Straight Outta Compton
Special to The History Place
In his bestseller about saving a man on death row, Just Mercy, attorney/law professor Bryan Stevenson identifies four distinct eras in the history of African Americans: slavery, terrorism, apartheid, and mass incarceration. Arguably this last era may be drawing to a close, as an African American completes his second term in the White House and the calls for sentencing reforms grow louder and more insistent.
Whether or not I’m right about that, in the 1980s and early 90s, the era of crack cocaine and the War on Drugs, with its exceptionally heavy handed police tactics, was in full howl, and in no place more than in Los Angeles. Out of this ugly patch of urban American history, lowlighted by the Rodney King beating, the subsequent travesty of a trial in which the four LA cops caught on video brutally beating King were all acquitted, resulting in the city’s all-time worst riots, was born Gansta Rap.
Straight Outta Compton is the bio-drama of the fathers of this Hip Hop genre: Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Easy-E (Jason Mitchell). Paul Giamatti turns in his best performance to date as the music promoter Jerry Heller, a Sixties pioneer who had introduced the likes of Pink Floyd to the U.S., but who was on the downside of that early career when he latched onto NWA, the Cube-Dre-E group. He provided the expertise and the entrées that enabled NWA to break into the big time.
This two-and-a-half hour film carries the trios’ story forward through the Eighties and into the early Nineties with such energy that the time literally flew by for me. And, frankly, I’ve never been a fan of Hip Hop. If bad language bothers you, skip this movie. But get past the raw dialog and the vicious cycle of gang violence and police brutality, and you will be rewarded with compelling performances by three very talented young actors, who open your eyes to rappers’ perspective on the hard, cruel world.
No matter how famous the trio became, no matter how much money they earned or how many gold and platinum records went on their walls, tragedy always stalked close behind. During their first big bus tour, Dre’s younger brother is murdered back home in Compton. Dre tortures himself for not bringing his Bro along on the bus. The tours themselves attracted a lot of police attention at a time when “F*** the Police” was NWA’s biggest hit.
The ultimate tragedy befalls Easy E, a heterosexual victim of the HIV plague that was a constant specter mingling in the wild parties of those halcyon days of fame and fortune. Internal strife in the rappers’ organization, punctuated by occasional bouts of physical violence, and the eventual parting the trio’s ways, added to the tumult and tragedy that were as emblematic of their saga, as were the fortune and glory.
Like Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem Howl, the lyrics penned by Cube, Dre and E gave a voice to the frustrated outsiders of their time. That their art transcended the African American ghettos, and attracted a nationwide audience, is a testimony to the fundamental merits of what on the surface may seem to some a mere stab at sensationalism.
During the same general time span on the other side of the continent, 2 Live Crew was similarly stretching the limits of the First Amendment with Hip Hop material that seemed to many, including no few policemen, prosecutors and judges, to be pure, unabashed obscenity. Their 1989 As Nasty As They Wanna Be album was ruled by a federal judge to be obscene, and therefore fair game for suppression at a time when almost nothing was being censored anymore. (An appellate court later overturned the verdict.)
Whether or not the injustices decried by NWA or the sexuality espoused by 2 Live Crew strike sympathetic chords with you, it’s hard to deny that rappers made a contribution to free speech rights during those tumultuous times.
Straight Outta Compton chronicles perhaps the most important protagonists of that era of Black musical rebellion. I enjoyed it, I learned from it, and I recommend it to you.
Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use.
Dr. Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia lawyer, consultant and writer, whose webpage is https://jamescastagnera.wordpress.com/. His most recent book is Handbook for Student Law for Higher Education Administrators (Revised Edition 2014).