Wednesday, August 19, 2015

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I Am All of Them, They Are All of Me: Viewing Straight Outta’ Compton in Its Proper Context

Fr left to right: Ice Cube, F. Gary Gray, Dr. Dre, O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube), Jason Mitchell (Eazy E), Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre) 

By Max Reddick
This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no sons
to float in the space between. 
— An excerpt from “The Idea of Ancestry,” by Etheridge Knight

Straight Outta’ Compton, the much-anticipated biopic depicting the ascent of the seminal gangsta’ rap group Niggas With Attitudes (NWA), finally opened in theaters across the country this past Friday. However, even before the film opened and people were able to view it, the debate began as to its meaning, worth, and impact on African American culture.

Just as NWA’s national debut in the late 1980’s became, in retrospect, an important cultural event, thanks in part to a well-publicized unfortunate death on the set of the film, resulting in the arrest of one of the film’s most notorious characters, and a very effective marketing campaign, the film, a narrative encompassing the events leading up to this debut and shortly thereafter, followed suite. And as is the case with most cultural events, commentary and opinions on the Internet and across the various social media abound.

NWA: Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy E, DJ Yella, MC Ren

Although the arguments being made for either supporting the film or deploring the film vary greatly, thus far they, in the main, fall on opposite poles of a broad range. On one end of the range, supporters praise the quality of the film and compliment its well-crafted narrative, while those on the opposite end of that range denounce both the violence and misogyny depicted by the film’s narrative as well as the violence and misogyny depicted in the lyrical narratives of the NWA’s members.

After finally getting a chance to see the film for myself, I cast my lot with the former group, those who praise the quality of the film and have only the highest compliments for its well-crafted feat of narrative storytelling. Furthermore, in examining the arguments of the latter group with an utmost sense of fairness and as objectively as possible, I cannot agree with the reasoning supporting their position. In fact, I find their arguments to be merely extensions of that whole bitter, internecine high culture-low culture debate as the purpose and proper form of African American art that has divided African American culture since the early twentieth century, setting intellectuals representing high culture such as W.E.B. Dubois and Alain Locke against artists representing low culture such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.

I would probably be best, though, if I explained my position through metaphor.

See, to write that I come from a very large family would be an understatement; my family is absolutely huge, more black folk than you can shake a stick at. And we are scattered throughout the world and occupy various rungs of the social and economic ladders from the sublimely cultured to coarsely uncouth; from the highly educated to the embarrassingly ignorant; from the fabulously wealthy to the ingloriously poor; from the consummately professional to the despicably criminal.

Our narratives are all strangely similar but wildly deviating, all at once. Right this very moment, I have a cousin I was close to as child who went on to become a very good attorney and lead legal counsel to the mayor of Chicago. He is quite wealthy and lives very well. I also have a cousin I was close to as a child who is now serving a life sentence in prison for robbery and murder. I assume his life is a living hell.

Nevertheless, every other year on the first Sunday of August, my whole family converges on this former cotton plantation in a rural area outside the small town of Bemis, Tennessee, for a family reunion. Although my family now owns most of this land, my ancestors labored here as slaves and later as sharecroppers.

And when we gather together every other year on the first Sunday of August, we do not separate ourselves into categories of the cultured and the uncouth, or the educated and the ignorant, or the wealthy and the poor, or the professional and the criminal; we come together as one glorious body, and we offer up thanks for continued existence of our family members yet alive, remember and pay homage to our ancestors, celebrate our elders, and ask blessings for the children and the new born. For this moment we are of one body; we are family.

O'Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube

And I hold an immense sense of pride in and respect for my family, and I consider myself immensely blessed to have been born into what I consider to be such an august group. Even further, I believe my family’s narrative—how we went from being slaves and then sharecroppers to owning the land on which we were forced to labor for free or practically nothing to producing skilled and esteemed professionals like my lawyer cousin—to be uniquely beautiful, inspirational, and of great worth, offering a compelling lesson to all. In fact, once I have honed my language faculties well enough to do honor to that narrative, I plan to compose this narrative myself.

Now, in composing this narrative, if I am to do so as completely, accurately, and honestly as possible, I cannot leave anything or anyone out. I know that I must include the beautiful alongside the grotesque, the tasteful alongside the vulgar, the desirable alongside the abhorrent, and the sacred alongside the profane. I must include, without exception, each term contained in each set of these binary opposites, not simply in the name of completeness, accuracy, and honesty, but so that my representation, my narrative portrait of my family, possesses a certain vivacity—life!

Think of each of these terms as a separate and unique color, a certain hue. Some of these colors are dull and without resonance, while others are sharp and engaging. And when mixed with other colors, each of these colors forms yet another different and unique color or hue; the possibilities are boundless.

Album cover of Straight Outta Compton

Exploiting the full possibilities of all these colors and hues upon the narrative canvas results in a narrative portrait that is, at once, captivating and three-dimensional in its depth and scope. However, if I include only carefully selected positive elements or negative elements from each set of binary opposites, I will have produced an insipid and unappealing dull, gray, and one-dimensional narrative portrait and forfeited its potential of beauty and efficacy to inspire and to instruct.

Reality is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional must be represented as such.

And I have not written all of this to defend the rampant violence and blatant misogyny represented in the film’s narrative and as depicted in the lyrical narratives of the NWA’s members; I deplore and decry each of these issues as much as, if not more so, anyone concerned with ridding our society and our culture of them and their deleterious effects. However, when considering a narrative, whatever its form, we waste our time and energy isolating and critiquing individual elements of that narrative without considering the narrative as a whole, in its entirety, and then using these isolated, individual elements to condemn and disqualify the whole narrative.

In other words, the whole narrative must be examined, instead, within the context of how these isolated, individual elements shaped the narrative itself and the narrative’s connection to and effect on other existing narratives.
Dr. Dre and Ice Cube - Executive Producers of Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta’ Compton does a good job of effectively situating the violence and misogyny of the film and the lyrics of the group’s members within the context of the violence and misogyny hypocritically perpetrated on the members of the community out of which the narrative arose, by and in service to the oppressive mandates of power within the greater society. However, the film does not, in any way or at any time, excuse or justify them.

If I might paraphrase that great Negro musical virtuoso, George Clinton, one does not swim under water without becoming wet. Likewise, one does not exist in an environment the whole of her or his life without that environment affecting him or her in one way or another. Therefore, instead of disqualifying this film narrative as a viable and valuable cultural object because of the instances of violence and misogyny it contains, we would be better served expending our time and energy critiquing, explicating, and eliminating those oppressive narratives existing alongside and giving rise to this one.

In closing, allow me to express my affection and adoration for my people and my culture. I love my people. I love my culture. And I hold an immense sense of pride in and respect for my people and my culture, and I consider myself immensely blessed to have been born into what I consider an august group. Additionally, I believe our narrative—the story of our becoming, of how we got over—to be both profanely sacred and reverently profane.

Out of the contradictions of this narrative, my people and my culture were formed. And out of my people and my culture, I was born. I am their reflection. Their narrative and all its positive and negative elements are essential elements of my own; I cannot exclude any element without excluding a part of me.

I am all of them; they are all of me. I am me; they are thee. And it is their narrative that I must study in its entirety if I am ever to gain control of my own. I cannot simply reject the parts of that narrative that offend my sensibilities lest my ignorance of these parts of that narrative creep into my own.

** Max Reddick **


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