The story of gangsta rap group N.W.A and their run-ins with authorities as they fought a social battle in the late 80s and early 90s. Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E.
It’s rare that a band made famous by controversy can stay relevant even a few years on. But more than two decades later, N.W.A.’s music still has the power to shock and startle. Director F. Gary Grey’s 150-minute biopic doesn’t make an especially strong case for the music of N.W.A. (full name Niggaz With Attitude), though their form of hip-hop – known as ‘gangsta rap’, though the band called it ‘reality rap’ – had a massive impact in the late 80s. Instead, it argues that their power came from their clear-eyed examination of life on the streets of Los Angeles suburb Compton, especially the racism and police harassment – issues that continue to make headlines today.
In the mid 80s friends O'Shea ‘Ice Cube’ Jackson (played by his real-life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Andre ‘Dr Dre’ Young (Corey Hawkins) are struggling to get by – Dre more than Cube, though Cube’s school bus does get hijacked by motivational-speech giving gangsters. Their chance to break into the music business comes when friend and local drug dealer Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright (stand-out Jason Mitchell) agrees to finance a single that quickly becomes a local hit. This attracts record executive Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who becomes partners in Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records label; with Giamatti’s strong track record as the bad guy in entertainment biopics (including his work in the recent take on the Brian Wilson story Love and Mercy) you don’t need to know the band’s history for alarm bells to start ringing.
'Women in general are largely reduced to gyrating body parts; when a woman has a one-on-one conversation with one of the male leads, she inevitably becomes his wife.’
With Cube, Dre and the widow of Eazy-E all listed as producers on the film, it’s no surprise the trio have most of their real-life rough edges removed. Cube’s history as a middle-class suburbanite is sidelined, Eazy-E’s drug use vanishes (though he does attempt to pay his artists in weed), and while Dre’s violent behaviour towards women in his youth is a matter of public record there’s no hint of it here. Women in general are largely reduced to gyrating body parts; when a woman has a one-on-one conversation with one of the male leads, she inevitably becomes his wife.
Grey’s feature debut was Cube’s 1995 stoner comedy Friday, and at one stage Cube is shown writing that film’s script. While this film weaves between biopic clichés – after a scene of police harassment Cube promptly pens the N.W.A. hit ‘Fuck Tha Police’; celebrity look-alikes proliferate in the final third - Grey brings the late-80s streets of Compton to vivid life. Small details accrue to build a bone-deep authentic picture of hip-hop culture, ranging from name-checking classic early 90s urban crime movie Deep Cover and a Public Enemy logo on a jacket as Ice Cube records his first solo album, to lines like “wearing a Kangol doesn’t make you LL Cool J”, and the way Jackson Jr. nails his father’s occasionally goofy facial expressions without ever sliding into caricature.
This uneven but compelling film’s greatest strength is the way it weaves those many small details to re-create the angry, racist world N.W.A. came out of – and to remind us that in many ways, that world is still with us.