By the mid-1980s, this crime-ridden inner-city community in southern Los Angeles county had developed a reputation for having the meanest streets anywhere in the United States. The birthplace of notorious gangs such as the Crips and the Bloods, Compton also became the cradle of gangsta rap, courtesy of five young men whose rocket-like rise to fame as the group N.W.A. just as quickly broke apart in the thin stratosphere of riches, notoriety and rage.
Straight Outta Compton, the angry and obscene breakthrough album from N.W.A. (whose abbreviated name stands for N-ggaz Wit Attitudes), put Compton and gangsta rap (not to mention Ice Cube and Dr. Dre) on the cultural map in 1988. Straight Outta Compton, the equally angry and obscene movie, tells the group’s volatile, dramatic story.
While N.W.A. was composed of five members—O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Andre “Dr. Dre” Romelle Young, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson—the narrative here focuses on Cube, Dre and Eazy-E.
Ice Cube vents his fury over the daily injustices he witnesses into raging, no-holds-barred street rhymes. Dr. Dre lives in a wall-to-wall world of music, sound and rhythm, channeling his talent for crafting beats, samples and turntable scratching into a street-inspired backing track. Eazy-E, meanwhile, is a small-time drug dealer who (according to the movie’s presentation), gets accidentally roped into the group.
But Eazy-E goes on to play a pivotal role in launching N.W.A.’s fame beyond SoCal. That happens when he meets Jerry Heller, a sleazy manager who greedily takes the group to the next level.
Of course if you’ve ever watched any music biopic before, or any episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, for that matter, you know that taking things to the next level is always fraught with relational and moral peril.
And so it goes with N.W.A. Then add the fact that not everyone is exactly thrilled to see the riot-inducing act show up in their hometown spouting its controversial hit “F— the Police.”
Straight Outta Compton tries to give us a glimpse at the injustices that inspired N.W.A.’s vitriolic sentiments. That context makes it not altogether negative that these guys are portrayed as cultural folk heroes for getting the word out about racial injustice. Jerry Heller tells obviously abusive police officers at one point, “You can’t come down here and arrest people because of what they look like.”
Despite conflicts, we see evidence of strong family connections between Dre and his mother and brother. And the good Dr. seems to have a bit better moral compass than some of his associates. He’s uneasy with the immoral excess that surrounds the band (especially in Eazy-E’s and DJ Yella’s circles). And when Dre later teams up with notorious rap kingpin Marion “Suge” Knight Jr., he’s disgusted by Knight’s violent treatment of others. He eventually leaves the company they started together (Death Row Records) to begin his own endeavor (Aftermath Records).
Ice Cube refuses to be manipulated by Heller, whom he rightly suspects is manipulating and using Eazy-E. Cube pushes away a new contract and eventually leaves the band over the dispute.
Eazy-E wears a gold cross. We hear a quick comment about the afterlife. Tupac Shakur raps, “Pray to God/Hope He’s listening.”
Several scenes picture salacious parties—in hotel rooms, around large swimming pools—that boast women wearing little to nothing. Some are topless. Some are completely naked. (The camera briefly shows full nudity from the front and rear.) A band member has sex with a woman (on a hotel bed) as a wild party rages around them. (We see explicit movements under the covers and explicit nudity when she gets up.) At a strip club, two women dance in the background.
Dre tells his little brother to bring his “rubbers” if he joins the group on tour. Crude dialogue (often using the words “p—y,” “d–k” and “c–k”) references promiscuity and oral sex. The subject of sexually transmitted diseases (by way of homosexual and heterosexual contact) comes up when Eazy-E contracts HIV (and then dies).
A crack house is assaulted by a SWAT team in a tank-like vehicle that includes a battering ram. It smashes through the front door, impacting a nearby woman and tossing her like a rag doll into a wall. People brandish guns throughout, including two older gang members who stop a bus full of high schoolers who are yelling curses at them through the windows. One of the men puts a gun to a brash youngster’s head and tells him he’d better watch what he says.
Police are shown repeatedly treating innocent black bystanders in Compton as criminals, harshly throwing them down, handcuffing them, threatening them, harassing them and generally treating them badly. Members of the band are also harassed, frisked and handcuffed by police. At one point during a recording session in Torrance, Calif., the band steps outside for a break and are immediately accosted by police who insist that they’re gang members, throw them down on the ground, cuff them and begin to search them. Dre leads police on a chase through downtown Los Angeles. Twice we watch news footage of the bruising assault of Rodney King as he’s beaten by Los Angeles police. We see reenactments of the resulting L.A. riots and the beginning of another riot in Detroit after the band is arrested there.
