Analysing A Scene from Straight Outta Compton and its significance with Race and Representation

Straight Outta Compton (2015, Felix Gary Grey, US)

As part of this blog alongside Reviews, Commentary, and Opinions, I want to display some of my own work including projects and essays. This essay tasked me with analysing a scene from a film of my choice and how it relates to theories of race and representation.

Analyse ONE scene from a film of your choice focussing on ONE of the approaches: affect theory, postmodernism, queer theory, feminist film theory, the concept of national allegory, or cinema and race. Consider how the chosen theory might help us to better understand the specific details in the scene and its overall effect.

Straight outta Compton (US,2015) directed by Felix Gary Gray. 1H:04MIN- 1H:10MIN Cinema&Race

I have chosen to analyse a scene from the film Straight outta Compton  (US, 2015) Directed Felix Gary Grey. This film follows 5 young men that in 1987 formed the rap group NWA.  They emerge from the mean streets of Compton in L.A. California. Their brutally honest lyrics about the streets bring them to  to global success, standing up to authorities and giving a voice to a whole generation of African American youth that they didn’t have before in the form of rap music. This true life story was produced by former members of the band, Ice Cube and Dr Dre. I will look at the scene in the middle of the film which is the defining moment of the band in which the police issue a warning for them not to sing their signature song ‘F*** Tha Police’. They perform the song at the concert anyway and a riot ensues as police brutality is shown. The scene comes to an end with the NWA getting arrested. I will look at the social and political significance of this real life event at the time and also the significance of releasing the film in 2015. I will attempt to discuss the issue of race and representation and it’s construction within the film and how the characters presented relate to the spectator as a whole.

At the beginning of the scene, the Head of Police is being focussed on with a close up of his face as he lays out rules about what the NWA aren’t aloud to do. He states there is to be no behaviour that is rude, indecent, drunken, riotous or violent in nature, as he does this, there are short interspersed shots of individual members reacting to him. They look visibly contemptuous. In the next shot, the camera circles around the Officer as he states that they can’t use any vulgar, obscene or abusive language in a public place. lastly, the character states that the “performance of the song ‘F tha Police’ will not be permitted”. This song appeared on the album, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ in 1988 and is perhaps the most well known and infamous track they released at the time.  It was at one point banned from every radio station on the planet. The track was blamed by the FBI for inciting violence across the US. However, this song was born out of genuine experiences of unwarranted police brutality that band members faced due to their appearance. 

Police brutality unfortunately has had a a deep routed history in American culture, according to Leonard Moore in the Britannica article, it happened to Jewish immigrants in the early 20th Century, to Italian immigrants in the 20s, Mexican Americans in the 40s, and homosexual and transgender people in the 60s to name a few. African American communities have seen the majority of this brutality however. These interactions between African Americans and urban Police departments had started since the Great Migration which was between 1916-70. White communities were not used to this presence and their reaction was one of fear and hatred which was exacerbated by racist stereotypes that were very deeply ingrained in society and even perpetuated by things in culture such as Classical Hollywood. “The seminal film Birth of a nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915) exemplifies the type of antagonistic film representations of blackness in early American cinema, with its blackface stereotypes and unabashed venerations of the ku Klux Klan!” and so despite its historical significance it had severe racist overtones. These racist stereotypes lent themselves to the idea of an inherent tendency of criminal behaviour and so by the 1950s there was an implicit mission that Urban Police Departments had to police African Americans i.e. protecting whites against blacks. (Nama, Adilifu, 2008).

By the end of the 1980s, this police brutality was very evident, and there was a lack of people being able to speak about it. Members of the band like Ice Cube and Dr Dre were inspired to write this song after being senselessly pulled over or arrested when driving in Compton. We must consider the value of censorship in this instance as much as officials elected to ban this song due to its heavy suggestions of promoting violence and riotous behaviour, the authors were simply speaking  their truth and talking about the reality of many people’s lives. They parody the prosecution of minorities at the start of the song, “do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?… Got it bad cus’ I’m brown and not the other colour”. At the start of the scene I have chosen, the Police Officer bans the song and says the first curse word in a censored way by simply saying “F”, the band replies by relaying the actual title of the song in an uncensored fashion.  Although the song was banned, this is a fictionalised version of events however this moment in the scene highlights the band’s urge to be uncensored, to promote an uncut truth that will speak to their audience much more than a desensitised version.

