…for moving history beyond nightmare into structures for the future. —Audre Lorde
The War’s Not Over Straight Outta Compton review by Shelagh Patterson
On Tuesday, August 11, 2015 following a New Hampshire campaign event on substance abuse, Hillary Clinton met with members of Black Lives Matter including Daunasia Yancey, a founder of Black Lives Matter Boston, and Julius Jones, a founder of Black Lives Matter Worcester. A focus of the conversation was how Clinton is directly responsible for creating policies that have led to a prison system that incarcerates black and brown people at alarming rates. When Jones asked Clinton to reflect on how her heart has changed, she side-stepped the question in a moment of raw emotion, instead asking Black Lives Matter for their vision of how to create healthier policies, “Now, what do we do next? And that’s—that’s what I’m trying to figure out in my campaign, so that’s what I’m doing… I’m not telling you; I’m just telling you to tell me.” Jones rejected her offer arguing, “What I mean to say is that this is, and has always been, a white problem of violence. It’s not—there’s not much that we can do to stop the violence against us.” While the desire to want the people who created the problem to figure out the solution is understandable, when you have the ear of a First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State, and presidential candidate, if you don’t have a point-plan of action ready then maybe do an ally a solid and pay it forward. For instance, Robert Gangi, Director of Police Reform Organizing Project, uses his 40+ years of experience in criminal justice to gather data and develop community action plans to address the disproportionately high incarceration rates of New York City’s low-income communities and people of color. There is also People’s Organization for Progress who for 30+ years has been holding community actions and meetings to develop point-plans on the city, county, state, national, and international levels to combat police brutality, racial injustice, and economic inequality.
Or, you could take the approach of F. Gary Gray in his opus Straight Outta Compton (2015), a biopic on rap artists NWA, and present the problems of our contemporary moment as the responsibility of the street just as much as of the state. Gray establishes this from the get-go with introducing us to Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) who within the first minutes of the film has guns pulled on him by fellow drug dealers just before the house they’re all in is bulldozed by one of the infamous LAPD military tanks. The opening scene establishes the black body in danger from members of the community and from actors of the state.
Because this film is based on true events, one way to watch it is to think about what is chosen to be seen and what is not. Is this true? Did that really happen that way? But this is a Hollywood film produced by three of the people—Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Tomica Woods-Wright—it is about—so if we are looking for the Truth, culturally we know it’s not to Hollywood we should be turning. But, if we are looking for a gorgeous dose of propaganda, possible solutions, and cathartic healing, the two and a half hours of Gray’s Straight Outta Compton are among Hollywood’s finest.
Rather than taking a historical lens to the film, if we take an Afrofuturist lens through which the stories of the past are told to better understand the present as a way to imagine a more just future, then the portal to truth is in the closing shot of the scene of the rebellion in Watts that erupted after a jury failed to find the police officers caught on tape brutally beating Rodney King guilty of excessive force. In a war-torn landscape of grey-white smoke and slogans for emancipation spray-painted on walls, the camera begins to follow two black fists raised. One fist holds a red bandana; the other a blue bandana. The two bandanas are tied together as they approach a line of police officers in riot gear. Here historical fact—the Bloods and Crips did indeed call a truce during the rebellion—becomes metonymic prophesy for the future. This truce didn’t last but continues to be called for as essential to solving the problems in poor black urban communities.
The Watts rebellion is integrated into the plot of Straight Outta Compton at a moment when NWA is in the process of breaking up, and tensions between the band members are escalating. There is a fight scene in a modern building of glass and escalators between Lench Mob and people representing NWA’s Ruthless Records. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) leaves NWA to start Death Row Records with Suge Night (R. Marcus Taylor) because Eazy will not cut ties with their manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). And, Eazy’s financial situation begins to deteriorate along with his health.
