the better truth

the better truth

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Straight Outta Compton (2015)
The Weakness of Street Knowledge

“Now you’re a pillar of society, you don’t worry about the things that you used to be”
-Respectable, The Rolling Stones

“You’re just money” - Matthew “Scar” Allen spoken to Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs while throwing cash in his face provoking a nightclub shooting incident.

The Rolling Stones sang of street fighting men, mother’s little helpers and sympathy for the devil. The Sex Pistols screamed about abortion, anarchy and nihilism. NWA, Niggaz With Attitude, rapped about their their personal struggles and were more overt in their threats. They were distinct individuals (Easy E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and D J Yella ), rather than a cohesive unit. They armored themselves by drawing clearly marked boundaries, instead of simply preaching broad social commentary. “Born to be wild” guns are exploding in your face, rather than into space. Here’s how Ice Cube frames it, “I’m the type of nigga that’s built to last, fuck with me I put my foot in your ass”.  The group’s story is an epic journey of five young African Americans born in violent poverty. They rise though the perils of fast-fame and unscrupulous management and become musical icons ensconced in la dolce vita. It is an anti-Horatio Alger story with operatic moments of high drama amongst dreary clubs and ostentatious displays of wealth. 

F. Gary Gray’s feature, “Straight Outta Compton”, shares the title of the group’s seminal first album, which vividly captured the world of Los Angels’ most infamous ghetto. Unfortunately, despite all the compelling raw material, the film is a meandering two hour and 20 minute showcase of talent bound by constraints of fan expectation and libel law. A thumbnail summary paints the following portraits of the main characters. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are the artistic power behind the verbal offense. Easy E is the lynchpin organizer with connections and money. M C Ren and DJ Yella are tagging along for the ride. The filmmakers are obsessed with the minutiae of the band’s rise to the top as well as their complicated interpersonal financial relationships. There are countless scenes of specific concert dates combined with endless squabbling about artistic attribution and money. This might be interesting to obsessed fans but does little for a general audience. The artistic shortcomings have not affected the box office It has been the number one film in the country for three weeks running. Not bad for a bio-pic about a decades old music group with only two albums. Younger theater-goers heard their parents praise or curse the original mainstream “gangsta’ rap album. Older audiences are curious about how lived history is remembered. Unfortunately “Straight Outta Compton” never breaks the smallness of gang life and petty rivalry. The filmmakers extend the NWA franchise by marketing violence and bravado as a tonic for oppression. They might have chosen a more nuanced examination of the group within context of a product driven corporate culture. Unfortunately they they saw their role as being executive brand managers. The public wants tormented heroes not exploited victims.

The press conference scene, held after the group secured a record deal, illustrates the conundrum for both the group and those wanting to produce their story. They are not heroes or anit-heroes but confused young men. A reporter asks, “Now that you guys have made it. What are you going to do with your millions?”. There is a rare moment of silence. Finally, after an excruciating pause, “We going to buy more Raiders gear”. The reference is to the silver, black and white football team colors favored by many gangs. ( ) As an aside, the owner of that sports franchise selected this motif based on his own limited vision. He was, literally, color blind. The film’s writers and director metaphorically share this defect as the cast oscillates between good and bad. The group, unlike manny of the secondary characters, are uniformly good people. They are tough men caught in brutal situations sticking to their grim artistic oeuvre. The idea that none of NWA's members failed to be sullied by the evil that surrounded them strains credulity.  The issue of the treatment of misogyny is a case in point. The film shows Easy E screaming the lyric “And what about the bitch who got shot, fuck her - you think I give a damn about a bitch? I ain’t a sucker”. It is a moment that quickly passes with little rumination regarding the hateful message. At least the filmmakers raised the issue unlike Dr Dre’s treatment of women. There has been much castigation in the press about the movie’s failure to address three documented attacks. What is less known is MC Ren and Easy E’s approval. They both came to Dre’s defense in the beating of a reporter at a record debut party. MC Ren said “She deserved it - bitch deserved it”. Easy E doubled down “Yeah, bitch had it coming”. The perp himself also weighed in, commenting “Besides, it ain’t no big thing - I just thew her through a door”. Witnesses claim that Dre slammed her against a brick wall and tried to kick her down a flight of stairs while his bodyguard held off the crowd with a gun. ( ). The filmmakers choice of omission triggers suspicion about other characterizations. 

