by Mica McGriggs
N.W.A was not the music of my childhood, even though I was living just south in the neighboring Orange County at the height of their career, I remained unaware. I was unaware of their music and unaware of the struggles of inner-city life. I have vague memories from my childhood of conversations at the dinner table or in passing about riots, and violence, but I had no context; my middle class suburban community protected me from experiencing that life. I don’t think I found NWA and other gangster rap until I was a teenager, but I was appalled and hooked! While it didn’t reflect my reality or report on the story of my experience it still felt like home. Compton, where the members of NWA grew up was a microcosm of our society, it represented a failing system, one that we are all caught in. I have been to Compton once in my life, I was five or six and we went to visit my cousins who lived there as kids. I remember having a good day, we played and ate and then I returned to my Orange County suburb with my white mother and grandparents. At that tender age, life seemed the same for them as it was for me, it really wasn’t until I found gangster rap that I began to understand some of what they experienced.
“…So police think they have the authority to kill a minority…” is a line from one of the most popular and most controversial songs by NWA “F&ck Tha Police.” This theme emerges strongly immediately in the film. In the first scene of the film a police tank charges into a “drug house” and crushes a woman with its battering ram; setting the scene for many more disturbing images to come. I knew within the first 60 seconds of the movie that there would be dozens of nuances to untangle; by the end my thoughts were reeling, just soooo much to explore. For this purpose of this entry I will highlight three. Compton, what I term the “rogue uncle Tom”, and the role of women in the fil.
Compton: NWA has been criticized for their lyrics, they have been accused of glamorizing and glorifying, violence, drugs, sex, and disrespecting authority. While the city of Compton is the backdrop for the story it almost takes on a life of its own; it is a character in the film. NWA reports on Compton. Ice Cube has described himself as a journalist who reports on what is happening on the ground when he walks out his door every day. Eazy E said that their music gives a voice to the people. They are reflecting the reality they see around them. The film does a great job of portraying what life is like for people living in Compton, particularly young black men. There is a scene early on in the movie where Ice Cube is leaving a friends and walking across the street to his house, the police stop him and slam him up against a cruiser and search him. The police just decided to stop and search anyone on the street at that time. Ice Cube is roughed up a bit and called the N word by the police as his parents watch helplessly from the side walk. This is a common occurrence in Compton. The assumption of guilt, feeling justified to invade black bodies, and the authority to do it.
This particular story line is played out time and time again in the film, and the music, well it tells the story of Compton. Again Compton is a microcosm of the broken system, it’s the consequence of white-supremacy. Yet humanity is still found in Compton. Compton breads brotherhood and solidarity, it fosters cohesion and connectedness for the men of NWA. Compton is complicated. It’s scary, messy, neglected, oppressed, beautiful, and loving all at the same time.
The Rogue Uncle Tom: There is a black police officer in the film who represents an Uncle Tom of Sorts. I call him the “rogue uncle Tom” because he isn’t passive “yes massa” uncle Tom but one that has gone outside of the script…gone “rogue.” During a recording session the men file outside to deal with a situation Dr. Dre has and discuss what just happened. The five men are seen on the sidewalk and the police stop and interrogate them. Which means they are all laid out of the sidewalk, accused of being dope dealers and searched. When their manager (a white man) emerges from the studio and attempts to explain to the cops that these men are working (recording an album in his studio) he is silenced and the men are all shown their place. The police run this, they call the shots and no one is to question their authority. The officer who is most vocal in this scene is the black officer. He exerts his authority overtly and obnoxiously. He represents black men attempting to claim white privilege through the authority of law enforcement. His gun and badge serve as a buffer (however it’s only a façade of privilege) he feels less oppressed as he moves into the role of oppressor. It’s superficial, because he takes off the uniform at the end of his shift and what remains is a black bodied male.
I feel angry and sad for him at the same time. The abuse of his authority reinforces the broken system, and contributes to the problem. However watching this man attempt to reclaim the dignity that was stripped from him in a highly maladaptive way made me sad. The “rogue uncle Tom” portrayed as an abusive police office is an Achilles heel in the leg work of the movement.
The Role of Women: This was particular aspect of the film was definitely the one that evoked the most emotion in me. 95% of the women for 95% of the time are props in the film. Stripped of all humanity, they are sexual objects used as background and entertainment; they are simply decoration.
There are at least three parties with an abundance of naked women shown in the film. One of the funnier parts of the film comes at the expense of a black woman, where we learn the origin of the “bye Felicia” catch phrase. The racial makeup of the women at the parties also changes about halfway through the film. At the first hotel party (after NWA’s first tour) the women at the part are all black. At the next party (at the height of the groups success) many of the women in attendance are white and Latina. As if once a certain level of financial success comes to black men they are then entitled to interact with non-black women. I also found it fascinating that the three main characters (Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy E) end up in relationships with light skinned racially ambiguous women.
These three women are granted a bit of humanity (lines of dialog) near the end of the film. What did they have in common…motherhood. These women are all mothers, they are the mothers of these men’s children, this grants them the slightest amount of respect. The only female character that is granted a significant amount of dignity and respect is Dre’s mom. From the beginning she is portrayed as the Matriarchal figure, she is revered and respected.
As I contemplated on how this nuance is connected to historical systemic oppression, I remembered my history. So why is the disrespect of the black woman (other than your mother) so frequent in black communities? It’s generational trauma. The black family was destroyed in the diaspora. Black children came into the world through breeding as opposed to relationship. The relationships that did occur were punished. Legally non-recognized marriages between slaves occurred in secret and often if it was discovered one of the partners was whipped, sold, or lynched. Black male children grew up in the homes of their mothers, but not in the homes of their romantic partners, they know how to be in relationship with their matriarch but not their lover.
While I was disturbed by the portrayal of women in the film, and even more upset by the harsh reality that women are treated this way in real life every day. I understand the history, which provides context; which is not an excuse, but it does inform and help me process what I was seeing on the screen. There is work to do, and healing can’t take place until we face our history in order to process our trauma.
Overall, I thought the film was thought provoking, emotionally evocative, and entertaining. I would add a CW for harsh language, nudity, and violence. I’ll probably never cruise in a 64’ but I’ll probably be playing N.W.A on repeat for the week. I appreciate these men for risking it all to telling the important and ugly truth through their music. They gave a silenced people a voice, and shaped our culture.