Two of the better movies of 2015 are weirdly similar musical biopics about bands from Los Angeles’ south suburbs. Last June’s Love & Mercy profiled Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who came from Hawthorne, Calif., while gangsta rappers N.W.A, who helped spread the South Central L.A. crack-dealer lifestyle nationally in the late 1980s, are lauded in the overly long but still entertaining Straight Outta Compton. Paul Giamatti even plays virtually identical roles in each movie as the crooked Jewish manager.
While the exquisite Love & Mercy topped out at $12 million in box office, Straight Outta Compton is already up to $111 million and will surpass the Johnny Cash movie I Walk the Line to become the highest-grossing musical biopic ever.
The Academy had better hope that some other Oscar candidates emerge in the fall to divert attention away from what so far looks like a battle for Best Picture between the superb white rock movie and the not-bad black rap movie.
Granted, comparing Straight Outta Compton to Love & Mercy on aesthetics is like contrasting “F*** tha Police” and “No Vaseline” to “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” But the hip-hop film, directed by veteran black hired gun F. Gary Gray (who also helmed Ice Cube’s Friday and Mark Wahlberg’s The Italian Job), is competent enough to trigger feelings of entitlement. As last year’s black complaints about Selma being handed one only Oscar suggested, when the Academy gave the Best Picture award a couple of years ago to 12 Years a Slave, it didn’t succeed in assuaging black demands for a few years as hoped. Instead, 12 Years’ Oscar seemed to convince racial spokespersons that blacks deserve to win Best Picture every year.
The expertise of both the Beach Boys and N.W.A at mythologizing extended to their suburban hometowns, which lie southeast of Los Angeles International Airport. The Wilson brothers grew up five miles inland from LAX in Hawthorne, while Compton, birthplace of Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, is eight miles farther east.
In the Beach Boys’ songs, their nondescript hometown seemed a paradise, while N.W.A glamorized the physically similar Compton as the capital of mindless black-on-black violence. In 1988, Ice Cube (a recent graduate of Taft H.S. in Woodland Hills) boasted:
When I’m called off, I got a sawed-off
Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off….
I’m coming straight outta Compton
In truth, both Hawthorne and Compton were modest but pleasant postwar developments of compact single-family homes. Although Brian Wilson’s “In My Room” is an eerily prophetic ode to the luxury of privacy, the three Wilson brothers had to share a bedroom. Compton was once a nice enough place that George and Barbara Bush chose to live there with little George W. in 1949.
Of course, the big difference was that in the 1960 Census, Hawthorne was only one percent nonwhite, while Compton was already 40 percent nonwhite. (Compton has had a black mayor since 1969.) Today, though, the two legendary suburbs are similar: Both have Hispanic majorities under the thumbs of scandal-plagued black politicians.
With its middle-class housing, sea-tempered climate (the average high on Aug. 26 is 84°F, humidity is mild, and there are no mosquitoes), and proximity to good factory jobs during the 1950–90 Cold War aerospace boom, Compton should have continued to be what it had been in the early 1950s: an idyllic suburb for upwardly mobile black homeowners.
But through sheer knuckleheadedness, local youths managed to make Compton world-famous for blacks killing blacks in moronic disputes. The fate of Compton illustrates my old saying that the chief problem with being poor in modern America is that you can’t afford to get away from other poor people—even, as in Compton, when they weren’t all that poor.
N.W.A’s malignant influence on American social history shouldn’t be forgotten. The national black youth homicide rate had dropped to a moderate level in the mid-1980s, before surging to apocalyptic heights during the 1990–94 crack wars. A 2011 Obama administration report showed that homicide offending rates for blacks 14 to 24 roughly tripled from 1984 to 1993 (see Figure 22b), while murder rates steadily declined for blacks 25 and older, who, perhaps not coincidentally, were too old to care much about new rappers like N.W.A.
When N.W.A released their first blockbuster gangsta-rap album, Straight Outta Compton, in August 1988, crack was still more common on the periphery of the country than in the heartland. For example, in Chicago in October 1988, I let three undercover cops peer out my apartment window to spy on Eddie the cocaine dealer across the street as he hit the pipe with his customers. When I asked the cops if Eddie was smoking this new drug that was in the news, crack, they replied, “He’s freebasing. There’s no crack in Chicago.”
Or at least there wasn’t all that much crack yet.
Crack dealing and gangsta rap enjoyed a symbiotic relationship as groups like N.W.A egged on black youths to murder one another in turf wars. West Coast hip-hop functioned as a mind virus infecting impressionable young brains across the land with virulent memes about how a real man reacts to life’s frustrations: with homicidal savagery.
