Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

Original members of N.W.A. (left to right), Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren
Standing (left to right) Laylaw, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre and The D.O.C. while seated (left to right) Ice Cube, Eazy-E and MC Ren before their performance during the Straight Outta  Compton tour in Kansas City in 1989

USA  (147 mi)  2015  ‘Scope d:  F. Gary Gray                     Official site

The sound begins over the Universal logo, where the first words spoken onscreen come straight out of Dr. Dre’s prologue to the N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton album released August 9, 1988: “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”  Without any major tours, and with no radio airplay, the album reached platinum status, making the artists major stars, eventually going double platinum.  In a startling series of terrific opening sequences, one by one, the film introduces each of the three major figures, opening with Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) in the midst of a contentious drug deal at a local crack house when the cops show up with a tank and battering ram, everyone frantically running in all directions, with Eazy vanishing over a rooftop several doors down as the main title comes up.  In one of the most brilliant musical choices, the immediately recognizable opening notes of the breezy jazz of Roy Ayers, roy ayers everybody loves the sunshine - YouTube (3:58), perfectly defines time and place and the laid back culture of Southern California, taking us back to a hot Los Angeles summer in the 70’s as Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is having a serious argument about the future with his mother (Lisa Renee Pitts, excellent in the role, one of the few women featured in the film), who wants him to find a real job instead of the small handouts received as an up and coming DJ at local clubs, where the friction is deep enough to cause a split, as Dre takes his record collection and moves into the home of a friend.  Ice Cube (Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is seen writing rap lyrics while riding the bus back into the inner city from his suburban high school in the valley, where the bus is intercepted by some serious, gun-toting gang members who feel compelled to school the young novices about dying on the streets when you come between the Bloods and the Crips.  Eventually all the featured characters are brought together by Dre, seen as the mastermind behind the music, like the Quincy Jones of rap, a “Master of Mixology,” taking all the records in his collection and breaking it down, adding new riffs and a bolder bass beat, rebuilding it into something altogether new.  Adding Cube’s raw lyrics and a stable of rappers, including DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.), and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), they convince Eazy to get out of the drug business (where sooner or later it’s likely he’d either get caught or killed) and invest his money in the music business, starting their own company, Ruthless Records, which led to the first release by N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit’ Attitude).   

The history of Hip-hop and rap music didn’t start with N.W.A., as Hip-hop’s origin was the East coast’s South Bronx of the early 1970’s, representing an expression of rebellion and discontent, a predominantly black genre that grew out of crime-ridden neighborhoods languishing in urban poverty, pioneered by lower-class black artists in New York with white record producers between 1975 and 1983.  Despite an effective boycott of the music by both black and white radio stations that continues to this day, what N.W.A. did was provide a ghetto swagger and bravado, a racially charged indignation about the black urban experience of the late 80’s that was expressed through graphically raw and ferociously explicit lyrics, eventually catching on in mainstream America, showing an ever-increasing nationwide popularity where by 1991 white suburban teenagers are consuming 80 percent of the market, according to Walter Edward Hart’s Sociology Masters thesis of December 2009 at the University of Texas, The Culture Industry, Hop Hop Music and the White Perspective: How One-Dimensional Representation of Hip Hop Music Has Influenced Racial Attitudes, The Culture Industry, Hip Hop Music And The White ....  The first rap groups to break through to white audiences were Run DMC in 1984, two middle class black kids of college educated parents whose image onstage evoked gang street life, while Public Enemy, whose theatrical black nationalism was featured so prominently in Spike Lee’s iconic film Do the Right Thing (1989), where their single “Fight the Power,” Do The Right Thing Intro - YouTube (3:40), was the biggest college hit of 1989. 

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
Cause I'm Black and I'm proud
I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped
Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check

