I was a young girl in the Bay Area when Dr. Dre’s groundbreaking album The Chronic blasted across airwaves and began its long-lasting impact on pop culture. My babysitter listened to the CD religiously, turning up the volume so loud it made the car vibrate at late-night sideshows in Oakland, and during the daytime, when we’d ride down to Dimond Park playing “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” feeling bold and above any “bitch” in the song. We were women and girls listening to popular hip-hop.
Now, early ‘90s hip-hop is the soundtrack to the most popular film in America: Straight Outta Compton bested every other film at the box office this weekend, raking in $60 million in ticket sales. The film from director F. Gary Gray tells the complicated and politically charged story of rap group NWA (Niggas With Attitudes) forming in Compton in the mid-1980s.
In a recent series of tweets, filmmaker Ava DuVernay—who hails from Compton and was actively involved in the hip-hop and cultural scene during the time period of the film—wrote:
To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours.
She also tweeted:
All the stifling of our voices as young black people in that place at that time while a war was going on against us. @FGaryGray captured it.
Initially, I thought my review of the film would focus on the erasure of women from the history of hip-hop and the misogyny in Straight Outta Compton that some film critics have noted. But after seeing the film, I can’t focus the review on that. Director F. Gary Gray seeks to capture a specific moment in American culture for five Black men. In doing so, he fully invests in that moment—in the sheen and texture of their jheri curls, in racist police officers with shiny badges abusing them, in a hotel sex party they engage in, and in scenes of a massive battering ram cruising down a Compton street to crush a tiny drug house that Eazy-E just barely escapes. Through the evocative lens of cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Gray illustrates the vibrancy and pain of this moment and, for the most part, does not leave out the contradictions.
Straight Outta Compton follows the quick rise and fall of NWA during the 1980s and 1990s, focusing on members Ice Cube (who’s played by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and to a lesser extent MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr). The film traces the rappers’ lives from their explosive debut album Straight Outta Compton, with its bold protest song “Fuck The Police”— which gets the attention of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), mainstream news outlets, and the FBI—to their inevitable disbanding at the hands of Heller. The film continues beyond the end of the group, following each member onto their respective careers, and shows how an anti-establishment, alternative collective became an institution, entering the mainstream on their own terms. As much as the film is about the group’s channeling of Black male rage and defiance, it’s also about how this very rage became a packaged commodity for American consumption and entertainment over time. Heller promises to “open doors” for the group that only a white man can, but in the end credits of the film, we see Dr. Dre’s $3 billion deal with Apple and contemplate the transfer of that power, initially built on rage.
One clever scene shows how this rage was crafted. Ice Cube, the main writer of the group along with MC Ren, pens rhymes that he hands off to Eazy-E, who wasn’t initially a rapper and came from a background of selling drugs. In the recording booth, Eazy-E struggles to deliver the lines, rushing through the words while the other group members laugh uncontrollably. After several tries, he delivers the verse that would solidify his hardcore image: “Cruising down the street in my six-four/jockin’ the bitches/ slappin’ the hoes.” The scene shows that the hard, macho image that the group promoted was, in fact, a creation. Newcomer Jason Mitchell gives a powerful, affecting performance as Eazy-E, whose career, relationship with Heller, and eventual demise from AIDS becomes the central narrative of the film.
In an earlier scene, a teenage Ice Cube sits on a school bus writing rhymes as he peers out of the window at white teens laughing in a convertible. Seconds later, the bus is held up by members of a gang who warn the teens to stay in school, while pressing a gun to one teenager’s face. Later, a police officer manhandles Ice Cube outside of his parent’s home just for walking while Black, calling him a nigger and laughing. Through all of this, Ice Cube crafts a narrative in his notebook. That narrative is raw, unapologetic, and angry, and not just to police officers, but to women he sees as “hoes.” It is not meant to appease anyone. Neither was Ice Cube’s delivery on “Fuck The Police,” a song that is as relevant today as it was in the 1990’s.
NWA’s music represented the extreme contrasts, disparities, and contradictions that permeated these men’s lives, and that they themselves perpetuated in their behavior—from having wet and wild pool parties with women, to hiring the Nation of Islam as security advisors, to kicking a naked woman out of their hotel room, all while maintaining loving relationships with their wives. All of these contradictions are shown in the film. When Dr. Dre assaulted Black, female TV personality Dee Barnes in 1991 after she interviewed Ice Cube about their ongoing rap feud, he was unapologetic. Now, he is. Before Straight Outta Compton’s premiere, he told Rolling Stone that beating up Barnes was “really fucked up.” In her series of tweets, DuVernay also comments:
“I saw the cavalier way that women were treated in hip hop spaces early on. Window dressing at most. Disposable at worst. Yep, that happened.”
But Dr. Dre’s assault doesn’t make it into the film. Perhaps that’s because he’s a producer on the film and because F. Gary Gray is in the business of focusing on his main characters' legacies, not their villainy—which may lessen the film’s impact. Women appear in the film as both playthings and professional advisors. Both Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s wives have key roles in their business affairs in the film, with Tomica Woods-Wright (Carra Patterson) eventually uncovering Heller’s extreme mismanagement of Eazy’s career. The film is not out to malign Black women as much as its concerned with representing a specific time and place for these characters, for Compton, and for this culture. It succeeds in doing that.
So, when my sister and I sat down to watch the film in the theater, we bobbed our heads, clapped, and remembered the remnants of this imperfect culture. For better or worse, we were a part of it. My older sister remembered listening to these songs, though I was a too young for them. Instead, I recalled NWA’s legacy and artists that followed: Tupac Shakur, Biggie, Da Brat, Snoop. A visually impressive scene shot on Crenshaw where men and women ride in gleaming low-riders with fresh hairdos immediately brought me back to my childhood, cruising in the car with my babysitter, and all the beautiful brown people—men and women—just living for the day. I can’t help but juxtapose that image of carefree Blackness with the tense and fatal moments between police and Black people I’ve witnessed repeatedly over the past few years. So when I hear “Fuck The Police,” I think of Sandra Bland and Walter Scott, and the power of N.W.A.’s vocal and angry defiance in contrast to the silent rage we walk with today.