Suge Knight is depicted as a sociopath who erupts violently and without remorse. He pummels a man mercilessly after the guy accidentally parks in Suge’s spot. Another man is stripped nearly naked and cornered under a pool table by pit bulls. Jerry convinces Eazy-E (who’s been beaten to a pulp by Suge’s thugs) not to murder the man. Fistfights and melees among other characters also include savage blows.
In a fit of rage, Ice Cube takes a baseball bat to everything he can break in a music executive’s office. We see Eazy-E collapse and fall into a glass table because of his illness. He’s in a coma and hooked up to a ventilator when he dies.
More than 600 total. About 300 of that tally are f-words, at least 60 of which are paired with “mother.” There are more than 170 s-words. The n-word is uttered about 50 times. “A–” nearly 40. God’s name is abused a dozen times, often with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused five or six times, once with the f-word. We hear multiple uses of the crude anatomical terms “d–k,” “c–k” and “p—y.” The c-word is also used. “B–ch” and “f-g” are spit out. The band incites an arena full of fans in Detroit to raise their middle fingers at the police.
The opening scene features a crack house wherein people are preparing drugs for sale. Eazy-E arrives with a brick of something to peddle. In that scene and several others, marijuana is smoked. Alcohol of all sorts flows freely, by the glass and by the whole bottle. It’s so ubiquitous that Eazy-E actually asks DJ Yella, “Why are you drunk all the time?” They smoke cigarettes and cigars.
We hear audio clips of President Ronald Reagan’s speeches and see news stories featuring ABC anchor Peter Jennings and NBC anchor Tom Brokaw talking about the war on drugs and the problematic influence of rap. But the clips are presented as a straw man of sorts, and we’re nudgingly invited to see their moral commentary as oversimplified, naive and disconnected from the harsh realities of the street. Indeed, Eazy-E suggests that N.W.A. use an FBI warning letter as publicity. Convinced the group’s stance against the police is justified, Ice Cube says, “Speak a little truth to people and they lose their minds.”
No surprise, then, that the film takes it cues from Cube and paints law enforcement in a universally bad light. Instead of suggesting that a small percentage of police officers are corrupt, racist and/or unnecessarily violent, the film suggests that only a small percentage aren’t. Onscreen we actually never see police officers behave with restraint, fairness or basic decency.
Heller interprets an angry verse on an Ice Cube solo hit as an anti-Semitic attack.
N.W.A. always got right to the point with its music, so I’ll do the same: Simply put, Straight Outta Compton is among the harshest films we’ve ever reviewed. It’s no surprise that the story of a group that sings a song called “F— the Police” is sotted with obscenities, the most I’ve heard in a movie since 2013’s Wolf of Wall Street. Add orgy-esque parties and vicious confrontations, and you’ve got content that’s every bit as egregious as N.W.A.’s breakout album itself was back in the day, only now with explicit visual imagery accompanying it.
Ice Cube tries to explain all that by telling a skeptical reporter, “Our art is a reflection of our reality.” It’s an familiar argument that’s been made by many artists before. But Cube goes further, insisting in another interview, “I’m a journalist, just like you.”
But is he really, while he’s spitting lyrics like “We’ll go at it punk, and Ima f— you up!/ … I’m a sniper with a h— of a scope/Takin out a cop or two, they can’t cope with me!”?
The natural response to oppression—which we see repeatedly here—is to retaliate. It’s an understandable response. It’s a human response. But that doesn’t make it a good or justified or even effective response. Often it’s merely gasoline thrown on a fire, which naturally leads to an explosion. Admittedly, there’s enormous moral and social complexity at play here. And the movie rightly asks viewers to empathize with anyone (African Americans in this case) who may be an undeserving target of authoritative harassment and discrimination.
That said, what Straight Outta Compton doesn’t do is critique the potential (real) consequences of the way N.W.A. fights back. It wants to absolve the band of any responsibility in further inciting violence or inflaming even more hatred (on both sides of the gapingly depicted ethnic divide). Ice Cube says he’s only trying to “speak the truth,” but the movie about him isn’t willing to explore all the truth—part of it being that provocative and popular songs like “F— the Police” can make things worse.
When the Detroit police force tries to intimidate the band before a concert there, for instance, saying that N.W.A.’s members will be arrested if they perform the f-word- and threat-laden song, law enforcement is depicted as the bad guy trying to squelch free speech. When the group (predictably) defies their orders, the result is indeed a riot with thousands of concertgoers attacking the men in blue for arresting their role models.
In that, the movie wants to do more than simply inform us of racial inequality and persecution. It does that, certainly. But it also equates these rappers’ struggle to scream out obscenities and threats with the fight for justice and civil rights. So is chanting “F— the police!” really the moral equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (as Jerry Heller insists to this day)? Straight Outta Compton will leave lots of people thinking that it is.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.