Friday, August 14, 2015

Compton, Movie and City

The hottest movie release this weekend is "Straight Outta Compton," a musical biopic of the group N.W.A. -- Niggas Wit Attitudes -- and named for NWA's 1988 breakout album.  The album moved the epicenter of hip hop from its New York roots to the West Coast and established gangsta rap as the sound of its moment.

The themes of the album remain current: inner-city violence, black anger and minority alienation from the broader culture.  One famous song is "Fuck tha Police." 

Almost two generations have grown up listening to rap, a subset of the broader hip hop movement, and so the potential "Compton" audience is expected to be large enough to make the film this weekend's box office winner.  (It doesn't hurt that the other major release, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", is a reboot of a long-forgotten television program from the 1970s.)

Universal Studios has promoted the hell out of "Compton" and is footing the bill for extra security at its screenings.  Reviews are generally very positive, but California critics who know something about rap and Compton are a teensy bit less effusive.  Some samples: 

      "Alternately riveting and wearying, up-to-the-minute relevant as well as self-
      mythologizingly self-indulgent — as much of a heroic origins story as anything 
      out of the Marvel factory — 'Straight Outta Compton' ends up juggling more 
      story lines and moods than it can handle."
                                                                         Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times 

      "A conventional music-world biopic in outline, but intensely human and 
      personal in its characterizations and attention to detail, director F. Gary Gray’s 
      movie is a feast for hip-hop connoisseurs and novices alike as it charts the West 
      Coast rap superstars’ meteoric rise, fractious in-fighting and discovery that the 
      music business can be as savage as the inner-city streets."
                                                                                           Scott Foundas, Variety

      "By the time Tupac and Snoop bop past in seconds-long cameos, it's clear 
      that 'Straight Outta Compton' is at once too padded and too thin.  It's as if the 
      story of these real-life legends was so unruly and dangerous that the 
      filmmakers became the cops, forcing it into submission." 
                                                                                    Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly

      "But the sheer force of "Straight Outta Compton" steamrolls its flaws. Director Gray, 
      who is from Compton and made a name for himself directing some of hip-hop's 
      best music videos, has given us a movie that feels honest and urgent. Yes, 'Compton' 
      is told from the point of view of those who come out looking the best in the end. 
      But even if it is a somewhat one-sided story, it is still a vital one that's well-told."
                                                                       Tony Hicks, San Jose Mercury News

Black Musicians and Biopics

The rich vein of African American struggle has been paired with the achievements of major black musicians in some pretty good movies.  The first of these, "Lady Sings the Blues", starred Diana Ross as Billie Holliday and was a big hit in 1972.  The pace of releases picked up in the late 1980s.

"Bird", a 1988 Charlie Parker biopic by jazz fan Clint Eastwood, was well reviewed even if it did not sell tickets in huge numbers.

In 1993, Ike and Tina Turner's personal problems and musical triumphs were the focuses of "What's Love Got to Do with It".

"Ray," a 2004 bio of the legendary Ray Charles," was actor Jamie Foxx's own star turn.

Rap star Notorious B.I.G., ne Christopher Wallace, who was shot dead in 1997, was the subject of "Notorious" in 2009. 

Compton, Then and Now

Compton is a city of about 96,000 residents located on 10 square miles in the southern part of Los Angeles County.

When the "Straight Outta Compton" album was released, the city was was majority African American, and it was regarded as one of the most violent in the country. Today the population has shifted.  Compton now is two-thirds to three-quarters Hispanic (estimates vary), but it still is a dangerous place.

Official statistics show a crescendo and then small decline in crime beginning 35 years ago.  

                                        Murder/                                Violent
                                      Manslaughter                       Crime Total
                     1980                56                                     2,192

                     1985                57                                     2,532

                     1990                82                                     3,143

                     1995                79                                     1,525

Murder rates have continued to decline, but Compton remains far more dangerous than most cities. 

Virtually all the victims are shot to death.  

Aggravating the situation is the sad fact that most of Compton's homicides -- 59 percent on average in recent years -- are not "closed."  There are seldom legal consequences for murder.

Investigating detectives have said their work often is frustrated by the longstanding local culture, a code of silence that makes it hard to identify and prosecute murderers. 

 "It’s one of those frustrating cases out of Compton; it’s the same in South L.A.,” a detective told a reporter in an interview about a killing earlier this year. “You don’t get a lot of cooperation. Nobody talks to the cops. My partner and I walked up and down the street, around the corner, trying to drum up information, leaving fliers.  Nothing.”

Still, there are reasons for hope.  The city's old, ineffective and possibly corrupt government was shaken up in 2012 with the election of Aja Brown, who holds two degrees in governance and urban policy. She has set high goals for her hometown, suggesting recently that if Brooklyn, NY could make a comeback, surely Compton could do the same.

Compton was teetering toward bankruptcy before Brown's election, but her first budget resulted in a surplus and the city has begun to pay down debts.  An e-commerce project that includes jobs and training programs is planned.  Property values have increased, based at least in part on Compton's proximity to LA's burgeoning downtown and Los Angeles International Airport.

And Brown has recruited Dr. Dre, one of musicians profiled in the new movie and a very wealthy man since the sale of his headphone company, Beats by Dre, to Apple for $3 billion. Dre, like Compton, has a past he prefers to forget -- specifically the brutal beating of a female journalist that did not make it into the film, or at least into its final cut. 

But he remembers his roots.  He has pledged to donate the profits from his new album, ("Compton"), to arts programs for children in the city that launched him.

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