In the late 19080s, south central L.A. was – well, just as dangerous as it is now, but less hopeful. Out of this city came the ‘gangsta-rap’ supergroup – N.W.A.
In 1986, Drug dealer Eric “Eazy-E” Wright escaped a police raid on a crack house and met up with Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson and Andre “Dr. Dre” Young and Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby. They were playing local clubs as the World Class Wreckin’ Cru. Dre brings O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson to the stage to perform his new song, Gangsta Gangsta. As Dre leaves the club that night, he is arrested for breaking up a fight involving his younger brother Tyree. E comes to bail him out the next day, and they discuss using E’s money to release an album with Cube’s lyrics and Dre’s beats. They start up Ruthless Records and E is approached by Jerry Heller – who starts managing the group. After being harassed by the police one day while recording, Cube writes the song “Fuck tha Police”, which would become the group’s legacy – as it raises awareness nationwide of ‘gangsta rap’. People accuse the group of inciting violence against law enforcement, but the group contends that they are writing what they know, and they have freedom of speech.
After their national tour in 1989, tensions raise, and the group begins to fall apart. Dre’s younger brother, Tyree, gets killed – Cube realizes Heller is getting E more money than anyone else and leaves the group, releasing a huge solo record, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted – causing some jealousy among the other members.
After N.W.A.’s second record, they have a bit of a war of words with Cube – and Dre realizes that Heller is taking advantage of them. He leaves, and founds Death Row Records with Suge Knight. Dre releases his debut album, The Chronic in 1992, and then starts producing for other artists, including Tupac and snoop Doggy Dogg. He eventually does begin to question Knight’s violent and questionable behavior and starts to look for a way out. In the meantime – 1992 Los Angeles erupts into riots after the Rodney King trial.
With N.W.A. gone, E and his girlfriend Tomica Woods learn that Heller was embezzling, so E fires him. In 1994, he reaches out to both Cube and Dre to mend fences and get back together, perhaps because he learns he has contracted AIDS and has limited time left. Everyone visits him as he is dying in the hospital, finally passing away in March of 1995. Dre tells Knight he is leaving Death Row to start his own label, from which he would go on to produce for many famous rappers and artists as Cube begins to write/star/and produce movies.
Director F. Gary Gray (upcoming Fast 8, Be Cool, The Italian Job, A Man Apart, The Negotiator, Set it Off, Friday) brings a liveliness to this movie I was not expecting. It moves quickly, which is good – because it is really long and covers a lot of intertwining stories. Yes, there are certainly discrepancies, but it’s not a documentary, just a movie. Most notably, MC Ren was angry at how little his character is in the movie, Arabian Prince is almost not mentioned at all, club owner Alonzo Williams referred to it as a “Great fusion of fantasy and reality”, which makes sense. Heller has filed some lawsuits, notably stating that parts of the movie came from his autobiography without permission. And then there’s the issue of Dr. Dre’s domestic abuse issues, and how they are not mentioned at all. Michel’le, a former Ruthelss and Death Row artist (and Dre’s ex) has stated she was regularly beaten by him, which is not mentioned. In fact, there are really no female characters of note in the movie – just naked groupies….and yes, one of them is called Felicia, and Cube does say “bye” to her.
- O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays O’Shea Jackson Sr., and while that may be cheating – he does an exceptional job of playing his father, mannerisms, determination, curl – everything. He does a really great job, and I can’t wait to see him in other things.
- Corey Hawkins got this job right out of Juliard and has lately been Heath on the Walking Dead, plays Dr. Dre. He also does a really great job, and makes Dre a truly empathic character. It would have been interesting to see them layer some of his domestic issues on top of this performance, but as I said, that was eliminated from this story.
- Jason Mitchell is fantastic as Eazy-E, and again – makes him a really empathic character who you want to see succeed. Not really knowing much about Eazy-E, it was really interesting to see this portrayal. Mitchell does an amazing job, especially when things start to fall apart for him, and he begins to really want to pull his life back together.
- Neil Brown Jr. plays DJ Yella; Aldis Hodge plays MC Ren; and Marlon Yates Jr. Plays D.O.C. Since this movie is mostly about Cube, E, and Dre – the other members of N.W.A. do get shortchanged, but again – it’s not a documentary.
- Aldis Hodge plays MC Ren - and if you loved Leverage half as much as I did, you're thrilled to see another side of his talent here. I still wanted him to play T'Challa, but hey - I'm okay with Chadwick Boseman.
- R. Marcos Taylor plays Suge Knight, and if you didn’t find him to be terrifying before you saw this, this will make him terrifying for you. How is that guy still wandering around? He was just recently in a car accident that may or may not have been an accident.
- Carra Patterson plays Tomica – E’s wife, and Alexandra Shipp plays Kim – Cube’s wife – but again, they are barely in the movie.
- Paul Giamatti plays Jerry Heller, and while good, basically does the same thing you’ve seen him do in other movies. It’s nothing new from him, but the character is still somewhat good, then mostly evil.
I wasn’t prepared for how much I enjoyed the movie. I think because I was expecting to not like it, I was surprised by how entertaining it was. It was very well-done, and as long as you remember that it is a movie, not a documentary, I think you’ll enjoy it. Yes – it’s a hard R for language and a fairly hardcore groupie sex scene. I do remember most of the incidents presented in the movie, and it was really interesting to see them again in movie format. Also – sheesh, when did I get old enough that Ice Cube’s son is now playing Ice Cube in a movie?
7 out of 10 – Gained points for all the performances, lost a few points for the lack of truth here and there, but gained points for making a great movie that helps people to remember a group that was important, whether or not you liked their music.
Bonus: Cast Interviews: