~ Heather Austin
The Story of NWA is Inherently Political
“F*#k the police comin’ straight from the underground, a young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown. And not the other colour so police think, they have the authority to kill a minority.” – Ice Cube
Straight Outta Compton tells the incredible and jarring story of “the most dangerous group in the world”. While it is an entertaining and action packed Hollywood movie, it also touches on racial profiling/policing issues that were prevalent during NWA’s reign of truth, and that remain frighteningly persistent in modern society. The 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri reverberates in this piece, pointing with sinister ease to unresolved racial tensions.
Upon watching Straight Outta Compton, my mind went straight to race relations and how they have or have not changed since the heyday of NWA. Light is directly and immediately shone upon the political climate of the time, as the film opens with a sequence in which a battering ram tank (a weapon/tactic used in the Reagan era “War on Drugs”) mercilessly plows through a Compton neighbourhood.
Black Music Matters
“Our art is a reflection of our reality.” – Ice Cube
What was criticized at its inception as mindless, crass, and violent music, was actually an authentic and courageous expression of the realities of living in a domestic warzone.
NWA songs captured the feeling of the street in verse and beat. The expression of such a visceral existence, both dangerous and ruthless, made people uncomfortable. NWA forced us to stare this forgotten part of society in the face, and to reckon with it.
The group pushed the freedom of speech/censorship envelope, and they pushed it with guts and intelligence. The power and influence of NWA could not be ignored.
Post 9/11 Freedom of Speech
The LAPD battering ram tank fiasco is so obviously crazy that we’d like to think the world has since become a more open-minded place. But since 9/11, freedom of speech in the United States and Canada has become increasingly encroached upon.
Straight Outta Compton made me reexamine NWA in a modern context: How might lyrics that threaten to kill members of a specific police force be received in a world where “terrorism” is the new buzzword?
Characteristics listed on the FBI website defining “domestic terrorism” indicate suspicion will arise toward any person(s) who “appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”
Beat a police out of shape
And when I’m finished, bring the yellow tape
To tape off the scene of the slaughter (. . .)
A young nigga on a warpath
And when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a blood bath
Of cops, dying in L.A (. . .)
The propagation of an idea can be more threatening than any weapon in disarming law enforcement and undermining the government in general. NWA’s music so scared the authorities because of its violent and resounding message, the dissemination of which they had no legal way of controlling.
Martyrs and Riots
The 1991 LAPD beating of Rodney King is featured in Straight Outta Compton. The trial that found the four officers pictured below innocent of any charges sparked a riot that lasted three days and nights, and resulted in the deaths of 55 people. (For more details regarding the Rodney King riots visit: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/riots-erupt-in-los-angeles).
King became an overnight martyr. His suffering fueled the people into action. But what, if anything, has really changed since the King beating? Food for thought.
The people were once again frenzied into rioting, frustrated and heartbroken over the tragic death of 18 year old Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri. They again protested what was popularly accepted as an unfair trial, and the seeming infallibility of the police officer involved.
Straight Outta Compton is a True Period Piece
At first glance Straight Outta Compton is an awesome blockbuster/action movie that features portrayals of amazingly cool rappers, and is punctuated with a soundtrack of unforgettable hip hop hits. While it most definitely delivers on all three of these points, Straight Outta Compton shouldn’t be dismissed as simple Hollywood superficiality (as their music once was), for the film emphatically reveals some very real and uncomfortable truths about prejudice and freedom in America.
Heather Austin is a freelance writer living in Nelson, BC. She studied English Literature and Film at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She enjoys skiing, canoeing, and thinking.