Or dare we say, “Straight Outta Brilliant.” We know this movie released just less than a month ago, but its message is as important as ever. This film cast a light on socioeconomic mayhem has been the cause both for past unrest and current tumult. This is the real inception-like, ingenious quality of hip-hop’s newest hit “Straight Outta Compton”: The release of previous events that look a whole lot like today’s headlines.
Beginning with opening scenes of five different young men and their home lives, the film goes on to tell their story of how they came together with a shared love of music. Starting with a pipe-dream of creating a record label, that dream became a reality when the five took a chance on one another and wrote, produced, sang and performed their own music. Small clubs turned into larger venues. A one-hit record turned into local radio’s most played song for months. Then, Jerry Heller — a veteran manager — approached the lead singer Eazy-E, found a legitimate label to sign them and became a source of guidance for the group. From their partnership, the five formed their group, N.W.A., and went on a life-changing, culture-altering journey.
These young men were some of the first to truly “make it out” of their neighborhood, and they made it big time. N.W.A revolutionized the hip-hop industry and culture, manifesting their unprecedented success. But this was not a film characterized by Hollywood’s blockbuster equation — it didn’t have a simple plot line. This was a biopic, and about as hard-hitting as N.W.A’s lyrics. The film may portray the success the group had, but it also gave insight to the group’s failures, both in terms of music and personal lives. The group wasn’t perfect, and the reality behind why that was is what the film most beautifully depicts.
Attention audience members: real theme here — even when the group was not together, they were promoting the same ideals. Their purpose was not just to put food on the table and to live in a graffiti-free house (although, those were much appreciated perks), but to give a voice, for the first time, to those in their life who could not. And what is important for us to understand is that they weren’t just giving a voice to those who couldn’t because the incapable didn’t have the resources to do so. Because if that were the case, how did a group of five young men with limited money and supplies make their own record and have it become local radio’s biggest hit — sans Jerry, or financial backing or any mainstream help of any kind? If five young men who grew up with guns in their face on their way to school, who wrote legendary hits in a tattered notebook, who fought every day just to make it through; if they can go from nothing to everything in a matter of a beat, it can’t only be a lack of resources. It’s also a lack of permission.
Yes, they had the guts to say what needed to be said — but until Jerry, they never said a word outside of Compton, outside of where an entire community agreed with their truth. And with the formation of N.W.A, it is discovered that it’s not just Compton that agrees — it’s pretty much the entire nation.
And then there’s that sliver of America that tends to run America — the federal government — that wasn’t quite on the same page. In fact, N.W.A. received a written threat from the FBI noting the group’s tendency to demean those in charge, specifically the police, and how certain songs were “violence-provoking.”
Elvis — do we remember him? In the 1950’s his music was considered so provocative that it was credited with a newly crazed, rock-and-roll obsessed adolescent generation. This was a really big deal — girls were shortening their poodle skirts and everything.
But we don’t remember Elvis receiving a threat from the FBI saying his infamous gyrating-hips were inciting a teenage pregnancy epidemic, and Elvis is credited for transforming rock-and-roll culture — revolutionizing it and romanticizing social deviance. In fact, Elvis was inducted into not just one, not two, but three music Halls of Fame, his Rock and Roll induction of 1986 being the same year N.W.A. formed.
But “Straight Outta Compton” reminded us all of the voices lost due to a minority’s place in a major conflict. N.W.A, and the subsequent groups/solo artists to come of it, made it its mission to tell their truth, because they were well aware they weren’t the only ones living it.
This is not the typical underdog story Hollywood sells to tell. This is not even solely about race, about some stereotypical, miraculous journey to get off the streets in a smooth, brave act of black progression against the backdrop of white privilege. This is about making sense of the realities around us and how to do something to project it.
For decades, the First Amendment has been tried time and time again. But the formation and journey of N.W.A. changed the narrative in the music industry forever. Never before had freedom of speech been such a passionate issue when discussing lyrics. Can you say anything under the protection of the First Amendment? This we knew, and knew the limits to. Can you sing anything under the protection of the first amendment? This N.W.A. asked, tried to answer and attempted to guard in order to build a community where inner-city talent was accepted in the mainstream world.
The themes of the film were unbelievably thought-provoking, and incredibly startling due to their relevance to the present-day. For example, there are a few scenes where the characters are shown irritated and emotional over footage of Rodney King, and the subsequent court ruling that cleared all four of those officers from police brutality accounts.
The footage was real.
And until I saw the date and time in the right hand corner, I honestly believed, for a split second, that it was from much more recently.
There are two sides to the current police brutality conversation, of defining the morality and justification behind such acts; just as there were two sides to the same argument in the 1980s and 90s (can you say: L.A. riots?). The difference is that currently, our media is flooded with video after video, story after story of the brokenness in our communities. 30 years ago, it was fairly taboo. 30 years ago, it took a group of five rappers from the streets of Compton, California to test the limitations of honesty in the name of promise — all with a sick beat in the background.
“Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.” Now was that a quote from “Straight Outta Compton,” or from Ferguson? Michael Brown’s case? Maybe from that pool party in Texas — we heard that got a little hog-wild. (It was a quote from “Straight Outta Compton” — a rather brilliant demonstration of a not-so-typical underdog story.)