The LAPD, during the period covered by events in this film, was the poster child for bad community relations. Yet the filmmakers cartoonish portrait undercut any sharing the sentiments expressed in NWA’s anti-cop anthem, “Fuck the Police”. Certainly SOME officers, under Chief Gates’ leadership, were brutal. The problem is the song echoes the disastrous rhetoric of the Chief himself. Gates testified to a Federal Senate Committee in 1990 that “casual drug users should be shot” because “we’re in war” and their behavior is an act of “treason”. ( ) Two years later the city erupted in the worst inner city riot in modern memory. The film never explores the parallel between the group and the cops. It falls back on the sentimental notion that NWA’s members were basically good, but often misguided. Easy E’s drug dealing is treated as simply a choice for an aspiring business man. There is nothing about him and MC Ren being gang bangers. The fact that Ice Cube favored a dubious music career over supporting his family is also given short shrift. In watching this film one would never suspect that DJ Yella became an important pornographic film director, producing over 300 projects over a decade. None of these things are mentioned. Gray knows that the unvarnished truth would hinder acceptance by mainstream audiences. The credulity of the plot line is based on fan sentiment and the old adage that “history is written by the victors.” Note that the characters who are most financially successful in their post NWA careers are portrayed most favorably in this film fantasy. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube traded flak jackets for high priced flack . 

Ice Cube is pretty clear about his civic responsibilities: “Do I look like a mutha fuckin role model? To a kid lookin' up ta me, Life ain't nothin but bitches and money”. Strangely the actor who portrays him in the film did look up to him as a role model. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is Ice Cube's son. The junior Mr. Jackson ignored the message of the rap lyrics.  He became an extremely talented performer whose years of work guided him to landing the role after a rigorous audition process.  Ice Cube himself also places a premium on stable family values having been married for  nearly two decades. The Jacksons, by their actions, categorically rejects the gangsta lifestyle. Ice Cube and his son are the opposite of nihilistic, drug addled, street heavies. The family has endured the harshness of underclass ghetto life in Compton. Their reaction was to never give in to hopeless idleness.  They became hardworking, disciplined entertainers. Not all are as lucky. Suge Knight, a rap impresario who is featured in the film, is the paradigm gangster. There is a scene in which he corners a nearly naked man with a frothing pit bull, then pistol whips him into submission. This takes place in the offices of his record company while a slew of coke fueled onlookers cheer him on. Mr. Knight felt the portrayal was inaccurate. Events in real life would suggest such actions were in keeping with his behavior. He is now facing murder, as well as attempted murder, charges. He is accused of running over two men with his car while on the set for a promotional video for “Straight Outta Compton.”

Once again it is fascinating to compare those who refuse to abandon ‘street knowledge’ for the middle class mantra of “achievement”. Knight is facing decades in prison while Dre is coordinating his PR team to handle the troublesome fact that he violently assaulted women. “In a sign that the uproar was threatening not only his reputation but also his business dealings, Dr. Dre, who has previously spoken dismissively or vaguely about the decades-old episodes, confronted them on Friday in a statement to The New York Times.” Here is the text:

Twenty-five years ago I was a young man drinking too much and in over my head with no real structure in my life. However, none of this is an excuse for what I did. I’ve been married for 19 years and every day I’m working to be a better man for my family, seeking guidance along the way. I’m doing everything I can so I never resemble that man again. I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives.
-Dr. Dre statement about past violence towards women.

Dre is a high level executive at Apple Corp following their purchase of his head-set company. That transaction netted him hundreds of millions of dollars. The suits at corporate were quick to give a gold star to the new Dre.

“Dre has apologized for the mistakes he’s made in the past and he’s said that he’s not the same person that he was 25 years ago. We believe his sincerity and after working with him for a year and a half, we have every reason to believe that he has changed.”
-Apple Corps response to Dre’s statement

This awkward mea culpa should have been at the heart of “Straight Outta Compton”. The film, however, skirts over all the interesting tension between acceptability and disquieting behavior by the protagonists. In its place is a great deal of parsing the ‘dissing’ between the group brought on by Easy E’s alliance with the white Jewish music manager. Jerry Heller initially brought the group to the attention of mainstream record executives. There are numerous accusation that he was corrupt and drove the group apart. This endless exposition is a dubious dramatic choice.  Imagine a film about the Beatles that dedicates most of its time to dissecting the contract disputes with the manager Allen Klien. This is a well worn story in the music business. You can substitute the group and the manager: Bruce Springsteen and Mike Appel, Billy Joel and Artie Ripp, Credence Clearwater Rival and Saul Zaentz…. Veracity aside, this tired cliche fails to be captivating storytelling.

Strangely the actions of the large labels themselves never fall under any scrutiny. The filmmakers render invisible the central dramatic force of the story. That is the the odd paring of corporate music with drug dealers who sing about killing policeman. Instead they focus their energies on managers and musicians squabbling over scraps. The weird conjoining of thuggery and marketing might have made for interesting scenes. Imagine the group discussing the sanitized lyrics of the radio play versions of their songs. It would be interesting to know who wrote them? Was this delivered from the record company?  Here are examples of the corporate revisions.

