‘I’ll buy that,” shyster record promoter Jerry Heller says when a team of young rappers explain that their group’s name, N.W.A., stands for “Niggaz Wit Attitudes.” The white promoter accepts the black kids’ self-deprecation and internalized negativity. He swiftly calculates their money-making potential. Norman Mailer, author of the seminal essay on hipsters, “The White Negro,” couldn’t have put it more cynically. But Straight Outta Compton, the movie that dramatizes Heller’s legendary 1986 exchange, puts that Faustian bargain with N.W.A. in such dishonest terms that it warps social and cultural history.
The year’s most mindless movie, Straight Outta Compton pretends that N.W.A. had political ambition when, in fact, they acted out of a wild sense that they could profiteer through “rebellion.” It’s a distressingly timely film, made for an era that can’t tell the difference between the NAACP, the Black Panthers, and media-infatuated teenagers. It is N.W.A.’s warped non-politics that started today’s widespread endorsement of black lawbreakers as political idols.
The backstory of N.W.A. — begun by Eric Edwards (Eazy-E), Andre Young (Dr. Dre), O’Shea Jackson (Ice Cube), and two others from the Compton area of Los Angeles — doesn’t suit a conventional rags-to-riches tale. We should not overlook how L.A.’s rap generation flaunted its deprivation: pessimism from Sixties civil-rights tragedies; political disillusionment wrought by failed Seventies black activism; and widespread social collapse felt in the Eighties. Thus, N.W.A.’s music differed from socially conscious East Coast rap.
N.W.A.’s surviving members (and also the film’s co-producers) buy into Maileresque racial, sexual, and social stereotypes for their own still-cynical purposes, which, these days, are also commercial purposes — especially for director F. Gary Gray and screenwriters Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman, who lack Mailer’s philosophical concerns. They present N.W.A.’s music uncritically. Their narrative imitates the Eminem film 8 Mile, as if the template of white rap and rock mythology legitimized hip-hop. (When other ethnicities vicariously enjoy black outlawry, their imitations usually go by other names and gain easier acceptance.) This way, Straight Outta Compton fashions urban anxiety as the bitter (criminal) pragmatism of the late-20th century’s drug epidemic. Angry hopelessness replaces black America’s discarded spiritual aspirations. The result is grotesque, as intellectually crippled as N.W.A.’s snazzy rantings.
Few moviegoers today are likely to realize how horribly Straight Outta Compton misrepresents hip-hop history. Some aesthetic background is necessary:
N.W.A. struck a chord with rap fans, who responded to its repackaged Parliament-Funkadelic and James Brown beats. Houston’s Geto Boys and New York’s Public Enemy were superior groups, but childish hip-hop fans and white-Negro rock critics failed to make the distinction. They preferred N.W.A.’s simplistic adolescent angst and hard rhythm to Geto Boy’s bluesy psychological depth and Public Enemy’s R&B and political sophistication. The latter groups’ greater musicality meant less to the mainstream media than N.W.A.’s more exploitable image, and this same naïveté drives the film’s marketing. (Billboards boast: “The World’s Most Dangerous Group.” Look at the young actors portraying N.W.A.: all taller and cuter than the snarling originals. Insidious.)
The makers of Straight Outta Compton offensively connect N.W.A.’s superficial rage with the ire today of the so-called “Black Lives Matter” crusade, but the undigested feelings of that “movement” are essentially as childish as Ice Cube’s witty, surly lyrics and Dre’s apathetic if not apolitical (yet seductive) arrangements. It’s as if a teenage dance craze equaled a political revolution. N.W.A. mistook Black Panther radicalism for a new era’s style. Ex–drug dealers (and admirers), they traded black leather and berets for baseball caps and football jackets. It was just radical chic (what Tom Wolfe identified as the Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers racket) gone ghetto.
Like N.W.A.’s first album, the movie opens with a spoken-word taunt: “You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” It’s laughable to recall how many fans (and critics) fell for a fallacy that’s as much a part of hip-hop braggadocio as macho stage gestures. For filmmakers to use that fallacy nearly 30 years later, latching onto misguided social behavior, is misleading and offensive.