Rap contains powerful cultural, social, and racial associations that speak to the racial divide in America, using visual and often inflammatory rhetoric to conjure up images, where the music can often send unintended cross-cultural messages.  N.W.A began a popularization with gangsta rap, but not with their 1987 debut release, “Panic Zone,” N.W.A. Panic Zone (3:31).  A bigger impact was made with the B-side, “Dope Man,” N.W.A. Dopeman (6:18), which is essentially an Ice Cube record that describes the grimy details of a world mostly hidden from view for most middle class listeners, black or white, allowing a fascinating glimpse into another culture.  Eazy-E’s rendition of “Boyz-n-the-Hood” was less concerned with social commentary and was more about conveying a day-in-the-life of a particular lifestyle, as voiced by someone who lived and breathed that lifestyle before he ever walked into a recording studio.  What’s interesting about the music is not only that it led to Ice Cube’s role in the dramatically powerful John Singleton film BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991), but that it allowed the world a window into the South Central Los Angeles community at the same time as the Rodney King beating took place at the hands of the LA police, where N.W.A.’s music elicits howls of youthful rage, spewed with a venomous urban slang that white audiences had never heard before.  While rap is still proportionally more popular among blacks, its primary audience is white and lives in the suburbs.  By June 22, 1991, three months after the Rodney King incident was captured on YouTube, Video of Rodney King Beaten by Police Released - ABC News (1:16), the #1 song on the Billboard magazine charts was Niggaz4life by N.W.A., a rap group from the Los Angeles ghetto of Compton, Watts and South Central, casually unveiling a universe of violence, drugs, guns, and elicit sex, whose records had never before risen above No. 27.  The music is at its most dramatically powerful while depicting the draconian methods used by the Los Angeles police force to control ordinary citizens, especially in black neighborhoods like Compton.  Where once conversations were needed and a degree of human interaction between white and black cultures was required, but the searing lyrics of N.W.A. captured explosive images that were previously off limits to mainstream America, providing a shockingly explicit description, offering a disturbing snapshot of life and a chilling prophecy of the Rodney King beating a few years later, where all the officers were subsequently acquitted, leading to outrage and subsequent riots, turning the neighborhood into a war zone, all captured on live television, where now a flip of the switch of the TV stations could take you straight into the heart of the black community.  According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Director of African and African American Research at Harvard University: 

Both the rappers and their white fans affect and commodify their own visions of street culture, like buying Navajo blankets at a reservation road-stop.  A lot of what you see in rap is the guilt of the black middle class about its economic success, its inability to put forth a culture of its own.  Instead they do the worst possible thing, falling back on fantasies of street life.  In turn, white college students with impeccable gender credentials buy nasty sex lyrics under the cover of getting at some kind of authentic black experience.

What is potentially very dangerous about this is the feeling that by buying records they have made some kind of valid social commitment.

According to Hank Shocklee, co-producer of Public Enemy: 

If you’re a suburban white kid and you want to find out what life is like for a black city teenager, you buy a record by N.W.A.  It’s like going to an amusement park and getting on a roller coaster ride—records are safe, they’re controlled fear, and you always have the choice of turning it off.  That’s why nobody ever takes a train up to 125th Street and gets out and starts walking around.  Because then you’re not in control anymore: it’s a whole other ball game.

Chuck D of Public Enemy described rap music as “Black America’s CNN,” where the film clearly understands the value of N.W.A.’s art in terms of its observational description of life in poor black neighborhoods, and while the media called N.W.A’s music gangsta rap, their own chosen term was reality rap.  While rappers later embraced the gangsta label, including N.W.A. themselves, it was only with the understanding that “gangsta” was by itself an inadequate description of their music, as the term could be used in a derogatory fashion by the media to undermine the music’s significance, becoming trivializing and stereotypical.  With a story written by four different screenwriters, there are plenty of disconnects in the latter stages of the film, with characters disappearing or barely making a presence, where the film is highly entertaining up to a point until it gets bogged down, not knowing what to do with the group’s success.  The early struggles are easily the strongest part of the film, where the talented kids are seen as visionaries, promoting a provocative style of music that had a voracious listening audience, yet the older black club owners didn’t want to hear that gangster shit in their clubs, thinking it was too aggressive and would only invite a gang element and the cops around, causing needless trouble and headaches, so they had to play it on the sly when the owners weren’t around, but it caught on instantly leading to wild enthusiasm in the crowds, where there’s an electricity to the group’s genesis and their early success.  There’s an interesting similarity to Mia Hansen-Løve’s house music tribute, Eden (2014), showing the introduction of Chicago house music in Paris clubs in the early 90’s, as both films feature DJs working a party scene, prominent drug use and both capture the texture of the times, where the first time people hear this music there’s an instant connection, sounding raw and simple, which sounded amazing and felt like something new.  STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is a much more significant story, considering the social implications, because the brilliance of the music is its striking reaction to the surrounding conditions of routine racial profiling and police brutality to anyone black, where the stereotypical mindset of the cops is to continually assume gangbanger or outlaw, associating black males with negativity and unwarranted threats of imminent danger.  The stark public reaction to hearing West coast songs like “Straight Outta Compton” N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton - YouTube (4:21) or “Fuck tha Police” N.W.A. "Fuck Tha Police" Music Video (5:14) is like hearing black punk music, as it has an immediate incendiary effect, where even today, protesters in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri wear “Fuck tha Police” T-shirts.

