy E (lead rapper) falls out with Jerry after realising he has been fiddling the groups accounts and taking chunks of their record deal fees behind the groups back. This theme of injustice and inequality surrounding NWA goes a long way to perhaps explaining the triggers of their anti-establishment attitude.
Police racism was common in America at the time and black people were seen to be treated unfairly in the justice system — particularly young males. White police almost saw it as their duty to target blacks. They were almost seen to enjoy it and this feeling was portrayed when 5,000 NYPD officers protested against a civilian review board on police brutality in 1968. Seven years later, police racism was still rife:- In 1975 the PBA (Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association) ordered a rampage through the city’s black and Puerto Rican communities, with thousands of off duty cops waving their guns, banging on trash cans, and blowing whistles for several nights until Mayor Abe Beame obtained a restraining order in protest of proposed police budget cuts. It was examples like this, and perhaps major events such as Martin Luther King’s assaination that fuelled the attitudes of groups like NWA to be so defiant. The body language and facial expressions of the rappers in this scene help to embed the growing sense of rebellion against police amongst people that the group was helping to influence. The rappers were slouched when the police turned up and made no effort to look professional around them as would be stereotypically expected; their faces screwed up and eyes squinted when confronted by the police: something that reoccurs throughout. The group are shown to be fearless of the police and this is enforced by their decisions to swear at them.
NWA later go on to release the track ‘Fuck the police.’ This is the pinnacle of the conflict. The song went big and caused a lot of controversy in the media and in social attitudes. This was massively rebellious. This causes more conflict between the police and the group in the movie. The group are shown to be heroes in a pivotal sequence of scenes towards the latter end of the movie. They are performing a huge concert and are warned personally by police that they are under strict instruction not to perform ‘Fuck the police’. There is much suspense created by the director into the build up of the concert where the police are shown having stern words with the group. The film, inevitably, paints the group out to be outlawed heroes when they defy this order and perform the song. As a member of audience, you get a real sense of pride and meaning from this act of defiance and almost want to cheer along to the song. The involvement of Dre and Cube in the production of the film probably had a lot influence in making this occurrence look heroic and not troublesome in the film. There is a scene at the end of this where the group are shown laughing to eachother in the back of the police van to really signify their attitudes.
Overall, the film glorifies NWA as revolutionary group who effectively ‘stuck it to the man’ and broke the mould of white authority in Compton. This is probably a true reflection of the views held by most concerning the group. However, the involvement of rappers Ice Cube and Dr Dre leave room for debate as to whether the film is accurate or biased. The film deals with racial and social issues very well and is overall an interesting, eye-opening watch.
It's a trip when I think back and remember the first time I saw these guys. I was 5. It was a video, a party scene, when suddenly this guy wearing a hat with his hair curled underneath comes busting through the set. That was Eazy-E doing "Eazy-Duz-It." At that very moment, I realized this music represented where I was from. I looked over to my left and saw that my cousin was wearing the same kind of outfit as Eazy. Eazy was a superhero, but a superhero on the ground, a superhero I could relate to. Suddenly my pops, my uncles, everyone around me is playing N.W.A records.
Billboard Cover: Kendrick Lamar Interviews N.W.A About Coming 'Straight Outta Compton' and Changing the World
Seven or eight years later, when I come into my teens, I rediscover N.W.A because now I'm on the streets. I'm seeing how law enforcement is impacting my community, I'm seeing the influence of gang culture, and I'm realizing that N.W.A did a lot more than merely entertain. They told the truth. They tapped into kids in the streets who never had anything or anyone speak up for them. N.W.A gave voice to the voiceless. So now they become different kinds of heroes to me -- heroes carrying messages breaking through to the wider world, heroes not only with big hearts, but probing, intelligent minds.
I studied them closely. I saw Dre as the mastermind behind the music; Cube the mastermind behind the pen; Yella on the boards beautifully complementing Dre's vision; Ren also crazy with the pen; and Eazy the frontman, the cat with the most charisma, the gift of gab, the energy to draw people in. It was the perfect cast of characters.
N.W.A and Kendrick Lamar: The Billboard Cover Shoot
I'd be lying if I said what I'm creating today is all me. It isn't. It's an act of God. I do believe that, for all its challenges, my upbringing in Compton was a sacred blessing. The streets we ran, the air we breathed -- everything about Compton had been creatively conditioned by N.W.A I got to absorb it all. Recently someone told me about the Italian Renaissance in Florence where young artists were lucky enough to work in the studios of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Well, Compton was my Florence. That's the kind of favor I had following in the shadow of creative giants like Dre, Cube, Ren and Yella.
To be real with you, I look at myself as someone who's deeply conflicted. The way I was raised makes up half of who I am. The second half -- the vulnerable artist curious about the world beyond Compton -- is often at war with the first half. But because of N.W.A, who showed me that an artist can be whoever he wants to be, I don't have to resolve the conflict. I can live with it. I can be honest about it. I can put that conflict in my songs. I can open up my heart and let the world look inside. And I can do all that because back when I was still an infant crawling around my mama's house, five cats from Compton had the courage to stand tall and represent our community with courage, honesty and artistic brilliance.
As told to David Ritz
Listen to Kendrick Lamar, N.W.A, and more music from this issue in the Spotify playlist below:
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.