Not much could be further from my wheelhouse than this film. I’m not much into biopics, and I’m not particularly a fan of Hip Hop and Gangsta Rap (more on that below). Still, I’m fascinated by pretty much all subcultures, and this film has been on my radar for a while.
This film tells the story of the group N.W.A’s formation and the individual member’s trajectories or downfalls (whatever the case may be). Although the group includes roughly 6 members, the film mainly focuses on three – Eazy E., Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube.
When the film starts in 1986, Eazy E. is a fairly common (but super ballsy!) drug dealer. Dr. Dre is an aspiring D.J. Ice Cube, the unofficial protagonist of the film, is a lyricist and rapper. The thing that’s easy to miss is how young they all were. Dre and Eazy were in their early 20s, and Ice Cube would’ve been roughly 17!
Dre is depicted as the driving force behind N.W.A – the one who has a clear vision of where this could all go. Eazy is initially pulled in for funding for a start-up label, Ruthless Records. Dre sets up some studio time with an established rap group, but they turn their noses up at Cube’s lyrics. Cube says he can’t rap on this track because of his loyalty to another group. (I’m not sure when or how or why, but this suddenly isn’t a problem not much later in the movie) The end result is that it’s up to Eazy, an ostensibly completely inexperienced rapper, to take the lead. This was really hard for me wrap my head around. Nonetheless the single is a hit, and Eazy is approached by an agent named Jerry Heller. Eazy signs with Jerry which makes him the de facto ‘owner’ of N.W.A. This will cause problems later on!
The rest of the film was pretty standard biopic stuff – the rise of the group, their decadent parties and tours, and, of course, their eventual and inevitable split. The divide occurs over money and power (of course). The other members believe that Jerry Heller is only taking care of Eazy. When Jerry tries to get Cube to sign a contract without a lawyer present, Cube finally quits the group.
Our three main guys strike out on their own. Eazy and Cube begin separate solo careers in which they take turns insulting each other via rap tracks. Dre starts his own label, Death Row Records, but makes a critical error in hiring Suge Knight as his manager. Cube benefits the most from the split. His rap career seems to be thriving (barring a slight ‘hiccup’ with Priority Records), and he eventually gets into screenwriting. Dre’s label seems successful, but Suge’s unhinged behavior is becoming a major issue. Eazy is having the hardest time of the three. Both his fortune and his health seem to be declining. The only thing keeping him afloat is his girlfriend, Tomica.
How does it all end? Via Tomica, Eazy discovers that Jerry has been cheating him this whole time. He finally fires Jerry and reaches out to Dre and Cube who seem more than ready to accept his apologies and move forward. Sadly, Eazy learns he has HIV and dies from complications at age 30. Dre, for his part, finally gets out from under Suge’s thumb and starts another label, Aftermath Entertainment. And, as we all know, Dre and Cube are still enjoy successful careers to this very day.
Interspersed throughout the larger narrative are vignettes depicting N.W.A’s various encounters with the police. The film opens with a disproportionately militaristic drug bust which (if appearances are to be believed) either kills or seriously injures at least one person. We also see multiple instances of unfair raids and questionable arrests. All of this serves to fuel N.W.A’s growing resentment of racial profiling and police brutality which in turn serves as the impetus for the wildly popular (and controversial) protest anthem ‘Fuck tha Police’.
Ultimately, I found the film pretty entertaining, and the acting in particular was really stellar, but I did have a number of issues that I’d like to explore.
Number one, and I guess this is why I’m not a fan of biopics (particularly when it’s about a group), but there were times when the story felt like a bit of a jumbled blur. In some ways it needed some streamlining, but in other ways I wanted more. I wanted to know more about Dre and how he developed his passion for and insight into music. I definitely wanted to know more about Cube and his path to writing lyrics. As for Eazy, I’m not sure it if it was the actor who portrayed him or what, but there was something so compellingly vulnerable about him, and I just wanted to know more about him and how he became who he was.
Number two, it’s way too easy to tell that this is a case of the victors getting to tell the tale. Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Tomica (Eazy’s widow) are among the film’s producers. Cube’s son even plays him in the film. As such, the film seems disproportionately sympathetic to these three guys. Sure, it shows them as flawed humans, but I just can’t fully trust everything it’s trying to sell me.
And what I really wanna know is this – was Jerry Heller really that slimy? Or was this a case of some inexperienced, young guys not understand how contracts and finances work in the entertainment industry? I kinda suspect it’s a little bit of both. In any event, Jerry sure was a meaty role for Paul Giamatti! He could easily have veered into over-the-top villain territory, but he managed to be pretty nuanced. He seemed to have a genuine sense of responsibility and affection for Eazy. Which then opens up a whole other can of worms – why did Jerry single out Eazy for his favor and attention?
In the end, one of the problem with biopics is that they tend oversimplify complex stories and canonize complicated people, and I think that’s then compounded when you have the actual people involved trying to relate their own story. There’s absolutely no way they can be truly objective.
Number three, the rampant misogyny is very nearly a deal breaker. This film not only doesn’t confront the poisonous misogyny present in hip hop music and culture, but it also totally perpetuates it.
One of the truly odd things about this male-dominated film is that there are women EVERYWHERE. The problem is that 99% of them exist solely for male gaze and physical pleasure. You need only read the wording of the casting call for extras to see the thought process of the filmmakers.
There is a particularly ugly scene where a topless women is yanked away while performing fellatio on Eazy. She is ejected from the room and locked out into the hallway while she knocks pitifully, begging to be let back in. It’s a gross and deeply uncomfortable scene, but it’s 100% presented as a cute/funny little anecdote, complete with a ‘Bye, Felicia!’
Of the few women who do speak, they are sharply divided into two categories. There are the ‘nagging hags’ – namely Dre’s mom and his teen girlfriend/mom of his baby. Dre’s mom’s nagging drives him out of the house, and the girlfriend is clearly threatening Dre’s future! Then there are the ‘good women’. These women are gorgeous (and uniformly light-skinned, it must be noted); they are also smart, loyal and endlessly supportive. They are *never* shown nagging their men. It’s clear who we’re supposed to admire, and who we’re supposed to reject.
And, finally, Dr. Dre’s history of violence against women isn’t even touched! I’m sure the writers, directors, producers have a million excuses why all this was left out, but I can’t imagine I’d find any of them compelling. The truth is that including all of that doesn’t fit with the hero narrative they’re trying to sell. They happily include the injustices committed against them by the LAPD, but notably leave out their own numerous indiscretions.
I guess I hoped for a little more wisdom and insight from the older, wiser Dre and Cube, but it looks like they’re not ready to confront these demons just yet. And it’s hard because I really want to like hip hop/rap. The passion for words and lyricism, the emphasis on social justice and unbridled personal expression is absolutely up my alley, but I just can’t get past its apparent tone deafness about women.
All that said, it’s still a movie worth watching. I absolutely don’t agree with all the rave reviews, but it’s interesting and thought provoking nonetheless.
On that note, I’ll leave you with the following bystander’s account of Dre’s assault on Dee Barnes (retaliation for an interview which he felt portrayed N.W.A in a bad light):
“He picked her up by her hair and began slamming her head and the right side of her body repeatedly against a brick wall near the stairway as his bodyguard held off the crowd with a gun. After Dre tried to throw her down the stairs and failed, he began kicking her in the ribs and hands. She escaped and ran into the women’s rest room. Dre followed her and “grabbed her from behind by the hair again and proceeded to punch her in the back of the head.”