Director: F. Gary Gray
Writers: Jonathan Herman & Andrea Berloff
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Composer: Joseph Trapanese
Cast: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, Ashton Sanders.
It’s very hard to watch a movie like this and not be angry. Some films that are based on true events evoke tears, sadness, pity, laughter, joy, while others only provoke anger. Anger at the injustices that plague society. Anger at the near-sightedness that is all-surrounding when people try to argue falsities while trying to pass them off as truths. Because although a movie like this is technically rooted in history (late 80’s and early 90’s to be exact) it is current and reflective of what is happening right now. A few months ago the NPR radio show This American Life did a series of episodes on the police and race relations, and the Ira Glass show did shed light on the fact that there are still deep problems in our country with how the police behave towards people of color, and that is without even turning on a television and seeing week after week yet another story of an unarmed person being killed by law enforcement. When defending the police at all costs people do two things: firstly it is a disservice to the entire country because it negates and attempts to erase a very real problem, and secondly it is an act of racism in and of itself. We forget way too easily as a nation and it makes sense, the phenomenon even has a name: the term amnesia has been used in academic circles to discuss when groups of people and nations actively forget their sins and ignore their involvement in problematic actions, or worse attempt to dismiss them either because some time has passed or trying to diminish the importance of the action in and of itself. This movie refuses to let people forget. The Rodney King video is shown twice. There are countless instances of police brutality and abuse of power. Just because not all police officers behave this way doesn’t negate that it happens or that it needs to be addressed, and this movie is not afraid to just like the group whose story it tells: N.W.A.
In 1988 N.W.A (made up of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, MC Ren, and Arabian Prince) released their seminal Hip-Hop album Straight Outta Compton. The group came together on the streets of Compton as six young men connected and decided to start making music together. What came about was an album that struck a chord with the nation and the group reached superstardom, becoming the first L.A. rap group to become successful. Money is what eventually split up the band, but some of its individual members became even more famous after the group’s disbandment. Ice Cube became a platinum selling solo artist and eventually even a movie star. Dr. Dre co-founded the infamous Death Row Records, also had a successful solo career, and became a business mogul with his Beats Electronics. Less fortuitous was Eazy-E, who after floundering financially and seeing his star fade was diagnosed with AIDS and passed away in 1995. The film is a thrilling ride-along, as we follow the young men on their ascent and through all the issues that plagued them with family, law, finances, and their careers. The movie is shot with gloss and edited like a music video, which is a good thing. It’s not a chance that the movie looks this way, because F. Gary Gray (whose film Set It Off is fantastic and this movie is a return to form for him), making his first movie in six years, began his career as a music video director whose work includes songs by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre as well, providing him with an insight into these characters that not just anyone would have. The cast is made up of relatively unknown actors, with the exception of Paul Giamatti as a smarmy and greedy manager. The fact that the actors making up the group are not recognizable (yet) is a good thing, because it allows the viewer to get lost in the story and almost see it as documentary-esque (also, as a fun fact, Ice Cube’s own son, O’Shea Jackson jr., plays him in the movie, and the likeness is uncanny).
The film is not only for rap lovers and newcomers to N.W.A will not feel left out, the movie does a great job at telling their story and filling the audience in on all major details. It is really worth watching because it is an entertaining and well made film, but it also will and should provoke the audience and affect how viewers look at the world around them, and that it exactly what art should do: entertain and kindle ideas. N.W.A knows something about that as well.