‘Straight Outta Compton’ raps into a massive $24.4 million Friday debut
(CNN)“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” — Dr. Dre in the intro to the song “Straight Outta Compton”
It would be very easy to dismiss “Straight Outta Compton” as an “urban film.”
After all, it’s about the rise of the rap group N.W.A. (which stands for Niggaz Wit Attitudes), whose profanity-laced rhymes about late 1980s inner-city life in Compton, California, made its members the fathers of gangsta rap, helping shift the focus of hip-hop from the East Coast to the West.
The cast of the film, released in theaters this week, is mostly African-American, and it has a black director, F. Gary Gray — better known for his work on music videos and films such as “Friday” than the more mainstream “The Italian Job.”
So there’s a risk that white audiences will shy away. That the movie is a biopic about a controversial rap group from back in the day ups that ante — even though white, suburban males have always been among the biggest consumers of rap music.
But “Straight Outta Compton” (the film takes its title from the group’s 1988 debut album) is about much more than the musical careers of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Lorenzo ‘”MC Ren” Patterson and Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby.
Its themes of police brutality, racism and disenfranchisement of young, black men in America are as fresh today as they were when N.W.A. released the protest anthem “F**k Tha Police” in 1988.
Talking about race — even in a more high-minded fashion — has long made people uncomfortable, and if there were ever a group fashioned to make people uncomfortable, it was N.W.A. Using the poetry of the streets, these guys thought nothing of riffing on everything from killing to drugging.
But it’s worth noting that the “in your face” style N.W.A. cultivated when the group was new to the game sharply contrasts with the elder statesman status it has assumed in the pop culture nation. Today Dr. Dre is lauded for his business savvy and for introducing the world to such megastars as rapper Eminem and 50 Cent, and Ice Cube is a bankable movie star, screenwriter and producer.
That progression shows why it’s important for both whites and people of color to see “Straight Outta Compton.” The “Boyz-N-the Hood” are now the men next door who remind us of where we came from and how far we can go, even as we face the other cold truth that as a nation we have not really progressed on issues of race.
N.W.A was rapping about police harassment years before the videotaped beating of driver Rodney King by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. Decades before cell phone cameras would capture interactions between police and civilians and social media would rocket it across the Internet, there was Ice Cube rapping “F**k tha police/A young ni**a got it bad cause I’m brown/And not the other color so police think/They have the authority to kill a minority.”
“I think that N.W.A picked up where Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King would have gone if they hadn’t been assassinated,” former N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller(played by Paul Giamatti in the film) recently told Grantland. “I think that they did more for race relations in this country than any other entity in history.”
That may be a bit of hyperbole on the part of Heller, who has been accused by members of N.W.A. of unscrupulous business practices, but there is little doubt that the group gave voice to a community still crying out for justice and equality. At the time, “F**k Tha Police” thrust N.W.A. into the headlines and ran the group afoul of the FBI, but resonated with so many in the black community.
Watching those scenes replayed in the film also resonated with me.
I was introduced to N.W.A. as a teen by my friend Rodney Johnson, returned to our hometown of Baltimore from boot camp in California.
“You have to listen to them rap,” he told me. “You’ve never heard anything like it before.”
He was so right. The world N.W.A was describing sounded like a war zone to me and its angry delivery made me feel furious. Los Angeles had always been the land of Hollywood and dreams to me and what the group was talking about was a nightmare.
Years later as a young reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I would cover Eazy-E’s announcementthat he had AIDS. I held back my own emotions as I stood feet from his young wife, Tomica Woods-Wright, while she wept during the press conference. (The rapper died of complications from AIDS in 1995.)
Scott Poulson-Bryant, then a senior writer with Vibe magazine, told me that the announcement “places hip-hop more in the real world that (rap music) seeks to define. Seeing as how Eazy-E made so many records about all the women that he had and how he treated them, it’s kind of sad that perhaps this is really how he lived his life.”
Indeed, the new film documents Eazy-E’s exploits with multiple women but also portrays a man very much aware of his role as hood ambassador. As I watched a scene in which actor Jason Mitchell as Easy-E reacts emotionally to the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King incident, I was struck by how the same pain now surrounds conversations about the deaths of Michael Brown and Sandra Bland.
“Our art is a reflection of our reality,” O’Shea Jackson Jr. (who portrays his real-life father, Ice Cube, in the film) says in one scene.
That reality has not shifted much in 30 years, and to be sure the film will draw attention — and likely moviegoers — opening just after the one-year anniversary of Brown’s death in Ferguson.
But it should also spark conversation on what it leaves out.
Nowhere, for example, is there discussion of the group’s legacy of misogyny — it added songs such as “To Kill a Hooker,” and “One Less B**ch” to hip-hop’s discography — that as a whole has denigrated women with its portrayal of them as “b**chs and hoes.”
And before “Straight Outta Compton” was filmed, a casting call reportedly went out seeking female extras to be “A,” “B,” “C” and “D” girls, with the “A” girls being described as “the hottest of the hottest. Models” and the “D” girls as “African-American girls. Poor, not in good shape.”
Nor does the film reference Dre’s run-in at a party with TV host Dee Barnes in 1991, which ended with her in the emergency room. Rolling Stone reported at the time that the rapper was angered by a clip of former member Ice Cube being critical of N.W.A., and Dre confronted her about it.
“I just did it, you know,” Dre told Rolling Stone then. “Ain’t nothing you can do now by talking about it. Besides, it ain’t no big thing — I just threw her through a door.”
Dre eventually pleaded to misdemeanor battery and settled a suit brought by Barnes.
In a Huffington Post piece titled “Straight Outta Rape Culture,” author Sikivu Hutchinson writes, “As an educator and mentor I work daily with young black girls who silently cope with the trauma and PTSD of sexual and physical violence in the very same South Los Angeles communities ‘immortalized’ in N.W.A.’s hyper-masculinist terroristically sexist oeuvre.”
“Inundated with multi-platinum misogynist hip hop and rap, these girls have grown up with the pervasive message that violence against black women and girls is normal, natural, and justifiable. Coming full circle, the ‘Straight Outta Compton’ narrative sacrifices their bodies on the altar of black masculine triumph and American dream-style redemption, signifying that the only occupying violence black America should really be concerned about is that perpetrated by the police,” she says.
Interestingly enough, Dre, who has gone on to become the most successful N.W.A. alum as a platinum-selling artist and producer and purveyor of the Beats by Dre audio products line, told radio host Big Boy in March that the film sought to clear up some of those negative perceptions.
“We really wanted to get across, one of the things, was how we feel about women because there’s a big misconception,” said Dr. Dre, who co-produced the film with Ice Cube and Woods-Wright, Eazy-E’s widow. “How much we respect our women.”
Whether the film becomes a blockbuster or not remains to be seen. Early buzz has been mostly positive, even with the charges of revisionist history.
But regardless of the box-office receipts, “Straight Outta Compton” has already achieved its goal of further cementing N.W.A. as one of the most important, influential — and controversial — rap acts in the history of the genre.