"Rap critics who say he's money, cash, hoes /
I'm from the hood, stupid, what kind of facts are those? /
If you grew up with holes in your zapatos /
You'd celebrate the minute you was havin dough /" - Jay-Z, "99 Problems"
"For Black men like us, the feeling of having something to lose, beyond honor and face, was foreign. We grew up in communities - New York, Baltimore, Chicago - where the Code of the Street was the first code we learned. Respect and reputation are everything there. These values are often denigrated by people who have never been punched in the face. But when you live around violence there is no opting out." - Ta-Nehisi Coates, "Beyond the Code of the Streets"
Thanks again to Kristina for her insights on the film, particularly her careful attention to its treatment of gender and police violence. I'll explore some resonances and differences in our reading of the film. Meshelski's analysis, in getting something deeply right about the how the film's portrayal of police violence will be perceived, also seems to get something right about the uptake of the film's other elements (including its paucity of and questionable portrayals of female characters), which poses challenges for some of her interpretations. Particularly, I will take a different angle on the “Bye Felicia” scene in connection with the criticism that we were only permitted to see the “good and bad sides” of a white character – Jerry Heller – and not of the members of NWA.
Meshelski cites Nelson Goodman's work on “pictorial conventions” to explain that images represent objects via “convention”, not by resemblance. A painting makes us think of the object painted based on how we are used to those objects being represented in that medium, not just based on the raw similarity of the image to the object. Then, the use of tropes or recognizable themes might make a bad drawing of an object look familiar, and a proportionally accurate painting that violates our conventions for representing an object might nevertheless seem strange and off. This explains why even accurate depictions of police encounters might seem embellished – the artistic conventions that govern them are often wheeled in when trying to make characters seem more villanous than they are, and viewers are likely to pick up on this even if they know intellectually that policing in some places might actually be villanous. I agree with this account and thus also with Meshelski's claim that audience uptake of the film's police violence may prove counterproductive.
But the core idea here is extremely useful for thinking through how race informs how we interpret things more generally. Black people are 'painted' in the broader society with the presumption of criminality, from cop interactions to film conventions. The cops in the movie serve to externalize this fact to us, openly accusing the group of being gang members. Due to the combination of their modes of presentation (among these: dress, accent, gender performance) and race, all the members of NWA routinely thus receive the 'thug' treatment from others, despite the fact that only Eazy, the least physically imposing member of the group, is in the drug game. These rich sets of expectations and prejudgments form scripts that people use to navigate interactions.
On some of these scripts, Blacks are often coded as criminals. When so coded, they are always the victimizers, never the victimized. This tends to halt our thinking about a situation at the point where we identify their moral mistakes. This precludes analysis of the ways in which even these moral mistakes owe their particular character to structural violence (and thus the moral mistakes of others, though these people are usually conveniently off-camera). And so we misunderstand. Maybe this is how cops are able to rationalize to themselves trampling the nominal rights of people so misunderstood with impunity, thinking of these people entirely as deviants deservedly subject to any manner of violence. I'll call this orientation to interpreting action of people coded as victimizers a victimizer script.
But if cops are misreading Black actors because of a victimizer script that is more widely available in society (and not just among police officers) then interactions with the police aren't the only ones in which this kind of misreading is potentially relevant.If these scripts are so powerful that they cause us to misread even accurate depictions of police-civilian encounters, what other sorts of things might be subject to misreading?
This is the basis of my disagreement with Meshelski about the “Bye Felicia” scene, particularly as it connects to the criticism that only a white character was allowed moral complexity in the film. We view a confrontation between NWA members in the hotel room with women (in this scene, not coded as victimizers) and two armed strangers, one of whom is looking for his girlfriend. On one read of this play, the guys (coded as victimizers), are simply doing some primal male shit, squabbling over territory. Our standard pictorial representations are well equipped to describe this: what rises to moral salience is then our condemnation of their excesses – the partying, the fucking, the gunplay. To the extent that a critique of the misogyny of NWA's lyrics and actions is meant to count in favor of this read, it provides a valuable point. But what else was communicated in that scene?