The next part of dialogue in the scene is a threat from the officer stating that they would be arrested for refusal of the rules that he has laid out. Within this film, as a spectator it may be difficult to understand when things are fictionalised. This film however autobiographical it may be, is also a Hollywood film that the director Grey as well as the Producers are willing to take liberties with. I would argue that this scene is more of a metaphorical retelling. The authorities that wished to censor their art were personified by this stern, old white male. There is a lot to be said about how race is being represented here. On one side we have the rebellious protagonists of the story, being portrayed by the African American band, NWA. On the other side you have the establishment, the oppressive, censored antagonist represented by a white police officer. Grey here in this is scene  is contesting the question of race and the power levels between black and white people in the USA. The levels of power between races is in Grey’s control as he positions the two different groups as opposing one another. Perhaps as an African American director, Grey realises the significance in this scene when the NWA defied rules in order to somewhat break free from a censorship held down by a predominantly White America. In an interview with Grey during the press release of the movie he states how significant the NWA were in his youth and how their music was “Such a big influence on him as an African American”. Grey has since went on to become the first African American to direct a Billion Dollar movie, and so he personally owes a lot to his influences. 

In the next part of the scene, the NWA are performing in front of a Detroit audience, as the previous song ends, the officer is in the audience looking on with distaste. The members on stage look at each other and decide to perform the banned song anyway, they do this because the crowd is cheering for it. It is clear that they are giving the crowd what they want. Grey has built this particular part of the scene to highlight the dichotomy between the establishment’s orthodox censorship and the artist’s need to push boundaries and give in to the will of the people. At this point in the scene, the crowd are clearly loud and very excited. As they perform their song, security guards are seen coming onto the stage as it cuts back to the Officer from earlier, grimacing. Suddenly gunshots are heard and the whole crowd starts to disperse, the band run off stage and the LAPD flood the stage. Paul Gormley explores how in film,  “African American people are constructed and experienced by the white cultural imagination as connoting a sense of danger to the white Western subject”. (Gormley, P. The New- Brutality Film, 2005).

The gunshot heard is off screen however its insinuated that it was caused by a member of the police as it is them who wishes to break up the concert, and the gunshots go off as they storm the stage. When asked about this incident in real life, Ice Cube stated that he believed the Police had actually used firecrackers to disperse the crowd and had blamed it on kids at the concert. This moment in the film illustrates the danger the group faced when playing their music. In the next part of the scene, the band are seen running out the stadium, only to meet a row of security, as they are taken into custody. All of a sudden a large group of people appear, roaring the title of the song and throwing things at the police force. This scene hints at several things, firstly, the negativity faced from their music, secondly perhaps how their music did in fact incite violent behaviours and lastly, it shows by the end of the scene, how a collective unified against a perceived common threat. It is interesting to note that the crowd at the concert in the film are very multi-ethnic. Grey has made it clear in terms of grouping, that the music appeals to the youth, despite their race or background. a political read of this scene is that there is a consideration of strong liberal undertones, socialism’s chaotic youth upsetting the stereotypical conservative, white, old, male, police force. A quote often appropriated to Winston Churchill is “if you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart, if you are not a conservative at 35 you have no brain”. Grey is potentially leaning into political stereotypes in this moment, as well as producing an accurate re-presentation of the crowd at the concert. 

It is important to consider the scene in the greater context of the film. So far in the film the characters are  just starting to become famous, as they look out of the bus in the previous scene, a group of white parents are seen burning a pile of of their albums. In the scene succeeding this one they are in a press conference and a white reporter states how they, “glamorise the lifestyle of gangs, guns, drugs”, Ice Cube retorts, “our art reflects our reality.. freedom of speech includes rap music”. I interpret the scene as a very transformative one. Grey depicts urban, white America as hateful towards their music until they are able to express the reality of their African American culture in Compton and as a result, the hatred turns to an enquiry. However “Culture comes into play at precisely the point where biological individuals become subjects, and that what lies between the two is not some automatically constituted ‘natural’ process of socialisation but much more complex process of formation”. Stuart Hall in this quote here is exploring how culture is often complex and multi-dimensional and so an understanding of another’s collective culture is difficult to deal with in definitive absolutes. The change of attitude can be attributed to Grey depicting the NWA as the liberator of truth, positioning them and their music as opening up a dialogue that previously didn’t exist. (Hall, Stuart, 2017).

