F. Gary Gray’s smartest decision as the director of 2015’s surprise hit Straight Outta Compton – detailing the meteoric rise of one of gangsta rap’s greatest success stories, Niggaz Wit Attitudes – was to make their hugely popular and controversial hit ‘Fuck Tha Police’ a major thematic focus of the film. Well, the absolute smartest decision he made was to make the biopic itself a very entertaining and well told story, with great acting from its fresh young cast (Jason Mitchell’s charming, heartbreaking portrayal of tragic hip-hop icon Eazy-E is particularly worthy of acclaim), confident direction with impeccable stylistic flourishes, and a cracking (and surprisingly funny) script that pays respects to all involved in the seminal music group’s progression from streets to studio.
But yes, the song. Igniting the collective spirit and passion of an entire culture takes an especially explosive work of art to accomplish. In Gray’s movie, when NWA are about to take the stage whilst in Detroit on their national tour, local city law enforcement posted at their show threaten the group members with violence if they perform the Ice Cube-penned street protest ‘Fuck Tha Police’. The track itself has rapidly become an extremely provocative smash hit, and the boys in blue want nothing to do with it. The cops do not want the lives of policemen endangered by the hip-hop hungry hoi polloi mobbing NWA’s show, so they ban it.
And so the artists perform for their devoted fans, with the police warning hanging above their heads like a dark cloud. Ice Cube – a strong debut performance by Cube’s own son O’Shea Jackson, Jr. – shows the most discomfort, shooting loaded looks at the menacing cops lurking in the crowd. He looks back and forth between his friends and his enemies, his face growing more determined as Gray skillfully ratchets up the tense pace of the scene to a crescendo.
And then it happens; unmistakeable movie magic. Shrugging off the shackles of forced censorship, the camera glides through the air towards NWA as they dive headfirst into “Fuck tha Police”, causing their fans to erupt in ecstasy and the police to shut down the show in retaliation. It’s the creative impact of NWA in microcosm.
It is also, sadly, a reminder to all of us that NWA’s crusade against police brutality, racial profiling and subjugation (via hardcore, commercially successful gangsta rap) is far from over. When O’Shea Jackson, Jr. – playing his father Ice Cube – quotes at a press conference, “Our art is a reflection of our reality”, he’s responding to a question posed as to whether NWA absolutely need to talk about violence, police brutality and crime in their music. It resonates within the context of the characters and their position in opposing censorship, but even more deeply with the viewer given that the reality they speak of has yet to truly evolve in the last two decades since Straight Outta Compton’s original album release.
NWA’s call for justice has only been rallied by other provocative, socially charged artworks such as the acclaimed television show “The Wire” and Kendrick Lamar’s critically lauded, third studio album To Pimp A Butterfly.
“The Wire” is a crime show focusing primarily on the interpersonal relationships between the citizens of Baltimore, Maryland, in the USA – the cops, the politicians, the criminals, the addicts – as they try to live with (and survive) institutional racism, class warfare and political machination. Generally regarded amongst the Television Gods as the greatest show of all time, its intelligent themes, flawless acting (by a masterful – and mostly unknown – cast of character actors), and powerful, intricate storytelling make it a must watch today as NWA’s original concerns remain a painful truth.
To Pimp A Butterfly is the latest showcase of Lamar’s considerable talents, and is what I would consider a spiritual successor to Straight Outta Compton. It is Lamar’s rallying cry for not only African-Americans to unify as a culture and fight back against oppression, but for all people who find themselves trod upon by the powers that be to protect their right to be who they want. His challenging lyrics and technical prowess cement him as a descendant of NWA’s pedigree, and along with the charisma, raw power and producing skills of the original group members, you may be convinced that he is in fact NWA reincarnated. “Misusing your influence…sometimes I did the same”, he quotes across the entire album. I believe he’s calling out to the same people NWA called out, as showcased with incredible passion in Gray’s terrific biopic Straight Outta Compton.
The song Fuck tha Police is a prominent aspect of the movie, and I suspect it is a major reason why the movie has been such a success. It grounds the characters and gives their motivations and drive context. It mirrors NWA’s concerns as a music group, reflecting their own sentiment about an important issue and bringing us along for the ride as they tell the world how they feel. And it is thought-provoking, prone to make you think about other provocative artworks you have been exposed to over the years that have had a real impact on your life. If you haven’t seen Straight Outta Compton yet, you should go. Fuck tha Police elevates it to another level.