Guest post by Kristina Meshelski
California State University, Northridge
Straight Outta Compton
Despite concerns I had about the movie, there was no way I was going to miss Straight Outta Compton. I was born in 1981 and grew up in Los Angeles, so nostalgia alone was enough. Being only about eight years old I was too young to be interested in N.W.A. when they first became big, but by the time The Chronic was out I was just the right age to start developing a taste for music my parents didn't like, though I'm sure I didn't own the album because it had a parental advisory sticker. I have vague memories of a copy that kids passed around, the way we all shared the same copy of Flowers in the Attic, but I'm not sure if that was real.
At any rate, this movie delivered on the nostalgia. We get to see Skateland, Tower Records, old footage of the local news, and hear a lot of the old songs. (Not that I was hanging out at the Compton Skateland. I was hanging out at Skateland in Northridge, a completely unrelated skating rink. I just wish roller skating were still as cool as it was then.)
But in some ways the feel good nostalgia went way too far. Did we really need an extended scene that served just to provide a (probably fake) backstory for the Bye, Felicia! catchphrase from Friday? I guess we did because my audience squealed in delight when they heard it. But I don't think I've seen that misogynistic of a scene in a long time; it is simply the band members fucking and getting fellated by various naked ladies in adjoining hotel rooms, then pushing them around in disgust as they rush to grab some guns they need to intimidate a man who has come looking for his girl "Felicia". Felicia's punishment for being a ho is then to be kicked out of the hotel room naked with the catchphrase yelled at her.
And at this point you start to wonder – were there no female characters in this movie? Pretty much. LOTS of asses though. Even Tomica, Eazy-E's widow who was a producer of the film, barely gets to be in it. Knowing that there were depictions of Dre's violence against women in the script that ultimately weren't filmed adds insult to injury. Given that the movie was super long I know what I would cut to add them – Paul Giamatti's scenes. Granted these are pretty cool scenes and it is compelling to watch E realize that his manager is not the perfect man he thought he was, and also to watch Giamatti's Jerry try to defend himself. I also enjoyed the scene where Jerry works himself into a self-righteous frenzy over Cube's anti-Semitism as E responds, "Brothers don't know what anti-Semitism mean Jerry. It's just a diss rap." But in retrospect we didn't need these scenes, we could have done only with the drama between the band members as they talk about Jerry. Why should the only white character get to be the most complex one? Why not let us see the good and bad sides of the N.W.A. members themselves?
Perhaps though what stands out the most is the film's comment on police violence. For me, it presented a kind of interesting philosophical dilemma. Most of what we see the police doing in the film are things that actually happened, arresting young black men for no reason, driving a military tank into a house without regard for who they would run into with their battering ram, and various other gratuitous insults about "gang-bangers". The film shows us parts of the Rodney King footage numerous times as if to remind the audience that it isn't taking liberties with the truth in order to make the police look bad, they actually are that bad. But strangely, the police violence still comes off as slightly cartoonish and embellished for film. What to do when police violence toward black people in the US is so bad that a literally realistic scene becomes illegible? It doesn't feel right that we should sugarcoat things for the sake of legibility, as that would inevitably provoke unearned sympathy for the police. Allegorical representations are tricky for the same reason; they provide the actual perpetrators some type of cover, because our gaze isn't directly on them.
In Languages of Art, Nelson Goodman claimed that artistic representation was entirely conventional, and not based on resemblance. What this means is that we see a still life painting of fruit as a painting of fruit because of our familiarity with pictorial convention, not because the painting resembles the real life fruit. If true, the consequences for artistic representation of police violence are stark, since the vast majority of pop cultural tropes about police are sympathetic. Recall the hardened partner teaching a young innocent partner to be corrupt, or the cop who is just trying to do the best they can amidst violent streets and ridiculous bureaucracy. Conventionally, it seems we can't see a bad cop without a good cop.
A theory like this appears to trap us in a circle we can't escape, we represent using conventions, but how can pictorial conventions change unless pictures change first? I'm not quite sure of a way out, but I know that unflinching representations of police violence are needed. Straight Outta Compton shows us that just filming a straightforward recreation of the things that police have done will be satisfying, but ultimately fail to convey itself as realistic. Could it be that some kinds of violent oppression are so difficult to accept that they cannot appear realistic on screen at all?