Saw it mostly because I have been asked by several media outlets to comment, including Saturday morning on one of the major networks, and I always believe in having an informed opinion. I lived through that era as a hip-hop head, a hip-hop dancer at mad clubs, and hold vivid memories of me and the homies on the streets of Jersey in 1988 (as I am sure many did in communities across America) glued to a boombox jamming to the Straight Outta Compton cassette. I remember being shocked by the lyrics. Not like us heads from the 'hood did not speak like that, mad raw and mad real. It was just that we had never heard anything like that on a record before. Little did I know, in 1988, a few short years later I would be a music journalist, for places like Rolling Stone and Vibe, and would interview Ice Cube, Eazy-E (maybe less than a year before he died, for Vibe, and before anyone knew he was HIV-positive), Dr. Dre, Snoop, Suge Knight, and of course Tupac Shakur.
I found it surreal to watch scenes in the movie that I practically lived: like I was there at the New York City studio with Public Enemy and Sister Souljah when Ice Cube recorded his first solo album. I was there in that Can-Am studio in Cali where a lot of Death Row stuff was recorded, listening to Snoop lay down the foundation for what would become "Gin and Juice" as Dre bobbed his head in that familiar way on the controls. And I was on the set of Dre and Tupac's "California Love" video as part of the writing of Vibe's LIVE FROM DEATH ROW cover story where we had Snoop, Suge, Dre, and 'Pac together in all black.
#StraightOuttaCompton is a trip down memory lane for some of us, and a hip-hop and American history lesson for others. Striking how diverse the audience was where I saw the film, people of all races and generations. It definitely was not like that in the hip-hop clubs I partied at in the 1980s, I can tell you that. Striking the challenges to White power and White privilege throughout the film (the scene of Ice Cube being interviewed by a poorly prepared mainstream White male journalist is priceless). More striking were all the examples of police brutality and misconduct throughout the film, including a despicable scene that prompted Ice Cube to write "F___ Tha Police", the most provocative anti-police brutality and anti-racial profiling song ever made in American music history.
The more things changed the more they did not. In the movie we see Black motorist Rodney King being beaten on video in Los Angeles, about 80 blows with sticks by police officers. And then the Los Angeles rebellion explodes after four cops got off with no punishment whatsoever. Sound familiar, a Black person beaten or killed by police? Think Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, and so many others in this 21st century. N.W.A was saying in its own way that #BlackLivesMatter 25 years ago. Which makes it tragic and sad, to me, the most glaring omissions in the film: one is that except for Dr. Dre's mother, woefully missing from this very engaging film is any background on the families of the five members of N.W.A (excellent performances by the lead actors but I also wish we could have learned more about the equal genius of MC Ren and DJ Yella instead of the film focusing mostly on the other three founding members Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and Ice Cube like Ren and Yella were just bit players).
It bothers me greatly whenever I watch a bio-pic and a few lines and scenes here and there are not present to give us a context why, for example, Eazy-E was having all that sex, unprotected (research shows he was having sex from at least the age of 12). Ice Cube has a mother and father but they appear once in the film. As a fatherless Black male myself I would have loved to know about that Cube-father dynamic, especially since Ice Cube is a husband and father of five himself (like what did Cube's parents think of what he was doing and saying?).
Also, a mightily wasted opportunity not to include Dr. Dre's infamous violence against women, most notably the vicious and very public beating of hip-hop TV journalist Dee Barnes at the height of N.W.A's popularity. We as men must be honest about everything, if we are serious about growth, about healing, and about redefining manhood away from violence and mayhem and twisted notions of power and privilege and the oppression and marginalization of women. Erasing Dee Barnes and other women from the history of N.W.A except for sex and wild party scenes says much about how we value women, or not.
As I wrote my new book -- my memoirs -- I knew the only way I could tell my story was to be completely honest, about like everything. That certainly meant my many mistakes, my many failures, my complicated relationship with my mother, the sharp pain of my absent father, the many forms of violence I engaged in, and my struggles to be better, to do better. Again, no real healing or real growth comes without that kind of honesty, or teachable moments for the men and boys who need to see us grappling with our backwards and destructive behavior.
Ironically, we see Black women at the forefront of the protests against the very police harassment and brutality that N.W.A rails against in the film (#BlackLivesMatter was started by Black women and Black LGBTQ sisters and brothers). But the film ultimately reduces the women in the movie to 1) one strong Black mother figure (Dre's moms) 2) women as butt-naked sex toys in hotel rooms and at parties 3) one somewhat visible and strong companion (Tomica Woods-Wright, Eazy-E's wife) in the last part of the film.
Folks say "they can't put everything into a movie" or even the movie's director F. Gary Gray say what happened to Dee Barnes was one of the "side stories" that simply did not make it into the film. That is the problem right there. To view women as side stories. A good film could have been a great film if the men involved, including Ice Cube and Dre as executive producers, would have had the vision and courage to not only tell their story, but to tell it with bold and fearless transparency, even where it would have been an indictment of themselves during that period. I think about this in light of the Twitter attacks by ignorant males on Dee Barnes, not because she is saying anything about Dr. Dre publicly in the midst of this film mania (thanks to a savvy viral marketing campaign), but because journalists have been writing about the omission of her, too. If that is not as twisted as the ugly police brutality depicted in #StraightOuttaCompton then I do not know what is.
Watch the film and then do your own. Engage in real, significant, and uncomfortable conversations about racism, about sexism and male privilege and male power, about violence (including violence against women in our communities), about hip-hop and pop culture, and especially about ourselves. We owe that to women like Dee Barnes (#SayHerName), and we owe it our communities. Because a movie is never just a movie. Art can heal and correct, or it can further distort and hurt people.