Fuck tha police
Comin straight from the underground
Young nigga got it bad ‘cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority

Fuck that shit, ‘cause I ain’t tha one
For a punk muthafucka with a badge and a gun
To be beatin on, and throwin in jail
We could go toe to toe in the middle of a cell

Fuckin with me ‘cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin my car, lookin for the product
Thinkin every nigga is sellin narcotics

The film doesn’t really get into the East coast versus West coast differences or even show a sociological impact, but simply follows the lives of a few main players.  A contentious aspect is the portrayal of white manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who eventually partnered exclusively with Eazy-E to manage their recordings and negotiate contracts, which at least allowed N.W.A. to get into a recording booth and record their first album for Ruthless Records.  Playing fast and loose with the facts, this all too conveniently fits the stereotype of a white manager ripping off black artists, as exemplified by Morgan Neville’s well documented portrait of Darlene Love and others in 20 Feet from Stardom (2013), a veritable history lesson on the roots of racism in the music industry.  Since this film is told from the point of view of its own producers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, who hand-picked the director as well, where Gray got his start in the industry making music videos for both of them, a knock on the film is that he is little more than a conventional Hollywood director, where he had a chance to connect this film to the disturbing racial animosity of the present, where decades later white cops are still shooting unarmed black youths in record numbers, headline-grabbing tragedies that continue to haunt black communities across the nation.  Certainly part of the N.W.A.’s appeal across racial lines is that their message was so bluntly angry and real in response to these problems, but the film doesn’t go that way, taking a less provocative, safer approach by strictly remaining a biographical profile, and the film suffers because of it.  Instead it turns into a performance video style movie where N.W.A. goes on the road and becomes an instant success, becoming a self-gratifying, congratulatory movie, paying only lip service to how the FBI wanted to censure their music and how the police in Detroit actually stopped a concert after warning them not to perform “Fuck tha Police,” becoming a rallying point in the film, generating plenty of sympathy for the recording artists, but never elevating the material to being about more than just these few guys.  At least early on there are several excellently staged sequences of police brutality, incidents that feed the lyrics of their music, but in the end they’re just a bunch of rich guys living in huge mansions with swimming pools, where they’ve become part of the establishment.     

Like so many successful groups before them, N.W.A split up at the peak of their success, as Heller and Eazy-E were at the top of the food chain living in lavish mansions while the rest of the guys were still living at home with their moms.  It wasn’t hard to see that something wasn’t right.  Nonetheless it took these guys a long time to come to the realization that they needed to “own” their own material and not leave it in the hands of dubious  managers.  Ice Cube figured it out early, and the rest initially called him a traitor for leaving the group and going solo, but he wasn’t getting paid for what he was contributing.  So for him it was a no-brainer.  But the film is very fuzzy on what actually happened, leaving out pertinent details in the rise and fall of N.W.A., including how Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) lured both Ice Cube and Dre from Ruthless Records to his own Death Row Records, playing fast and loose with the facts, but simply showing Knight to be a huge man surrounding himself with gun-toting gangsters, a man with a hair-trigger temper and freaky psychotic tendencies.  Remember this is the man who is allegedly behind the shootings of Biggie and Tupac, who had members of the LA police force working on his security detail in order to keep him protected from the police, but this is also a man who in a state of rage actually ran his car over two men on the set while making this film in January 2015, leaving one dead and the other hospitalized, where he remains incarcerated at the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles.  While they did show lavish pool parties that reflected the Southern California Hugh Hefner Playboy lifestyle for the rich and famous, they never showed any of these guys (except Eazy-E) even smoking a joint during their rise to success while also failing to mention the misogynist lyrics and battery charges filed against Dre for abusing women, some over an extended period of time.  But you won’t see that here, making this more of a condensed, feelgood portrait, where Dre comes off as a saint and musical genius, where the only time he throws a punch is protecting his little brother.  Not sure the film needs to spend as much time as it does documenting the hospitalization and eventual death of Eazy-E from AIDS in 1995 at the age of 31, who died from the effects of his own lifestyle, slowing the film down to a crawl, going to great lengths to ratchet up the sympathy in a memoriam tribute.  By the end, Dre walks away from Suge Knight as well and the rest is history.  While Dr. Dre claims to be the first rap billionaire, according to Tatiana Siegel from The Hollywood Reporter, July 31, 2015, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube Break Silence on N.W.A Movie, Suge ..., his current net worth is estimated to be closer to $700 million, Ice Cube is at $140 million, DJ Yella has become a porn producer of more than 300 films, directing 26 and performing in three, while MC Ren released a single solo album in 1992 that has currently sold just under a million copies.    

