Articles: The Strength of Street Knowledge




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Jonathan McMillan

The docudrama “Straight Outta Compton” is a nostalgic ride back through my formative years. The film begins in 1986, I was still a naive, relatively innocent middle school student. By the film’s closing credits, sometime around 1996, I was among other things, a two-time felon and single father who had long ago lost his innocence to the street life I was living. N.W.A. and the “gangsta rap” genre of music they created provided both the soundtrack and blueprint for that life that I, and thousands of young Black men, led.

A Radio Shack version of a Sony Walkman and a cassette tape copy of “Straight Outta Compton” changed my life Christmas of 1989. I listened to that tape every day. I was a sophomore at Denver’s George Washington High School. Gradually more and more of the friends grew up with began to either associate themselves with, or flat out became full-fledged members of LA style gangs.

We imagined ourselves the actual Dopeman that N.W.A rapped about. They convinced our generation that they were the super-successful, invincible, gangbangin,’ drug dealin,’ hyper-sexualized superstars. Never-mind, the reality was that Eazy E, was actually Eric Wright, a 25-year-old ex-drug dealer who got out of the business due to too many close calls with the law and brushes with death.

Experiences like that make “Straight Outta Compton” such a good film. The screenplay is written from such an authentic place, that the audience relives scenes like a shared memory. This film shows us that we talked and felt the same things they did 25 years ago.

Because it’s a biopic, almost everything about the movie is familiar, but thanks to the actual members of N.W.A.’s (and Eazy’s widow and co-executive producer, Tomica Wright’s) involvement in the writing and production, fans are treated to untold details and even some dirty laundry. N.W.A.’s reaction when they first heard Ice Cube’s diss song, “No Vaseline” is one of the funniest scenes of the movie.

It's a visceral experience to see Dre's encounter with some racist police directly outside of the studio that inspired Ice Cube to write the groups (and maybe hip-hop’s) most notorious song.

Because the music is as important as the story, many times during the screening the audience would rap along out loud, just like we were back in 1990 listening to a cassette tape at a house party. The few times that new music is heard, you can tell it's Dre's signature sound and it compliments the movie.

Surprisingly the film is as funny and emotional as it is dramatic. Authentic dialog creates many laugh out loud moments, and great casting and skilled transparent acting from a mostly unknown cast, even during some of the most highly charged scenes allows you to forget that actors – are only portraying the superstars many of us are familiar with, not the actual people.

The highly entertaining 147 minute film takes every second to reveal the details about Dre’s relationship with Suge Knight and Death Row, Ice Cube’s solo career, Eric’s illness and the current state of N.W.A. Rather than end the film with the dissolution of the group, the film details the aftermath of the breakup.

“Straight Outta Compton” benefits from the 20-plus years of movie making experience from both co-executive producer O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson’s and F. Gary Gray "Friday's" and their combined passion. Not only is this one of the best films of the year, but the best film about a musical group since Robert Townsend’s 1991 film, “The Five Heartbeats.” (’91)

Times and society have changed dramatically since “N----z With Attitudes” exploded on the scene. I remember vividly reporters said exactly for what the “N” stood when they discussed the controversial new rap group N.W.A. Today you would never hear the tile of this group spoken on air. The debate continues how negatively N.W.A. impacted culture or how much they are responsible for the downfall of those who looked up to them as role models.

N.W.A. were controversial pioneers who paved the way for contemporary hip-hop artists who are less “journalist,” as Ice Cube once described himself, and more exaggerated characters in the vein of Eazy E.

“Straight Outta Compton” - both the album and the film delivers on the promise that you would witness the strength of street knowledge.

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