F. Gary Gray’s biopic tells the story of legendary rap group NWA, with a script by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff. Biopics are a difficult beast. It is very hard to condense a person’s entire life and/or career into a two hour film. Here, you are dealing with several people’s stories, as NWA featured five members, two of which went on to massive stardom. That being said, the film does a great job of highlighting key moments of the group’s legacy, and the times of their respective era itself (Late 80’s early 90’s LA).
We’re treated to an opening introduction of the three crucial members: Eric “Eazy E” Wright, played brilliantly by Jason Mitchell, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, also a spectacular performance by Corey Hawkins, and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr., who is essentially a clone of his famous father. Jackson Jr. plays his Dad flawlessly. One might think that is a given considering the father-son factor, but Jackson Jr. had to go through two years of auditions for the studios to cast him. In the end, it is easy to see no one else should have played the part. His physical resemblance is spot on, right down to the eyebrows that convey Cube’s entire being. And quite frankly, he had a lifetime access of firsthand research. The other actors all had various experience in the field, with Hawkins being a Juilliard graduate. Hawkins nails the visionary spirit and perfectionist ethic of Dre. He is already nabbing more high profile roles as I write this. The cast’s on screen chemistry makes this entire film work, even the smaller roles of MC Ren and DJ Yella, played by Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown Jr.
Wright is a drug dealer on the hard streets of Compton. Dr. Dre dreams to be a monumental DJ and music producer, while Ice Cube is constantly writing rhymes reflecting his harsh reality. We get to see Cube dealing with gang violence on his way to school, immediately followed by police abuse the same night. He and Dre collaborate together at a local club, and this is where Eazy E is pitched a possible musical endeavor. As E wants to get out of the drug game, he takes Dre up on his offer. He funds an independent record label called “Ruthless.” Here is where the journey begins. In a comical scene, the men lose their New York rap talent during a verbal conflict. Stuck, Dre suggests E sing Cube’s rhymes. What follows is a funny session of just how out of sync Eazy E was in the beginning. Of course, the ensuing single from this session would be Boyz in the Hood. The song blows up, and quickly catches the attention of musical manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Heller convinces E to let him be the group’s manager. From here, they go on tour and their fame rises.
Gray treats us to some solid handheld camera and tracking shots, which put you right in the moment of the group’s legendary sessions. We get the musical montages, which feature classic West Coast gangsta rap songs. In one harrowing scene, we see the group merely standing outside of their recording studio, only to be harassed by the police for their appearance. Heller lashes out and does what he can. But the damage is done. The result is the group’s controversial response: the track F*** the police. As they enjoy the spoils of fame, they are threatened about the song via lawsuits, and concert security. In Detroit, a police captain warns them not to play it. They do anyway, and they are arrested amid crowd riots. But they enjoy this, as they laugh during. They know the publicity will only further their causes.
What follows is the group’s swift dissolution. Ice Cube is the first to leave. He is upset about Heller’s contracts, feeling that he isn’t fairly compensated. He, of course, goes off onto his highly successful solo career. Another comic relief sequence is when the infamous No Vaseline diss track is played for Heller and the remaining members. Heller is outraged, insisting they attack in typical corporate fashion, with lawsuits. Of course, the group merely thinks a response song is all that would be necessary. This scene paints the hidden truth. The group really isn’t that offended by the track, especially since they shot first. They still respect Cube and his music. The camaraderie is still there. Easy E is the most upset because he recognizes his success is quickly diminishing. From here on out, it is E trying to stay afloat by keeping what’s left of NWA together. In effect, that’s why this film is more his story than any other.
Dr. Dre also leaves the group. He departs for Death Row Records, with the infamous Suge Knight, played menacingly by R. Marcus Taylor. The Death Row saga could be a movie itself. The final act of this movie is basically a who’s who of 1990’s West Coast rap. Fun cameos and homages pop up at every corner, with a Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur appearance even. But the victim here is Eazy E. NWA is over. He witnesses his former bandmates ascend to stardom, while he continues to fade. He realizes far too late Heller has been hosing him for years. Giamatti does a great job at portraying the double sided Heller. There are touching scenes where he is a father figure to Eazy E. Then there are the crushing scenes where his true actions are revealed. As Eazy E now lives in an average house, he contacts his old friends to possibly reunite. Of course, this would never happen. E was diagnosed with AIDS in 1995, and passed away not long after.
Mitchell is allowed to shine in the film’s final act. He nailed E’s sense of humor and gangsta charisma in the beginning. When it all comes crumbling down, the side people never got to see of E is exposed. The man who sees all along that he was taken advantage of, losing friends in the process, and the man who is on his way out far too soon because of his promiscuous lifestyle. Mitchell’s emotional transitions for these rapid moments are incredible.
In the end, the members bid their farewell to their founding father. Cube continues his burgeoning entertainment career (there are a couple of hilarious Friday nods), Dre leaves Death Row to start Aftermath, to be his own boss. He would then go on to discover a talent by the name of Eminem, and 50 Cent not long after. Ren and Yella send off Eazy E by assuring him his discovery Bone Thugs N Harmony will continue to rise. F Gary Gray has successfully delivered the story of an entire generation. NWA gave rise to the visceral style of hardcore rap music. They weren’t afraid to say what they wanted to say. It set the stage for the next twenty plus years, the ramifications still felt today. The final end credits montage is a nice touch of showing exactly that. Even if you aren’t a fan of this type of music, you’ll still find a high quality history lesson that is sure to connect to some of your modern day knowledge and tastes.