“You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge” — so begins NWA’s debut album Straight Outta Compton the seminal record–so influential it would be the name of a new mainstream film that surely you’ve heard about by now.
“Straight outta Compton, crazy motherf***er named Ice Cube…” the song continues, introducing the world to Ice Cube, certainly not the most entertaining or talented person to come out of hip-hop, but one that remains an enigmatic and very public figure. While group-mate Dr. Dre has gone on to make millions, Cube’s output has remained consistent and is (perhaps notoriously) one who has transcended the 19 year old who rapped “boy you can’t f**ck with me/so when I’m in your neighborhood, you better duck/cause Ice Cube is crazy as f**ck”. I mean here’s a man who not only starred in the children’s film Are We There Yet? but believed in this idea so much he would go on to make a sequel (Are We Done Yet?) and a television show named the same thing.
This was the vision I always had of Ice Cube, not the 20 year old who would go on to soundtrack angry protests inspired by racial inequality with lyrics used to echo dissent even 30 years later. But even in those two films we can see things Ice Cube cares about across the entirety of his career. And this piece will attempt to scratch the service of Cube, looking at important films and the music of NWA, giving a career view across several themes.
Mr. Jones: This is what makes you a man. When I was growing up, this was all the protection we needed. You win some, you lose some, but you live. You live to fight another day. Now you think you’re a man with that gun in your hand, don’t you?
Craig Jones: I’m a man without it!
Mr. Jones: Put the gun down.
Mr. Jones: C’mon, put up your dukes.
[Craig raises his fists]
Mr. Jones: NOW you’re a man. Your uncle picked up a gun, too. He found out the hard way. 22 years old. You’ve got a choice. This is all you need, alright?
It’s easy to forget that the boys of NWA were just out of high school, clearly products of their time and place, yelling at their loudest, most hyperbolic statements just to be heard. Despite this obscenity-laden youthful vigor, a strong concept in Ice Cube’s work is what it means to be a man. NWA often resorts to violence and very misogynistic attitudes toward women, but by the time Cube’s debut AmeriKKKas Most Wanted comes out in 1990, he’s self-reflective enough to create something like “A Man’s World” which is a near-critique of his own attitudes toward woman.
“A Man’s World” features female rapper Yo-Yo fighting back at Ice Cube for his views on women (see “I Ain’t tha 1”) in a full on rap battle. Cube’s attitude toward women has always been questionable from those early NWA days to his quick conversation with Shalika in Boyz ‘n the Hood. But something like “A Man’s World” hints at a thread of compassion that negates some of his hatred.
Ice Cube’s work grapples with what it means to be a man and this includes his treatment of women, along with what it means to be a father. It is a commonly spoken (and mostly true) idea that within African-American families the father is absent. Yet one of the emphases of manhood in Ice Cube’s films is fatherhood–being a father is essential and throughout his career Cube has been fathered and had to father others.
Boyz n the Hood features one of the most iconic dad’s in movie history in Laurence Fishburne’s Furious Styles. Styles is wise, he’s a hard worker, and he’s a loving father–but he never changes who he is–a tough guy from the ‘hood looking out for his people. He’s an authentic portrait of a man, one who decries the violence between black men while pointing out the systematic injustice put upon them. He doesn’t give his son much ground, but still answers the phone saying “who dis?” and early on offers advice like: “Any fool with a dick can make a baby, but only a real man can raise his children.” Though he doesn’t play Cube’s father in the film, he is important to remember as Cube’s film career evolves.
Friday centers around Ice Cube’s Craig who has just lost his job, leaving him home on a Friday. Craig’s father is sort of a ranting maniac, throughout the film he is given long speeches about pig’s feet, dog bites, and feces. Despite this, he has high expectations for his son whether it be about manhood (as quoted above) or telling him he needs to go back out and get a job. For all intents and purposes the wacky Jones family is actually quite stable.
