Directed by F. Gary Grey
A review of the film
This past weekend Judi and I saw the film Straight Outta Compton. I had just finished an eight-hour shift at work, and seeing a film after work usually begins to put me to sleep. This film is two and one-half hours long, but I stayed wide-awake and was even energized at the end.
What is so compelling about this film? First we can look at the story.
Straight Outta Compton is the story of the rap group NWA (N-word With an Attitude). We see how the members of this group, raised in Compton, California, saw how their was little chance of escaping the violence surrounding them where they lived. Between the gangs and the police, just attempting to live one’s life was a constant struggle.
Dr. Dre had a talent for imagining the rhythms and teamed with Ice Cube who wrote the lyrics to their music. Easy-E had been a drug dealer and supplied the early financing for the group. Dr. Dre taught Easy-E how to use his voice on their songs and he became a leading vocalist.
Then, we see how a club owner, as well as record company executives found the music of NWA to be repulsive. They all saw how this music was immensely popular with young people, but apparently were intimidated by the raw anger and rage expressed in the songs. They were especially intimidated by the NWA song, F____ the Police.
Eventually the NWA became immensely popular and the group members are suddenly wealthy. However, their wealth in compromised by various promoters who care more about money than the welfare of the performers.
Those who survive these obstacles, learn how to forge their own identities and gain vast quantities of wealth in the process.
In order to gain a better perspective to this film, I looked at some of the speeches and writings of James Baldwin who was one of the most profound writers in the history of this country. When we see how the members of NWA experienced brutality from police officers we might think about the following passage by James Baldwin.
“One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long. The humiliation did not apply merely to working days, or workers; I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots. Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die. Others fled to other states and cities––that is, to other ghettos. Some went on wine or whisky or the needle, and are still on it. And others, like me fled into the church.”
Why do the police brutalize Black people? Baldwin explains this in the following passages.
“A mob cannot afford to doubt: that the Jews killed Christ or that niggers want to rape their sisters or that anyone who fails to make it in the land of the free and the home of the brave deserves to be wretched. But these ideas do not come from the mob. They come from the state, which creates and manipulates the mob. The idea of black persons as property, for example, does not come from the mob. It is not a spontaneous idea. It does not come from the people, who knew better, who thought nothing of intermarriage until they were penalized for it: this idea comes from the architects of the American States. These architects decided that the concept of Property was more important––more real––than the possibilities of the human being.”
“The point of all this is that black men were brought here as a source of cheap labor. They were indispensable to the economy. In order to justify the fact that men were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were indeed animals and deserved to be treated like animals. Therefore it is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history. The reason is that this “animal,” once he suspects his own worth, once he starts believing that he is a man, has begun to attack the entire power structure. This is why America has spent such a long time keeping the Negro in his place. What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand. It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh. And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.”
The year is 2015. Seeing the film Straight Outta Compton shows how Baldwin’s words continue to ring true 52 years after they were written.
The difference between then and now
My first year of high school was in 1967. This was the year of the rebellion in Newark as well as hundreds of other cities in this country. The anger that had built up over the years from the near constant humiliation of the Black community crossed over to rage.
In 1968 this rage was further fueled by the assassination of Martin Luther King. King had been an advocate of non-violence and the government sent him to prison several times for his efforts in support of the civil rights movement.
In 1968 King went to Memphis, Tennessee to support Black sanitation workers who were on strike. Their principal slogan was “I Am a Man.” King, who went to jail in non-violent disobedience was shot down in cold blood. The Black community responded with rebellions throughout the country. Clearly the anger had continued to turn into rage.
Back in those days it was difficult to make a living. However, the 1970’s were the highpoint in the standard of living in this country. This was the result of the fact that the unions and the civil rights movement forced employers and the government to give workers a larger share of the wealth in this country.
College tuition in those days was a tiny fraction of what it is today. While the jobs of those days were difficult, they weren’t very hard to come by. Working people had a chance to own a home, purchase a car, and send their children to college. These weren’t the “good old days,” but it was easier to make a living.
Today every aspect of life is more expensive. This is a reflection of the fact that real wages have gone down in the past forty years. This deteriorating standard of living has hit the Black and Latino communities the hardest.
Yes, the music of today is different from the music I grew up with. The Temptations, The Four Tops, and Aretha Franklin have completely different musical styles from NWA. My opinion is that the music of NWA is an expression of rage felt by young people in the Black community. This expression of rage comes in part from the deteriorating living conditions people experience today.
In 1967 & 1968 many people were critical of the rebellions. However, the feeling of anger and rage were only human responses to the conditions people experienced.
The popularity of NWA also is an affirmation that the rage people feel is real and not imaginary. NWA received considerable support when they refused to be intimidated and performed their song F___ the Police.
Today a change has taken place that is different from the past. Today there is a political movement called Black Lives Matter. This means that the rage people feel can be channeled into real and meaningful political action.
One dramatic moment in Straight Outta Compton was about the televised beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. We saw how the members of NWA reacted to the “not guilty” verdict for the officers who beat Rodney King.
Given the context of this film we this verdict from a different perspective. This wasn’t just a gross miscarriage of justice. This verdict demonstrated how the government in this country had no intention of doing anything about the routine brutality conducted by the police in the Black community. In spite of the fact that the members of NWA had become millionaires, they felt the injustice of this decision personally.
There are those who argue that nothing will change in this country. I will end this review with another quotation from James Baldwin that summarizes my thinking on this issue.
“Power, then, which can have no morality itself, is yet dependent on human energy, on the wills and desires of human beings. When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt. When this happens, and it is happening now, power can only be defended by thugs and mediocrities––and seas of blood. The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, and dread looking into the eyes of their young; while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything. They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them. They realize this––paradoxically––by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principals on which a new world will be built.”
The quotations of James Baldwin for this review were taken from his book The Price of the Ticket.