With no-holds-barred lyrics, rapid-fire rhymes and explosive, hard-hitting beats, the quintet (Cube exited after their debut album) not only influenced a generation of hip-hop artists but also helped bring underrepresented black voices to the mainstream and into the multiplex. Films like “Boyz n the Hood” or “Menace II Society” probably wouldn’t have been made without the late-'80s success of N.W.A and like-minded musical acts, who were expressing the frustrations of inner-city life by discussing poverty, drugs, gang violence and police brutality.
“Straight Outta Compton” -- produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube -- is the first film to dramatize the group’s controversial ascension, but N.W.A’s angry message had found its way onto the big screen in a variety of different ways much earlier. The group’s debut album arrived just as a new wave of black filmmakers -- influenced by hip-hop culture as much as cinema history -- began depicting similar stories and characters in their films.
Here’s some recommended additional viewing for moviegoers headed to “Straight Outta Compton” this weekend.
The social drama: “Boyz n the Hood”
Sharing a title with an Eazy-E song, “Boyz” brought many of N.W.A’s lyrical themes to the multiplex and, eventually, to Oscar night. Depicting the troubled lives of young black men near the same streets that N.W.A had been chronicling (the film takes place in Crenshaw), “Boyz” starred Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut and -- in his film debut -- Ice Cube as three friends coming of age in the presence of gang violence and police brutality. “Boyz” was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and 23-year-old John Singleton was nominated for original screenplay and director at the Academy Awards.
See also: “Fresh,” “Straight Outta Brooklyn,” “Poetic Justice,” “Baby Boy”
The gangster film: “Menace II Society”
While “Boyz n the Hood” allowed a ray of hope for at least one of its three main protagonists, the angry “Menace” stepped up the violence and tragedy quotient in the manner of earlier gangster films. “Menace” finds impressionable South Central teenager Caine (Tyrin Turner) falling into a life of increasingly reckless crime along with his memorably menacing pal, O-Dog (Larenz Tate). Indicting the cyclical nature of violence in an area where opportunities are limited, the bleak “Menace” gives Caine a glimpse of a better future, only to have it taken away as his past sins come back to haunt him. Rumor has it that N.W.A’s MC Ren was considered for the supporting role of A-Wax but turned it down (the role instead went to fellow Compton rapper MC Eiht). “Menace” marked the directorial debut of the Hughes Brothers, who later helmed “From Hell” and “The Book of Eli.”
See also: “Scarface,” “Goodfellas,” “New Jack City,” “Juice,” “Carlito’s Way,” “American Gangster,” et al.
The spoof: “Fear of a Black Hat”
On the lighter side, this mockumentary – often, accurately, dubbed the “This Is Spinal Tap” of hip-hop -- sends up the common tropes of gangsta rap, represented by the fictional trio N.W.H. (the “H” stands for “Hats”). Although the title is derived from Public Enemy’s seminal album “Fear of a Black Planet,” the film’s main satirical target is the hyper-masculine style of N.W.A and their imitators, as well as the music industry itself. Star/writer/director Rusy Cundieff later became a key player behind the scenes of “Chappelle’s Show.”
See also: “CB4,” “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood,” “The Wash”
Actors With Attitude
While Dr. Dre has made a fortune behind the scenes as a producer and entrepreneur, it’s Ice Cube who is far and away N.W.A’s biggest success story on the silver screen. After appearing in dramatic fare like “Boyz n the Hood,” “Higher Learning” and the thriller “Trespass,” Cube turned his photogenic perma-scowl into high-grossing comedies, such as the “Friday” series, the “Barbershop” films and “Are We There Yet?” and its sequel.
More recently, he’s been part of the “21 Jump Street” reboot franchise and starred opposite Kevin Hart in the hit “Ride Along.” In addition to “Boyz,” some of Cube’s best dramatic work came in 1999’s “Three Kings,” David O. Russell’s surreal look at the first Gulf War, which costarred fellow rapper-turned-actor Mark Wahlberg, director Spike Jonze and George Clooney.
Meanwhile, MC Ren’s movie career consists of the little-seen 2005 drama “Lost in the Game,” which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in.
Dr. Dre made his big screen debut in Gray’s 1996 thriller “Set It Off” and later had a small role in the Oscar-winning “Training Day” in 2001. His sole starring role so far was in the 2001 comedy “The Wash,” in which he and frequent collaborator Snoop Dogg play car wash employees who get involved in a kidnapping caper. Eminem, Ludacris and Xzibit also appear in small roles.
More hip-hop biopics
“Straight Outta Compton” is the most recent in a slew of music biographies, following 2014’s “Get On Up” (James Brown) and “Jimi: All Is By My Side” (Jimi Hendrix) and this year’s “Love and Mercy” (Brian Wilson). Biopics focusing on hip-hop stars have had an inconsistent track record, with 2002’s “8 Mile” -- an autobiographical look at Eminem’s early days in Detroit -- receiving the most critical and commercial success.
“Krush Groove,” a fictionalized look at the inception of Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s Def Jam Recordings featuring Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, pioneered the subgenre in 1985. More recent efforts include 2009’s “Notorious,” centered on the rise and fall of Notorious B.I.G.; 2005’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” 50 Cent’s attempt at an “8 Mile"-like autobiography; and 2006’s “ATL,” which looked at the early days of the Atlanta scene (inspired by the lives of producer Dallas Austin and TLC’s T-Boz), and featured T.I., OutKast’s Big Boi and others.
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