Today, Ice Cube stars in family comedy movies, and Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine sold their Beats by Dre headphone company to Apple for $3 billion.
N.W.A wasn’t the first time the American media promoted criminality. In 1882, Oscar Wilde was lecturing in St. Joseph, Mo., two weeks after the assassination of the much-publicized Jesse James. Wilde mused after observing tourists dismantling the train robber’s house for relics, “Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take heroes from the criminal classes.”
Speaking of the criminal classes, Compton’s own Suge Knight, Dr. Dre’s business partner from 1991 to ’96, was scheduled to film a cameo in Straight Outta Compton. But Knight got into an argument on the movie set with two guys and ran them over with his truck. The 50-year-old entrepreneur is currently in jail awaiting trial for murder.
Straight Outta Compton is much celebrated by white critics for showing our heroes being hassled by suspicious police. (Ferguson is often cited by enthusiastic reviewers.) But, even sanitized as the film is—Dr. Dre’s penchant for beating women was left out, and I can’t recall a single scene of anybody smoking crack—Straight Outta Compton is still full of so much puerile mayhem that it’s hard to conclude that the cops weren’t sensible in trying to run these jokers out of town.
For example, when the Torrance police see our heroes hanging around outside the recording studio in gang gear, they force them down on the ground to send the message that Torrance isn’t gang ground. Their manager, middle-aged macher Jerry Heller (played by Giamatti) excoriates the cops: These aren’t criminals, they’re artists.
And indeed they weren’t affiliated with either the Crips or the Bloods. Just as drummer Dennis Wilson was the only surfer in the Beach Boys, N.W.A’s not-very-skilled frontman Eazy-E was the band’s only career criminal, and he was in the weed-dealing business (a less murderous line of work than cocaine). The more talented members were boys from respectable families who’d avoided serious trouble to focus on their entertainment ambitions. (Dr. Dre appears to have prudently restricted his violence to hitting girls.) But they couldn’t tell the cops that they were just pretending to be vicious thugs to sell records because that would have undermined their lucrative vicious-thug image.
I was particularly struck by their encounter with the Torrance police because I had looked into buying a house in that suburb in 1991. Like much of Southern California near the ocean, Torrance’s housing stock was of poor quality. (Before antibiotics, rich people had built inland in places like Pasadena out of fear that ocean fog causes tuberculosis.) And Torrance’s enormous oil refinery tends to periodically belch noxious fallout over homeowners.
But the schools were good because it’s a low-crime community. Today, while the Beach Boys’ Hawthorne, three miles north of Torrance, is over 80 percent Latino or black and Compton is 99 percent non-Asian minority, Torrance is still 42 percent white, 35 percent Asian, 16 percent Hispanic, 6 percent mixed, and only 3 percent black.
After watching Straight Outta Compton, I would guess: by the Torrance Police Department profiling black youths dressed as killers. Why did Torrance have the courage to save itself? I don’t know. Perhaps because Torrance’s large, politically powerful Asian presence (Torrance was the American headquarters of Toyota from 1982 to 2014) was immune to white guilt?
Straight Outta Compton is watchable enough, but it could be funnier if the filmmakers hadn’t played down the inherent dark comedy. For example, the movie only passingly alludes to how each of the three main ex-members went to war with one another aligned with their own paramilitary bullyboys. Ice Cube employed Minister Farrakhan’s bow-tied Fruit of Islam, while Dr. Dre used Knight’s Maxi-Me’s: several Suge look-alike 300-pounders. But, sadly, we never quite get to see the muscle employed by Eazy-E and his partner Heller: right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League.
Fortunately, Straight Outta Compton has one spectacularly funny scene in which Giamatti is finally allowed to cut loose. After almost two full movies of deftly underplaying corrupt Svengali roles, he’s given an unexpected rant.
After Ice Cube goes solo because he’s tired of being ripped off by the Eazy-E/Heller axis, N.W.A’s rump disses Ice Cube with a rap calling him a “Benedict Arnold.” Ice Cube furiously responds with “No Vaseline,” a remarkably antigay denunciation of his ex-friends.
You might expect that the cunning Heller, who had blithely facilitated the Compton youth’s manifold antisocial messages, would encourage this profitable feud to continue. But instead, upon hearing Ice Cube complaining that “You let a Jew break up my crew” and that blacks shouldn’t put up with “a white Jew tellin’ you what to do,” an outraged Heller switches off the stereo and denounces black anti-Semitism for several increasingly hilarious minutes.
Sure, rappers encouraging impressionable youths to deal crack, beat women, battle the police, and murder other blacks is just entertainment, Heller seems to imply. But a rapper protesting the venerable tradition of Jewish agents cheating musicians, black or white, well, that’s beyond the pale!
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