But it fits a pattern: N.W.A. had disbanded by the time the 1992 Rodney King insurrection rocked Los Angeles, yet the filmmakers use that event to justify the group’s truculence. Riot scenes include an image of red and blue bandanas tied together to symbolize Bloods and Crips street-gang unity. Borrowed from recent Baltimore protests, that corrupt symbol sentimentalizes two entities of urban malevolence as politically conscious role models. Fact is, N.W.A.’s “street knowledge” never represented truth, only — and always — teenage fantasy; a romance of the street and the jheri-curl hairstyle.
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Dragging through N.W.A.’s myth at nearly three hours’ epic length, the film centers on “F— tha Police!” an expletive-laden, sing-song affront to police forces who alternately tried to enforce drug laws and harassed young black men as personifications of those malefactions. (“You can’t arrest people just because of what they look like,” Heller complains when N.W.A. is hassled by cops — but he forgets that the police are motivated by the group’s outlaw gear and their typically irresponsible adolescent provocation.)
“F— tha Police” prompted a curiously polite warning letter from the FBI, which N.W.A. and Heller used as a promotional tactic (citing “intimidation, discrimination and harassment by our government” to enlist media sympathy). A scene of N.W.A. performing the song in Detroit despite police prohibition features a mostly white unruly audience — an unexamined social detail. (Thus, hack director Gray earns his “F–” expletive name.)
“F— tha Police” isn’t the heart of the movie’s chicanery; that would be its confusion of civil-rights principles with the lure of riches and fame.
But “F— tha Police” isn’t the heart of the movie’s chicanery; that would be its confusion of civil-rights principles with the lure of riches and fame. Silly cameo scenes introducing later rappers Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, and media star Suge Knight (as the Compton hoodlum, always dressed in red, enlisted to help Dre escape his contract with the cheating Heller) are glib, like “history’s greatest hits” in Selma. These guest spots supposedly confirm that N.W.A.’s notoriety added to its political credibility. In other words: Millionaires’ Lives Matter.
Ironically, pop success is tied to social decadence — the same juvenile, antisocial attitudes explain black social outcasts’ idolizing Italian organized-crime figures. (The Mafia became the standard prototype for “gangsta rap,” surpassing the influence of any historic black social activists.)
This irony is synthesized in a running joke about N.W.A.’s shifting, ever-demeaning record labels: from Ruthless to Death Row to Priority to Lench Mob and finally to Interscope Records (run by Italian-American record mogul Jimmy Iovine, formerly Bruce Springsteen’s recording engineer and prominent in Dre’s ultimate coup with the $3 billion Beats Electronics headphone brand). It’s alarming to imagine this ruthlessness setting the tone for modern activist principles, as the filmmakers seem to advocate.
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Straight Outta Compton lionizes the entrepreneurial audacity of a few — as if it meant social progress for the masses. We see Dre plead to his mom, “You don’t care about what I’m fighting for!” although the film never shows exactly what that is. Rap records may document confused, anxious passions, but they’re not documents of fact. N.W.A. glamorized violence, ignored gang and drug destruction, and yet used anger and spite to excuse their exploitation of hellish urban living. This nightmare worked best on their second album, Efil4zaggin, but the betrayal peaked — incredibly — when Dre transitioned to being a solo artist, production wizard, and Svengali to the next generation with the internalized genocide of his 1992 album The Chronic, a benchmark in black-American degradation.Make no mistake: Hip-hop culture has produced some of the greatest, most adventurous pop art of the past quarter-century, from Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and Apocalypse 91 to Prince’s The Black Album, from De La Soul Is Dead to Son of Bazerk, from Geto Boys’ The Resurrection to the compelling and poisonous threnodies of The Chronic, “California Love,” and even the new-millennial brilliance of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I’ve chronicled and extolled lots of it in my books The Resistance and Rebel for the Hell of It. But Straight Outta Compton disrespects the facts behind the art form. Public Enemy’s stature in hip-hop’s ideological history is, here, passed to N.W.A., a group that should rightly be understood as PE’s miscreant opposite: They’re punks in the bratty American sense, not in the sense of Britain’s politicized revolutionaries. (PE’s gun-sight logo can be briefly glimpsed when Ice Cube starts his solo career at Greene St. Recording, a studio in lower Manhattan.)
Straight Outta Compton’s nostalgia for ghetto chic — gangster crap — is emblematic of the deterioration of black-American social values into attitudes exploited by politicians and media outlets, which consumers and protesters buy — each with condescension disguised as empathy. This is what makes the film mindless. Black social protest — and showbiz bio-pics — used to be better than this.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.