'Straight Outta Compton' Captivated America Because Ferguson Made Us Ready For The Return Of N.W.A
A young black man is crossing the street in his own neighborhood when he's suddenly stopped, questioned, and detained by the police. When his parents come out of the house to protest, an officer threatens to "ruin their life." It's a scene that could have come straight out of Ferguson. Or Baltimore. Or McKinney. But no, it's Straight Outta Compton, the music biopic on the seminal rap group N.W.A that has seen wild success in the week since it premiered. It broke box office records, cashing in $60.2 million its opening weekend, and even went so far as to generate some early Oscar buzz. But as great as the film is on its own, the events in Ferguson and elsewhere made Straight Outta Compton more than just another rap film; they catapulted the film into the national conversation of what it means to be black today.
I lucked out with an early screening at my old stomping grounds, the University of Southern California, located on the north end of South Central. (City lawmakers will prefer you use the rebranded "South L.A.," but take it from someone who's spent time reporting there, no one calls it that.) The event was open to the public, so the audience was a solid mix of doe-eyed 19-year-olds fresh off of wrapping summer school and older folks who knew no other streets than the ones portrayed in the film. But within the first five minutes of the film's stunning opener, we were all in it together, whooping as Eazy-E narrowly escapes a militarized LAPD that doesn't hesitate from using a battering ram-wielding tank to crush through the home of a small-time drug dealer.
It's a viewing experience echoed by fellow Bustle editor Sam Rullo, who caught a press showing in New York. She tells me that black or white, young or old, people in the audience were enraptured by the film from the get-go. "Invested" is the word Selma director Ava Duvernay, a Compton native, used to describe her and others' reactions upon leaving a Baldwin Hills theater, "because many of them, like me, were there." (There are, in fact, no movie theaters in Compton.)
So, where were they? In the 1980s, Los Angeles was suffering from a major crack and crime epidemic, with the drug most prevalent in South Central. When N.W.A came out onto the scene in 1986, aggressive police tactics were at an all-time high under the leadership of Police Chief Daryl Gates. He was the kind of police head who fully believed in the War on Drugs and would go on to tell a Senate hearing that casual drug users "ought to be taken out and shot." Police raids, like the ones you see in the film, were very much a part of everyday life for boys in the hood.
(Warning: violent content above.)
The film spends a great amount of time framing the rap group's journey with life-defining current events such as the beating of Rodney King. If you think about it, that infamous footage, taped by bystander George Holliday, was really the first time a police brutality video went viral — in an age before the Internet. Everyone saw that video, everyone watched when the four cops involved were acquitted, and everyone suffered as Los Angeles fell to the '92 riots. During the film, you're constantly reminded that what happened then is happening again. Only this time, it was a black teenager shot dead, a white cop escaping an indictment, and a small Missouri town in flames.
We've just passed the one-year anniversary death of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old who was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., last August. Since then, we've seen Baltimore burn, Charleston massacred, and Ferguson caught up in violent protests once again. Was it so surprising to hear N.W.A's iconic anthem "Fuck Tha Police" blast in Ferguson's streets during this latest round?
When a white reporter in the film asks the group whether their songs glorify gangs and drugs, Ice Cube quickly responds, "Our art is a reflection of our reality." Now, the film has become the art of this country's current reality. Militarized police tearing through Compton like a war zone, officers violently stopping N.W.A for being "too black" in white-majority Torrance — these scenes unfolding on the silver screen were just like the images filling Americans' living rooms this past year.
Don't get me wrong: The film is impressive. Leading the pack in the retelling of N.W.A's journey are O'Shea Jackson, Jr., who delivers an uncanny portrayal of his father, Ice Cube, and Jason Mitchell as the chiastic yet redeemable Eazy-E. Corey Hawkins easily carries Dre's humble origins story of struggling D.J. to the first billionaire rapper in the world, though the film glaringly omits any reference to his history of violence against women and, more specifically, his brutal assault on hip-hop show host Dee Barnes in 1991. The music (because, of course, the film wouldn't exist without N.W.A's revolutionary debut album) isn't just a soundtrack; it drives the plot, from Ice Cube penning the opening lines of "Boyz-N-The Hood" on his high school bus to Detroit cops warning N.W.A to keep their anti-police songs in check.
But Straight Outta Compton's overwhelming success — it's set to top the box office for the second weekend in a row — can largely be attributed to the fact that America was ready for this film. People were ready for black heroes to confront police brutality both in the streets and in the studio, and they were ready to cheer them on.
Gangster rap might have come and gone, but the issues facing the black community are still the same. Whether it's Sandra Bland's jail death or Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift's non-feud of white feminism, there's still a serious gap in how America understands the black experience and how the country should talk about it. Straight Outta Compton makes the conversation a little easier.
In the last year, Hollywood has finally made room for strong black narratives, from Oscar-winning films like 12 Years A Slave to TV hits like Empire and Blackish. But what makes Straight Outta Compton stand out in this new-age black canon is that the story from 25 years ago is still our story today. The reality that made N.W.A first say "Fuck Tha Police" is our reality now — but what comes next, this time, remains to be written.
Images: Universal Pictures