In Barbershop (released in 2002, 7 years after Friday) Ice Cube is now about to become a father himself. Early on we see him trying to put together sound equipment in the garage, looking to do something bigger–to do something great for his kid to come. And while the film could have easily been about Cube’s nervousness about his upcoming fatherhood, it instead focused on Cube’s desire to build a legacy for himself.
In Ice Cube’s world fatherhood is a given and now with his son O’shea Jackson Jr. taking on the role of his father in Compton it seems as if it’s all come full circle.
This ain’t no Goddamn school of the blind, Calvin! This is the barbershop! The place where a black man means something! Cornerstone of the neighborhood! Our own country club! I mean, can’t you see that? Hell, that’s the problem with your whole generation. You know, y’all… you don’t believe in nothin’. But your father, he believed in something, Calvin. He believed and understood that something as simple as a little haircut could change the way a man felt on the inside.
Cube’s a storyteller. In a world with few black leading men (as an exercise try to name ten leading black actors; its tough) Cube tells stories about people in his life. His work, especially the movies he’s starred in, feature a wide range of black characters very focused on community (or perhaps ‘hood) life. It’s almost as if Cube is trying to introduce his world to those outside of it, while telling stories of people he knows.
The front porch seen both in Boyz and Friday are perfect portraits of the comical, but often dangerous life that is always passing by South Central LA. The titular barbershop serves as the core tenet of community for those in Chicago.
The three films we’ve been discussing all feature a wide scope of intriguing characters, all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of motivations and intentions. Boyz has got the aforementioned Furious Styles, Cube’s Doughboy, and Cuba Gooding Jr.’s slightly geeky Tre. Friday’s has Craig, Christ Tucker’s Smokey, the strange and now cultural icon Felicia, Pastor Clever, Mrs. Parker, the old and crude proselytizing Jehovah’s Witness’, and Deebo as the town bully. Barbershop’s whole point is to give a taste of what goes on in an urban barbershop with the black role model hating Eddie, the troubled Ricky, intelligent Jimmy, the African immigrant Dinka, the wannabe Isaac, etc… The range of these characters shows a broad culture, one that refuses to be held into one or two categories or stereotypes and one that Ice Cube has worked hard to present to the public at large.
If you can be seen, you can be hit
If you can be hit, you can be killed
From “Approach to Danger”
Despite these often comical characters, violence pervades the world of Cube. Sometimes it’s more up front like in Compton‘s braggadacio or John Singleton’s portrayal of LA in Boyz, but other times it’s like background noise. Violence plays like a radio in the background, when it’s always there, you hardly notice it.
I think Friday works so well because of its comical stoner and slacker bits, but also because Craig and Smokey legitimately face danger in a moment’s notice. The day features a growing fear that Smokey will not have paid back his debts by the end of the day, but it’s a fear not nearly as acknowledged as it might be in another film. Suddenly the time comes and the boys are in a shoot out, running for their lives from people with automatic weapons.
It’s notable that both Boyz and Friday have scenes where the protagonists are faced with decisions about what to do with the guns being held in their hands. It’s also notable that each character’s father pleads to them to give up their violent intentions–again negating the idea of the absent father. Manhood and violence are often intertwined and Cube’s career has walked this tension.
The films often deplore violence, while NWA is covered in it, but even their calls for violence come as a response to their own fears. “Real Nigg** Don’t Die” showcases this fear with MC Ren rapping “All I see is nig**s getting harassed/And can’t do nothin about it but get a foot in they ass, yo/But if every nig** grabbed a nine/And started shootin motherfu**ers it would put ’em in line”. When tensions rise, people are provoked, violence often becomes the only way to express that frustration.
There are plenty of other themes throughout the work of Ice Cube and it could easily be argued that Cube himself is not actually responsible for some of this work (he wrote Friday but the other films talked about were written and directed by others), but the repetition of themes was profound enough to inspire this piece. He may not be examining manhood, expanding culture, or telling tales of violence like he once was, but as the upcoming biopic shows his presence is still felt.