The reality behind Lean on Me, the truth in Dead Poets Society, the story of Stand and Deliver--truth and fiction twist together. If we take something meaningful from a film, the reality behind it doesn’t matter so much. Truth comes in the experience. And, truth is subjective.
For example, one reviewer on IMDb asks, “What is the theme of this rubbish movie?” Follows that up with: “Those five Black narcissistic individuals do not respect themselves, nor [sic] they respect others and they shamelessly act (swearing, acting like horny sex maniacs and perverts).” Don’t forget the guns and the drugs. I mean, if you’re going to be dismissive in such broadstrokes, go all out. If you’re going to conclude, as that reviewer does, “This was the worst move I have ever seen!” maybe you should put a little more thought into your critique than some reactionary, presumably (but not overtly) racist bullshit. To counter that review, another reviewer on IMDb says,
All five members were uncompromising, never giving into pressure from institutions, (including the FBI), the press and other external forces to tone down their rhetoric, many of whom were shocked by the unrelenting capacity of street vernacular to propel the public into social awareness.
A bit more positive, without cheering (like a few obvious fans of N.W.A. amidst the review). Hits on a theme I have loved to touch on in this blog, too, finding and exhibiting one’s voice. Whether it’s for some social awareness or just awareness of self, that “uncompromising” can be everything.
But, I’m digressing a little, because a) I’ve never been much of a fan of the music featured in Straight Outta Compton, b) I wasn’t as impressed by the film as some people have been; rather, I found it to be a fairly straightforward music biopic with all the structural issues that generally might entail, but c) the themes in that music, and some of the themes in the film are vital to the health of this country, and it’s important that we keep talking about them… and it’s too bad that this film will be dismissed out of hand
(and even almost was dismissed by me because 1) I don’t readily head for music biopics and 2) most early reviews I’d seen were by reviewers who were fans of the musicians so it was hard to tell how, objectively, the film might be.)
because somehow the usual tropes of musicians making it big—the drug use, the violence, the casual sex—becomes something more horrible than usual when it’s a bunch of black youths doing the drugs, committing the violence, having the sex. As Travis Hopson, the reviewer for the Examiner, puts it,
In the wake of the rash of police brutality cases exposed across the country, Staight Outta Compton feels especially timely and relevant. It was the veritable battlefield of drugs, poverty, and police misconduct on the streets of L.A. that forged the group into a band of brother ready to inflict some lyrical punishment.
And, it doesn’t matter what you think of that “rash of police brutality” cases. It doesn’t matter if you see the victims as thugs who got what was coming to them or as the latest casualties of a society split on race lines long after we should have gotten the fuck over it. What matters, again, is truth. And, truth is subjective. Maybe criminals or suspects are justifiably killed. But, to what end? At what number is it too many regardless of who was killed?
I’m not making the sense I want to make.
As of today, 19 August, police in this country have killed 745 people. Forget race for a moment. That these many individuals are being killed, are in situations where this is even an option, means our system has something seriously wrong with it. Cops going too far, this many criminals running so rampant we have to put them down—either option signifies a break.
One weekend last year, 7-9 August, 2014, police killed 12 people in this country. In all of last year, police killed 7 in Germany. All of last year. In Norway last year, police only fired two shots, and neither one injured or killed anyone.
In Straight Outta Compton, the members of N.W.A. are forced to the ground by cops (not all white, by the way) because they happened to go outside while on a break at the recording studio. They’re suspects just for their dark skin. (The scene also offers an early positive moment for their white manager (Paul Giamatti) who is mostly an opportunistic sleaze the rest of the time.)
I try… oh, I try not to get too political in this blog. It’s about the movies. It’s about upbeat messages about figuring your self out and making your way through the world. But, I want to list some of those victims of police violence, not just the ones who have been killed, but those detained without cause, those suspected of criminal behavior for, say, wandering through a neighborhood with a hoodie on. But, the list would be so long I’d not have room to say much else.
The movie. It’s produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and Tomica Woods-Wright (Eazy-E’s wife at the time of his death), so the film focuses on just three members of N.W.A. And, it leaves off some of their bad behavior, like Dre’s violence toward women. One of those women, Dee Barnes, wrote a piece for Gawker in which she says,
That event isn’t depicted in Straight Outta Compton, but I don’t think it should have been, either. The truth is too ugly for a general audience. I didn’t want to see a depiction of me getting beat up, just like I didn’t want to see a depiction of Dre beating up Michel’le, his one-time girlfriend who recently summed up their relationship this way: “I was just a quiet girlfriend who got beat on and told to sit down and shut up.”
But what should have been addressed is that it occurred.
One problem the frightened white folks have with these guys is that they spout lyrics about violence and misogynist lyrics like in one of Barnes primary examples, “She Swallowed It.” She points out, though,
I heard the material like everybody else, when I was listening to the albums, and I was shocked. Maybe that was their point. Maybe they said a lot of that stuff for the shock value. There were always other girls around, like Michel’le and Rose, and we never heard them talk like that. We never heard them say, “Bitch, get over here and suck my dick.” In their minds, only certain women were “like that,” and I’ve never presented myself like that, so I never gave them a reason to call me names.
And, I’m drifting away from the movie itself again, as I am wont to do. But, Barnes next bit is important:
Accurately articulating the frustrations of young black men being constantly harassed by the cops is at Straight Outta Compton’s activistic core. There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women. It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy. If the breadth of N.W.A.’s lyrical subject matter was guided by a certain logic, though, it was clearly a caustic logic.
I have a habit of arguing politics on Facebook and a thought occurred to me during the film when Eazy-E and Ice Cube were putting their personal feud into their lyrics. My thought went something like this—of course these young men are going to act up and take offense when what power they have achieved is threatened, why wouldn’t they want to fight it out in their lyrics, with their fists, with guns, when the world has been keeping them and theirs down for so long, and who are any of the rest of us to want them to stop when we do the same damn thing against Islamic terrorists or whoever the latest enemy of the state is? We’re all stuck on cycles of victimization and violence. Some foreigners take up arms against us and do we make an effort to see what their cause is or try to fix the problem? No, we take up arms and we strike them down, and fuel the next wave by stomping our boot down a little too indiscriminantly. Like those cops forcing the N.W.A. members to the ground. Arbitrary force creates an atmosphere in which those without power will have to take it by force, because what else are they learning? Power is being able to put someone on his knees and control what he does next.
Hell, is it any wonder that N.W.A. might have lyrics that suggest the same thing with women? If the only way to have power is through words, your words have to shock people, have to offend people, have to hurt people, have to poke and prod at the tears and the wounds in society and maybe incite a little violence if it comes to that.
As for the movie, it cleans up some details to make its leads look nicer than they may have been (and yet, they will still be taken for degenerates), it glosses over some of the other characters integral to the story, and it suffers from the translation of real life to a pseudo-act-structure that makes for an amazing first act, a pretty good middle, and a final third that sort of drags then ends on an arbitrary note. Will it offend people? Of course it will. It’s got those lyrics that frighten a whole lot of us white folks. It’s got drugs and parties with nudity and (for some reason, this one gets specifically noted by several reviewers on IMDb) at least one implied blow job. Also, it might make you think about how violent lyrics (not to mention actual violence) might be the only options for someone cornered by poverty and a racially segregated society. I once wrote a review defending A Serbian Film in all its disgusting excess because the message might just be that out of a damaged locale, with people raised around violence and, in the case of A Serbian Film, war, their way of expressing themselves might be limited by experience. Straight Outta Compton will not be as offensive as A Serbian Film, not by a long shot. And, if it is, you—not the movie—are probably the problem.