While many people are celebrating Straight Outta Compton for what it was and what it wasn’t, my lasting memory of the movie is the ongoing narrative of frayed relationships between people of color and the police.
This depiction comes at an interesting time in our national conversations around police brutality, especially after many high-profile situations and the emergence of the “Black Lives Matter” movement on Social Media.
From the opening scenes of the movie we encounter the would-be members of NWA faced with moments of confrontation with law enforcement, whether in a crack house, leaving a club after a fight, or across the street from their own homes. Not all of these moments found the subjects in the most innocent of situations, but these scenes served to lay the foundation for NWA’s attitude concerning police (“Fuck Tha Police”) once they began making music together, and more importantly, why that message resonated with so many fans then and now. Quite frankly, if the portrayal of those initial and subsequent run-ins with LAPD presented a composite perspective of community-police relations, it was pretty fucked up.
For a counter argument, some people could claim that Hollywood has a tendency to stretch the truth in instances like this, much like rappers have a tendency to stretch the truth in their songs. However, the rebuttal to that comes in the form of the Rodney King video and the subsequent 1992 L.A. Riots, both of which get some screen time in Straight Outta Compton. While those L.A. Riots seem like a distant memory these days, this movie was a good reminder of how toxic the relationship was between that city’s law enforcement and communities of color.
Fast forward 20+ years, and it feels like so much of the same incidents are being played out in public, but with cell phone videos taking the place of camcorders in this Digital Age. Watching this underlying narrative of the movie play out made me both sad and frustrated; sad that relationships between the police and many communities of color remain so disjointed, and frustrated by our inability as citizens to truly hear the voices of those who feel violated and act to improve conditions. In my opinion, how we hear those voices has less to do with who’s “wrong” or “right”, and more to do with whether people are willing to listen and engage in a healthy dialogue around the problem.
So as we laud Straight Outta Compton as a victory lap of sorts for NWA as a group and Dr. Dre and Ice Cube as individuals, my revelry is a bit subdued because of the knowledge of the challenges faced by those still in Compton and all the other Comptons across America. The only bright side is that these conditions birthed artists who were bold enough to create music that attracted the attention of the nation—NWA then, and Kendrick Lamar now. Hip-Hop keeps winning.