Connecting the N.W.A. story with today, one realizes how little has actually changed between blacks and police, and why, after such a brilliant opening, the film loses its direction, caught up in its own commercialization instead of at least mentioning people who have become household names for the most tragic reasons, as there is no mention of Michael Brown being shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 7, 2014, or Dontre Hamilton was fatally shot 14 times by police for disturbing the peace in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 30, 2014, Eric Garner died from a police choke-hold for selling illegal cigarettes in the streets of New York on July 17, 2014, John Crawford III was shot and killed by police at a Walmart in Dayton, Ohio on Aug. 5, 2014, Ezell Ford, a mentally ill man was shot 3 times, once in the back by a white police officer in Florence, California on Aug. 11, 2014, Dante Parker died in police custody after being repeatedly stunned by a Taser in Victorville, California on Aug. 12, 2014, Tanisha Anderson died after officers slammed her head on the pavement while taking her into custody in Cleveland, Ohio on Nov. 13, 2014, Akai Gurley was shot and killed by a police officer, claiming “accidental discharge,” while walking in a public housing stairwell with his girlfriend in Brooklyn, New York on Nov. 20, 2014, Tamir Rice, age 12,  was shot and killed when police mistakenly thought his toy gun was real in Cleveland, Ohio on Nov. 22, 2014, Rumain Brisbon was shot and killed by a police officer who mistook a pill bottle for a weapon in Phoenix, Arizona on Dec. 2, 2014, Jerame Reid was shot and killed after a car was pulled over by police, where he was a passenger exiting a car with his hands in front of his chest in Bridgeton, New Jersey on Dec. 30, 2014, Tony Robinson was shot 3 times for allegedly disrupting traffic in Madison, Wisconsin on March 6, 2015, Phillip White died in police custody after a violent encounter with police where he appeared to be in medical distress and may have been bitten by a police dog while pinned to the ground in Vineland, New Jersey on March 31, 2015, Eric Harris was shot and killed by a 73-year-old reserve deputy officer who allegedly mistook his own gun for a Taser, captured on a police dashcam video in Tulsa, Oklahoma on April 2, 2015, Walter Scott was shot in the back by police while running away from a traffic stop for a broken tail light in North Charleston, South Carolina on April 4, 2015, Freddie Gray who died in a hospital of a spinal cord injury a week after he was arrested for allegedly possessing a switchblade, handcuffed and placed in the back of a police van where he was not seatbelted and taken to a police station instead of a hospital, where he was found already in a coma from a broken neck in Baltimore, Maryland on April 19, 2015, Kris Jackson was shot dead for a parole violation, killed while attempting to climb out a window wearing only shorts and socks, with his legs hanging out the window, unarmed, yet he was perceived as a “deadly threat” in South Lake Tahoe, California on June 15, 2015, while Joshua Dryer was shot and killed by police as a passenger when the driver was being uncooperative during a traffic stop in Indianapolis, Indiana on June 23, 2015.    

According to Oliver Laughland, Jon Swaine, and Jamiles Lartey from The Guardian, July 1, 2015. US police killings headed for 1,100 this year, with black ..., of the 547 people killed by police in the United States by June 29, 2015, 478 were shot and killed – and more than 20% were unarmed, where black people are being killed by police at more than twice the rate of white and Hispanic or Latino people.  While 31.6% of black people killed were found to be carrying no weapon, that was true for only 16.5% of white people.  To show just how exaggerated this excessive force has become, police shot and killed Antonio Zambrano-Montes for throwing rocks at cars, firing 17 shots at him, “armed” only with a rock, an incident caught on video in Pasco, Washington (with a population of 67,000) on February 15, 2015, while only 6 bullets were fired by the Finland police force (with a population of 5.4 million) for the entire year of 2013.  Not released until August, 2015, one year after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, perhaps a more appropriate film ending might have been the eulogy for Freddie Gray, where the Reverend Jamal Bryant offered his own personal reflections to Gray’s mother, Gloria Darden, from Stacia L. Brown at the New Republic magazine, April 30, 2015, Looking While Black - The New Republic:

On April 12 at 8:39 in the morning, four officers on bicycles saw your son. And your son, in a subtlety of revolutionary stance, did something black men were trained to know not to do. He looked police in the eye. And when he looked the police in the eye, they knew that there was a threat, because they’re used to black men with their head bowed down low, with their spirit broken. He was a threat simply because he was man enough to look somebody in authority in the eye. I want to tell this grieving mother ... you are not burying a boy, you are burying a grown man. He knew that one of the principles of being a man is looking somebody in the eye.

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