This film was released at a very important time for African Americans in two ways. The first of which was that it was released in the Summer of 2015 in light of the 87th Annual Oscars which gained major attention for lacking in diversity, and was infamously attached to the hashtag “Oscars So White”. This was because there was a lack of or no diversity at all in nearly all categories. This incident brought Hollywood’s long-standing issues of lack of representation to the forefront of conversation. Hollywood films in light of this controversy were seen in a different way and by the time of next year’s Oscars, the Academy was targeted by the media for not giving Straight Outta Compton any nominations except for best original screenplay which recognised the work of the two white script-writers, despite “Starring black actors and led by a black director” (Gabrielle M.Williams, Harvard Political Review, 2016).

The second reason the time of release of this film is relevant is how its themes of racism and police brutality were very relevant in the US at the time. According to The Guardian, the rate of “Young  black men killed by US police was at its highest rate in a year of 1,134 deaths”. It reports how young black men were 9 times more likely to be killed by an officer than other Americans. This article was released in light of an incident in Ohio where 12 year-old Tamir Rice was shot for holding a toy gun and the officer was eventually cleared by the Grand Jury. 2015 was a year notorious for a lack of diversity in Hollywood and for severe racism within the constitution. And so with regards to these factors, it is evident that the scene I have chosen is relevant in a multitude of ways. It showcases an unfair treatment towards a race. It also successfully sympathises with how African Americans have been treated in the past. Grey represents race here very delicately. He is able to celebrate the nature of his own background whilst also calling attention to the treatment it has received. By recreating a moment from 1987 in 2015 draws comparisons to modern society and how far it has come, but also how far it still needs to go. (Moore, Leonard, 2020).

In Conclusion, the scene I have chosen draws upon the main themes of this movie. It highlights the importance of the NWA in representing an untold reality of many Americans, it promotes the valuable nature of uncensored art and how that impacts society. The significance of this moment at the time ushered in a new era of music defined by a new kind of “counter-culture”. With the film being released in 2015, there was an argument do be made that it was highlighting how the kinds of challenges faced by African Americans was more prevalent than ever before with many new cases of institutional racism. It was also released in a time where the US still has traces of deep routed, national racism within its establishment in the ways of government, and even in Hollywood today.

Written by George M.McBurney

Bibliography

DeVito, Lee (August 17, 2015) The Real Story behind N.W.A.’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Detroit Riot. Detroit METRO Times. Article. Available at https://www.metrotimes.com/city-slang/archives/2015/08/17/the-real-story-behind-nwas-straight-outta-compton-detroit-riot [accessed 5/4/20]
Gormley, P. (2005) The New-brutality film race and affect in contemporary Hollywood cinema. Bristol: Intellect; 2005 
Hall, S. (2017). The Fateful Triangle: race, ethnicity, nation.Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press
Lopez, German (May 30, 2017) Cleveland just fired the cop who shot and killed 12 year old Tamir Rice. VOX. Article. Available at https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/5/30/15713254/cleveland-police-tamir-rice-timothy-loehmann [accessed 5/4/20]
Moore, Leonard (2020) Police Brutality in the United States. Britannica. Available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/Police-Brutality-in-the-United-States-2064580/Antibrutality-campaigns [accessed 9/4/20]
Nama, A. (2008) Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film. Austin University of Texas Press; 2008
Swaine, J., Laughland, O., Lartey, J., McCarthy, C. (31 December, 2015). Young Black Men killed by US police at highest rate in year of 1,134 deaths. The Guardian . Article. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/31/the-counted-police-killings-2015-young-black-men [accessed 7/4/20]
Williams, Gabriele (February 28, 2016) Academy Awards of Merit: the Legitimacy of the Oscards. Harvard Political Review. Available at https://harvardpolitics.com/online/academy-awards-merit-legitimacy-issue-oscars/ [accessed 5/4/20]

Filmography

Straight Outta Compton (F. Grey, 2015, US)

Birth of A Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915, US)

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