Straight outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube
From the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes
When I'm called off, I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off

Straight outta Compton, it's a crazy brotha named Ice Cube
From the stupid-dope gang wit a attitude
When I'm called off, I gotta sawed-off
Kick knowledge and bodies are hauled off

You too, boy, if ya fuck with me
The police are gonna hafta come and get me
Off yo ass, that's how I'm goin out
For the punk motherfuckers that's showin out
Niggaz start to mumble, they wanna rumble
Mix em and cook em in a pot like gumbo

You too boy if you get with me
The police are gonna have to come and get me
Off yo back, that's how I'm going out
For the sucka dumb brothas that's showing out
Some start to mumble, they wanna rumble
Mix em and cook em in a pot like gumbo

Goin off on a motherfucker like that
with a gat that's pointed at yo ass
So give it up smooth

Going off on everybody like that
With bass that's droppin' in your face
So give it up smooth

But here is the corporate executive’s chef-d’oeuvre. Easy E’s screed against “bitches” morphs into

So what about the girl who shot, (garbled), you think I give a damn about a girl? I aint’ a sucker

This undercuts Easy E’s defense against the misogyny charge. In an interview he claimed he only meant to METAPHORICALLY kill “bitches”, as distinct from “women”. (  1:12 ) Whatever one may think of the cloudiness of the rapper's justification the record company executives cannot hide behind artistic license. They sanctioned removing the B-word as somehow softening the message. The film never touches this topic.  Instead we are given the blow by blow of events at various venues and a never-ending re-telling of fights both verbal and physical. The movie makers dip their toe in the uncomfortable reality, but only to the degree that protects the acceptability of the protagonists. This film is about selling product, not bringing up things that might hurt the bottom line. 

There is a sequence in which Ice Cube is giving an interview surrounded by a Black Muslim security team. He carefully answers questions about anti-semitism. He claims to hate Heller, not Jews. The filmmakers introduce Cube’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam (NOI) without touching on the controversial history of that organization. This tactic gives the veneer of raising the issue without… raising the issue. It is the same as having Heller invoking the Jewish Defense League (JDL) after he was insulted by Ice Cube. The filmmakers never discuss that this organization was suspected by the FBI of extorting rap stars. ( The decision to show JDL and NOI in passing inoculates the characters from being involved in extremism. Ironically they have no qualms about highlighting Suge stomping on a random driver who mistakenly parks in Mr. Knight’s designated space. This type of gangsta pettiness is easily written off as gangbanger craziness. What about the moral compass of respectable filmmakers who soft pedal criminality in order to sell tickets? Or the executives who adopt the same strategy in order push posters or clothes…. or high end electronic devices?

The film begins with the same bombastic statement spoken by Dr. Dre in the opening of the album, “Straight Outta Compton”.  YOU ARE ABOUT TO WITNESS THE STRENGTH OF STREET KNOWLEDGE. This sentiment is embedded in the last twenty minutes of the film. It is dominated by saccharine rendition of group reconciliation while Easy E loses his battle with AIDS. The filmmakers throw in a line about the dying rapper being invited to the White House. The truth is more revealing.  Sen. Bob Dole included Easy E in a Republican fundraiser based in Washing D C. President H.W. Bush gave the keynote address. Forgetting the cyclical nature of the encounter it is certainly proof of having made his mark. No need to for a gat or grill or gold in order to enter the realm of polite society. He received and invitation from the establishment political party to dine with the President of the United States. This small factoid speaks louder than any car stereo or garrulous mansion. These young men, despite or because of their street thugs performances, had entered the ruling class. What the film misses is that, collectively, the group has abandoned the street rage and coalesced around Dr. Dre’s reflection, “I’m doing everything I can so I never resemble that man again.” There is a strange disquieting acceptance of surrender echoed in The Clash’s song “Death or Glory”. 

Now every cheap hood strikes a bargain with the world,
Ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl.
Love 'n hate tattooed across the knuckles of his hands,
Hands that slap his kids around, 'cause they don't understand how,
Death or glory, becomes just another story
-Death or Glory, The Clash

That’s the real truth about ‘street knowledge’. Anger will destroy. Best to step back and market the hateful violence as a commodity that can be packaged by people in power and distributed to kids outside the hopeless ghettos. Those executives are more dangerous than anyone you will ever encounter on the street. Keep your distance. Count your pennies. Never give them the authority to write checks. Play the heroes for the crowd. Make sure you’re being paid. Protect your family.  This is the truth the filmmakers dared not tell. They chose to extend the NWA marketing campaign. In a sense it would be foolish to believe that they make any other choice. They’re not scared of Suge. The studio executives are the real players.

Thinking about the fate of Easy E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella brought to mind some dialogue from a long forgotten film. It is about a professional athlete. In this scene he is being seduced by the wife of the owner of his team.

Frank Machin: We don't have stars in this game, Mrs Weaver, that's soccer.
Mrs. Anne Weaver: What *do* you have?
Frank Machin: People like me.     
-From the film ‘This Sporting Life’, a dramatic portrait of Rugby Player

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