There’s nothing more inspiring than watching a kid grow a bold dream. I recently saw Straight Outta Compton, the biopic that introduces viewers to the young Eric Lynn Wright, or Eazy-E. The teen joins with four other talented rappers to start the revolutionary hip-hop group N.W.A. While I was listening to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" in the '80s, these musicians were rapping about much harsher realities.
Their story begins in Compton, a city rife with racial prejudice and dead-end jobs, a gloomy spot in the Golden State. It’s the terrain of the human spirit, both soiled and radiant, that you’ll find compelling here.
In the 1980s, Eric Lynn Wright (Eazy-E) endured a long, often terrifying bus ride to his high school in Compton, California. One morning, gang members stormed the bus and threatened students at gunpoint. Yet Eazy-E focused instead on filling his notebook with rap lyrics. He met the usual cast of criminals (he dealt drugs for a time), but also encountered other teens who shared his independence and vision.
Eazy-E soon joined forces with Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, and MC Ren. They held out for a bold dream —making it in the music world — a goal they achieved by working hard, being entrepreneurial, and having something big to say about the violent streets and urban culture that shaped their world.
N.W.A. soon finds an audience. Fans connect with the group’s bass-driven beats and narratives of policy brutality and racial profiling. Yet the rappers faced the constant sting of police harassment. In one scene, they step out of the studio to take a break from rehearsal only to have the police rush over and force them to the ground in a humiliating display of power.
Watching the scene, I find myself reeling, asking, “How can officers carry out this abuse?” Actor Jason Mitchell, who plays Eazy-E, skillfully reveals his character’s pain through smoky eyes that reflect his vulnerability.
Daily experiences supply the group with material for their lyrics. Eventually, the F.B.I. sends a warning letter to members, suggesting they stifle their criticism of law enforcement. But Eazy-E swiftly drafts a plan to contact the press and demand protection under the First Amendment. He pushed on, no longer the kid who stored experiences in a secret notebook.
For cultural context, news clips describing riots in L.A. and the Rodney King case are woven into the film. Today, the media reports on similar stories of police abuse and harassment against African-Americans. Newspapers inform, but art can build empathy. Empathizing with others helps us to honor and look out for all who live in our community.
Straight Outta Compton shares an emotional, human story that invites us to consider the line between maintaining self-control and inflicting damage on others. In another powerful scene, Eazy-E tells his manager he was physically beaten by record producer Suge Knight. He wants revenge, but the manager urges him to avoid violence. “Why do I have to take the high road?” he asks. When he takes the path, my admiration grows. It isn't always easy to turn the other cheek.
The question of how to live peaceably in community with others and demonstrate compassion affects all of us. I'm encouraging my parents, who were avid Beatles fans, to go and see this film. I'm certain they won't appreciate N.W.A.'s musical style, but no matter. Straight Outta Compton has a story that transcends musical genres and speaks, instead, to the human condition.