Every musical genre has to start somewhere and for gangster rap it was with N.W.A. If you were a young person during the late eighties and early nineties this band was big in the hip hop genre. The path they paved proved beneficial for a lot of artists coming up after them. Besides contributing the birth of gangster rap we also learn that they fought the good fight against censorship. A worthy battle. That nugget of information is not the only thing we learn over the course of the lengthy 2 ½ hours as F. Gary Gray’s (The Italian Job, The Negotiator) film was enlightening in many respects. Besides being about music the film also shows us how music was their escape from their socio-economic conditions and that police brutality and racial profiling is a reality for a large section of the population.
F. Gary Gray takes the three main members of N.W.A., Dr. Dre (played by Corey Hawkins), Easy-E (played by Jason Mitchell) and Ice Cube (played by O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and interweaves their individual stories and that of the group’s over several years. Eric Wright or Easy-E is a small time drug peddler trying to get out of the business. Dr. Dre is sick of spinning R&B records in a club. They get together with Ice Cube, DJ Yella (played by Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (played by Aldis Hodge) to form a rap group. Dre wrote the music, Ice Cube the lyrics and Easy-E was the voice and the money. Great moments are depicted of the band like Easy-E’s first time on the microphone and how awful he sounded. Dre settled him down and advised him with things working out in the end. N.W.A.’s association and relationships with other artists like Snoop Dog (played by Keith Stanfield), Tupac Shakur and Suge Knight (played by R. Marcus Taylor) are also part of this story. Rap music made the members of N.W.A. millionaires but they were still affected by images of what was happening in their old neighbourhood. As is often the case in the music industry, after some time at the top the group is torn apart and goes through a bitter breakup. Easy-E also succumbs to the AIDS virus.
What helps the telling of the tale immensely is the acting of the three main actors. They manage to bring various depths and dimensions to the men they are portraying. These gangster rappers are shown to have moments of rage, vulnerability, humour, profanity, bravado, attitude and sophistication.
Another strength of the film is the unexpected (by me, anyways) moments of humour. There is plenty of laugh out loud moments here in between the profanity, violence, racism and occasional sexism. It really shows how the band members used humour to get themselves through the tough times – laugh so you don’t cry.
It is a film that brings us back in history. A time which has many links to what is happening once again in the United States. A time of police brutality and African-Americans bearing the brunt. Race riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating and not guilty verdict. Similarities between what happened then and what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri are frightening. The more things change and time advances the more we learn nothing and keep repeating our mistakes.
Good times and bad are shown. Their battle for freedom of speech and against racism really allowed others to stand up and shout out when things that were wrong were happening. The members of the band were not afraid to stand up and call out the L.A.P.D. and their oftentimes racist tactics. It is not overstating things to say that they sparked a revolution. They became such a symbol of defiance and power of the people that even the federal government stepped up to try and shut down their records.
One of the hardest areas of the United States is in Compton, California. Until hip hop and rap artists started coming out of Compton in the late eighties the rest of the world really did not know about the harsh conditions there. The streets are definitely mean and unless you can find an escape route you are destined to get sucked into the violence and mayhem. One of the huge messages that you get from the film is to pursue your dreams and don’t let anything stop you. There is a big emotional arc to the story to that exact end.