David O’Donoghue on the genius of Straight Outta Compton as a biopic .
From the opening scenes of hip-hop biopic Straight Outta Compton it’s evident that the film will pull no punches in its depiction of the violence and deprivation of African American communities in Los Angeles in the 1990s. Eric Wright, who would go on to become Easy E of N.W.A, is shown escaping from the home of a small-time drug dealer as the abode is destroyed by a battering ram and a squad of vicious riot police. A few short minutes later we watch the hip hop cadre’s Ice Cube come face to face with a member of the Crips street gang who strolls onto a school bus and brandishes a gun, threatening violence against the high schoolers aboard the bus. Without these shocking scenes it would be impossible to truly tell the story of N.W.A, the group that took hip hop by storm in the late ’80s and who blasted hardcore gangster rap into the mainstream of American popular culture. Previous hip hop biopics, such as 2009’s tepidly received Notorious, have often served as simple hagiographies, cataloguing the surroundings of their hip hop stars as mere incidentals on their path to future greatness. But the immensely successful Straight Outta Compton takes an unflinching look at the lives lived by the young black men who made up N.W.A and how their art was inexorably intertwined with the struggle of their surroundings.
There is a tension early on in the film about authenticity and reality that is reflected in wider discussions about hip hop’s portrayal of life in African American communities. DJ Dr Dre is making small bucks producing smooth, commercially friendly RnB at a small Los Angeles club when his friend and amateur lyricist Ice Cube takes to the stage and busts out an embryonic form of the legendary track “Straight Outta Compton” which the club owner rejects as being too real and gritty for the commercial club environment. One of N.W.A’s greatest successes lay in their courageous portrayal of the reality of life for young black men in the deprived communities of LA. At a time when hip hop was still going through the labour pains of its unsteady birth as a distinct journey it still remained tied to much of the smooth soul tradition that was an inspiration for it. With the arrival of the N.W.A on the scene ‘gangsta rap’ became a dominant form of hip hop, an expertly crafted and uncompromising portrayal of the actual lives of African Americans in the United States where they faced discrimination, harassment and crushing poverty. This was nowhere more evident than it was in the majority of black suburbs of Los Angeles – such as Compton. The film does not tear its eyes away from these slum-like living conditions, merely waiting in the wings for its stars’ ascent into greatness, but rather dwells in them and drags us down into this underworld with it, providing the same valuable insight into life in these ghettos that made N.W.A’s music so fantastic.
A particularly enraging scene comes when the rappers are harassed by policies outside the very studio in which they are recording their legendary album and only the intervention of their white manager saves them from being brutalised and infantilised by prejudiced police officers. These scenes of police harassment are striking to the viewer but the members of N.W.A themselves treat them as a common inconvenience, part of the frustrating reality of their existence as oppressed minorities. Through repeated scenes of police misbehavior the viewer experiences the twin emotions of rage and weariness that characterised the attitude of so many of the denizens of these deprived communities. In a wonderful scene, Ice Cube follows up this harassment by channeling his once impotent anger into N.W.A’s greatest and most controversial anti-authority anthem, “Fuck Tha Police”. This potent expression of anger becomes a rallying cry, a vicious crescendo that traces the same firework arc of heat and fame that the group themselves exploded onto following the album’s release. A deviant performance of the song, against the express wishes of police officers in Detroit, leads to a riot and after winding through the avenues of fame around the United States N.W.A return to Los Angeles to find their home engulfed in the chaotic LA riots of the early 1990s.
The way in which the film deftly interweaves images of the vicious police assault on Rodney King shows how deeply the brutal crime affected the African American community and N.W.A themselves. The scenes which surround it seem to spark off the ember of this injustice as the members of the group deal with internal rivalries that cut as deep as Rodney King’s wounds and from them flow lyrics incensed and incendiary.
N.W.A split like a glowing diamond into many shining shards, producing separate lights and lyrics as shocking and impressive as they did together. The film doesn’t just use news footage of the Rodney King beating and portrayals of the LA Riots in the way that so many films dealing with history do, as mere signposts telling the viewer the eras and attitudes they should be associating the scenes with, but as authentic events which we can see moulding and shaping the characters right on the screen.
The genius of Straight Outta Compton as a biopic is that it is not an inert, rote retelling of history, a mere chalk drawing on the celluloid pavement; Straight Outta Compton is the story of bombastic men who were inexorably a part of chaotic times and its drawing of those times and those men is alive with shifting colours and shocking revelations.