LOS ANGELES: N.W.A. shocked much of white America in 1988 when the rap pioneers unleashed “Straight Outta Compton,” a brutal and unapologetic take on life on the streets.
In a new biopic named after the now classic debut album, N.W.A. seeks to create a definitive account of the group that gave birth not only to the genre of gangsta rap but the prolific careers of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.
Yet the movie, which opens in the United States on August 14, will come off as strikingly contemporary as the nation grapples with a slew of recent deaths of African Americans in custody of law enforcement.
“Fuck Tha Police,” N.W.A.’s heads-held-high cry of defiance against the Los Angeles Police Department, so alarmed authorities that it generated a warning letter from the FBI, and the song remains a controversial anthem in many protests.
“It was through our music people started to realize the issue of black youth and the police,” said Ice Cube, who went on to become a successful actor and solo rapper and co-produced the movie.
In Ice Cube’s view, law enforcement abuses have continued unabated but are only drawing more attention thanks to social media and widespread cameras that did not exist in N.W.A.’s time.
“It started off with the Arab Spring in a lot of ways,” Ice Cube told AFP. “The world is now always looking and watching.”
The rapper — who in “Fuck Tha Police” famously warned, “Ice Cube will swarm on any motherfucker in a blue uniform” — sees N.W.A. in the tradition of non-violent protest, using the power of language — however strident — rather than weapons.
“Our impact is to show the people that you have a voice. You can say something; you don’t have to just sit back and let it happen.”
Bandmate DJ Yella said that N.W.A., which only put out two studio albums, broke up while still on top.
“We didn’t fall off or die or get too old. So it wasn’t finished, and now it seems that we get to finish that legacy,” Yella told AFP.
Directed by Gary Gray, best known for his music videos, “Straight Outta Compton” traces the roots of the then teenagers’ rage against mostly white police in their gang-ridden home of Compton and other parts of the Los Angeles area.
The members of N.W.A. — which stands for Niggaz Wit Attitudes — are ordered to lie prostrate for no crime other than standing outside their studio.
In another dramatized scene, undercover officers in Detroit push toward the stage to set off a riot after N.W.A. ignored warnings not to perform “Fuck Tha Police.”
Filmed with the cooperation of surviving N.W.A. members, “Straight Outta Compton” strives to rehabilitate the image of Eazy-E, the initial frontman who fell out over financial disputes.
Much of the movie is devoted to N.W.A. members’ reconciliation with Eazy-E before he died in 1995 from complications of AIDS.
The movie does not gloss over all the dark sides of N.W.A., especially the intense violence among their entourages as former bandmates became rivals.
Much of the bloodlust in the film is linked to Suge Knight, who joined Dr. Dre in founding Death Row Records. That label brought out rap giants such as Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg.
In a case of life imitating art, Knight is facing murder and other charges for plowing his car into two men, killing one, while filming “Straight Outta Compton.”
Also portrayed as a villain is N.W.A.’s former manager Jerry Heller, played by a dour Paul Giamatti.
“Straight Outta Compton” backs N.W.A.’s accusations that Heller scammed the group out of money by manipulating Eazy-E, an allegation which Heller has continually denied. The film also alludes to one of rap’s more unlikely associations as Heller approached the far-right Jewish Defense League for protection.
While N.W.A.’s criticism of the police may still sound current, the sexism and homophobia in the lyrics come off far less so more than two decades later.
The film makes no secret of the sexual promiscuity of the N.W.A. members but does not mention accusations faced by Dr. Dre of violence against women.
Dr. Dre has gone on to amass a fortune estimated at $700 million and works at Apple. He co-produced the film and plans to release an accompanying album on Friday, his first in 16 years.
Among the actors in “Straight Outta Compton” is Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who worked with three acting coaches to master the role of his father.
“I can’t have a guy come play my father who has done his year or two years of research and looked up the YouTube videos,” he told AFP.
“I knew that nobody could play my father like I can. Nobody knows his ins and outs like I do,” he said.
Jackson hoped the film would reach a younger audience unfamiliar with N.W.A. and its message.
“This immortalizes them. And we’ve got to keep the flame burning because this isn’t just a ‘rap movie’; it’s a real-life movie.”