The 1988 music video for the titular N.W.A. song was a thing of danger.
he five, Ice Cube leading them, barrelling straight for the camera/us and the camera/us backing away. They don’t stop, they keep coming and all we can do is retreat, retreat, retreat. This long-time coming biopic of the gangster rap group doesn’t have the same raw energy as that but credit to F. Gary Gray (who directed Ice Cube’s Friday) for keeping the balls juggling for two-and-a-half hours.
t first it looks like it’s just going to rehash other hip hop movies - the police scanner/ helicopter/news reports intro was a staple of the 90s (Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society) - but then the surprises come. The 1986 introduction of a teenage O’Shea Jackson, soon to be Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr. - squint your eyes and he’s a dead ringer for dad), has him carrying school books and listening to Tears For Fears while Andre ‘Dr. Dre’ Young (Hawkins), lies on his vinyl blissfully listening to Roy Ayers. No guns, no drugs, no forty ounce.
hat’s left to Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright (Mitchell), whom we meet ducking and diving from the cops after making a drop. The lives of these three, and their relationship with manager Jerry Heller (Giamatti, playing another Svengali type after Love & Mercy), form the basis of the story as initial success gives away to contract discrepancies, distrust, violence, solo projects and rebirths.
ray can’t help but be dogged by the malaise inherent in rags-to-riches biopics: the dialogue is loaded with hindsight/impending legendary status. Things are spread a little thin with Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and Ren (Aldis Hodge) sidelined and it’s a little clean too with nasty behaviour (treatment of women aside) muted – maybe that’s because both Cube and Dre produce here. Perhaps its biggest failing, though, is that it is in no way as incendiary as E, Cube and Dre’s best work.
ut it’s never short of entertaining. It may not have that raucous power of early N.W.A but it always finds a story to tell, justifying the running time. Mitchell and Giamatti’s performances are noteworthy (it’s their friendship that oddly forms the movie’s backbone, not the group’s), and it’s fun to see Ice Cube finishing off a draft of Friday and the beginning of the tit-for-tat rap wars. The imposing frame of R. Marcos Taylor’s Suge Knight brings with it tension and the live performances bounce.
ow we need a Public Enemy movie. Or Digable Planets.