Consider the following alternative reading of the scene's purpose – demonstration that the group's newly acquired fame and fortune would not serve as a shield for these men against the hyperviolence that structured their lives around the constant possibility of premature death (a theme that would be thoroughly revisited in different forms as the movie progressed). This, in turn, explains a range of actions taken in response, from long term projects like the cultivation of certain protective personality types to more one-off actions, like keeping a big-ass gun with a scope on deck at all times. It also might explain the kind of immediate gratification of lavish parties, drink, and sex might seem like a way worth living to both the men and women in the scene, perhaps none of whom would be particularly surprised about getting killed on their way home. This is just one network of responses that makes sense in a world in which one expects, routinely, to encounter people who are willing and able to murder you and probably not at all in worlds where that's not true, as Coates notes in one of the epigraphs to this post. We're likely to miss this kind of reading if we default to a victimizer script, which can be reflexive for folks like myself, whose lives were not structured like this.
Nothing in this second reading precludes the critique of misogyny Meshelski offers with the first. In fact, it provides what I view as preferable ground for that critique. The key aspect of the moral mistake we commit when we judge people by a victimizer script is that we are refusing to engage with what other people's actions mean in larger story of their lives, where they are their own protagonist and their behavior is an attempt to navigate the world they inhabit. Instead we grade their behaviors against a rubric based on the kind of world we encounter in our lives, in which people like this are simply presumptively villains. Cube commits this mistake in taking out his anger on Felicia for bringing danger on the crew seemingly without being willing to consider why her actions made sense to her. Yella doesn't bother to learn the name of the woman he's having sex with, viewing her as a mere character in his story rather than engaging with her as a full person (with her own reasons for being in that room. The point is simply that any criticism of a person's decisions that is to be recognizably moral should take into account what the decision means to the people doing the deciding and the situation in which they do it. Simply denouncing the overt behaviors without doing this strikes me as as a non-moral criticism, more akin to a moral sanction or other coercive exercise of social power.
If showing niggas getting the occasional stop and frisk is a “cartoonish” and illegible level of violence, but it is an accurate portrayal of just one node of a network of violence that needs to be broadly understood in order to adopt genuine morally evaluative attitudes, then there's certainly a problem here. But it isn't F. Gary Grey's. The problem is that a general public in which we can expect misunderstanding of that network of violence isn't in a position to critically engage with honest art about the kind of experience portrayed in Straight Outta Compton – so why make honest art? Why show any of the Black characters in their moral complexity when one cannot expect the right kind of moral complexity in the uptake?
I'll go ahead and champion the logical conclusion of this argument. It doesn't make sense to me to grade any form of art featuring the Black underclass by the rubrics of nuance or of honesty when one expects that the most socially influential voices in the community that will grade this art have never been punched in the face. The conventions that guide the media representations of the group whose lives are structured by such violence are themselves cartoonish, and any attempt to renegotiate them can at best take the form of drawing a different comic.
Even with this concession made, I again agree with Meshelski in finding the movie a bit detrimentally laser-focused, and insufficiently ambitious with the comic book story it does go onto draw. As she notes, there was a glaring scarcity of female characters that the arguments about victimizer scripts doesn't do much to justify. Notable exceptions here include the group JJ Fad (women who were among the first signees to Ruthless Records).
Also among the casualties of the film's narrow focus were the dynamics of racial and ethnic dynamics outside of the white-Black frame. The Latinx influence on this period of West Coast rap history goes mostly unreferenced despite the insurgence and relevance of numerous Latinx acts in this time period and their engagement with NWA and related acts, perhaps most notably Cypress Hill. Tensions between Blacks and Koreans are only obliquely alluded to in a few frames of the coverage of the LA Riots, which the film suggests is related only to the beating of Rodney King by police officers, missing opportunities to allude to other factors, including the killing of teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean woman guarding her shop.
Overall, however, the laser focus proved productive, and F. Gary Gray seemed after a different target altogether. Straight Outta Compton, viewed as a biography of the album rather than of those who made it, seems a second pass at explaining the significance of the album. This is timely, as we are in a historical moment where it is once again in-season for even economic elites and media gatekeepers to pretend as though this country has any interest in dealing with its Black citizens as full civil or even moral persons. Here's to hoping.