Thusly, the story of NWA in Gray’s Straight Outta Compton becomes parable. The group’s break up works metaphorically for the division between the Bloods and Crips whose turf wars are killing our neighbors, soldiers and OGs, at a rate far out-pacing the murders of black denizens by police. The Bloods and Crips are national networks that began in South Central Los Angeles and Compton in the vacuum left in the aftermath of the assassination, incarceration, and exile of our radical Black leaders for social justice and in the aftermath of the deindustrialization of our cities as factory after factory closed. However, to understand the wealth and power of gangs in the United States, we need to understand the complicity of the CIA in the distribution of crack cocaine and assault rifles in our communities. If the larger war on our streets is waged between the residents and the police, then we need to organize truces among community members who are at war with each other even as they might be acting out internalized desires of the state. In the movie, NWA can only reunite if Eazy cuts ties with Jerry. Street knowledge—you have to educate yourself to be able to see who profits from putting your personal wealth above the collective.
The complexity of the problem of the culture of urban violence is set up in a press conference after a Detroit concert where the band was arrested for performing “Fuck Tha Police.” A white journalist says to NWA that their “songs glamorize the lifestyle of gangs, guns, drugs.” As part of a choral response, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) explains, “Our art reflects our reality. What you see when you go outside your door? I know what I see.” Dj Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) adds, “and it ain’t glamor.” Cube continues, “You get AK’s from Russia, cocaine from Columbia,” and Eazy concludes the statement, “and ain’t none of us got a passport, soooo might wanna check the source.”
The press conference ends with a question to Cube: “What’s a guy from Compton do when he starts earning real money like this?” In the pause before he answers, the melodramatic music of the score by Joe Trapanese reprises as the camera cuts to a close up of Eazy looking at Cube and then looking away as Cube looks at him. The film has already established that it is only Eazy and Jerry who at this point are the ones amassing wealth. Rather than exposing his exploitation, Cube retorts “buy Raider gear and curl activator.” Here, brands and consumer commodities as the endgame ring hollow as a solution to the problems of the global operations that have turned cities like Compton into militarized drug zones.
Does the hollowness of consumer culture as a symbol of success carry to the end of the movie which celebrates the acquisition of Beats by Apple? This success is based on an economic model designed for the few to profit from the labor of many. It is a similar economic model of gangs through which also a few profit off of the labor of many. The economic parable of NWA’s story in Gray’s Straight Outta Compton is trying to imagine an alternate model where distribution of profits is decided collaboratively. However that model never materializes. Eazy-E is diagnosed with AIDS and dies. The antiestablishment energy of Ice Cube, whose songs include “Fuck Tha Police,” is harnessed by Hollywood which casts him in a variety of roles, including cop. Dr. Dre creates Beats headphones which merges with Apple. And, the Universal Studios film made with a $28 million budget had a worldwide box office total of $180.7 million after its first month.
At the end of the credits, there is a website listed for the revitalization of Compton. The Mayor of Compton has called for this renaissance to be modeled after the changes afoot in Brooklyn. And while Brooklyn may be a site of profit for moguls like Jay Z and Ratner and large global banks like Barclays, the knowledge on the street is that the poor communities, which are predominately black and brown, have been subjected to alarming rates of incarceration that made way for a first wave of highly-educated workers now rapidly being priced out for a second wave of workers who can afford rents at an average of $32,986.44 a year and rising.
Not to take away from the gorgeousness of the economic and social successes of the individual members of NWA, it is time for a loud conversation about economic models that can crack the hollowness of “Raider gear and curl activator” like a forest of weed trees cracks open concrete in an abandoned lot.
We need conversations about how much profit it is ethical to make when people in our neighborhoods are starving. We need conversations about how much profit it is ethical to make when we make it because people in other neighborhoods are starving. We need to examine from what kind of addictions do we make our profits and what kind of addictions do we foster in our search for profit. How do our addictions sustain a capitalist cycle of profiting from addiction? How can we build sustainable economic models that radically challenge the racist core of the United States economic systems?
If the fictional landscape of Straight Outta Compton makes a silhouette of the problematic relationships between gang violence, corporate brands, and the racist state, we return to our material world to animate alternatives. One possible urban think and do tank to work on and try out models of ethical, profitable, and sustainable economics, Hip Hop and otherwise, is the Urban Issues Institute located on the 4th floor of the A. Zachary Yamba Building at Essex County College in Newark, NJ—suite 4171. Old school—so you can just show up in person, or if you want to call or email: 973-877-3239 and firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s a city like some others with an excess of abandoned factories. One idea is to reactivate them for working class jobs in the model of the MONDRAGON Corporation. WE WANT YOU!