You are now about to witness the strength of more street knowledge.
August was a little unexpected. The most critically lauded TV show (85% on metacritic) to begin and end in August was HBO’s six-episode mini-series Show Me a Hero. The most critically lauded movie of August (90% on Rotten Tomatoes) was also the month’s biggest hit, Universal’s Straight Outta Compton. Both of these cinematic projects presume to shape a coherent narrative (underdog, rise, fall, “aftermath”) from real-life events that took place over years, specifically the late 80s and early 90s. Both are about blacks breaking down the doors to opportunities and situations previously reserved for whites. And yet this is the first article you’ve seen that discusses them in tandem. That’s kind of strange.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Hollywood is turning its eyes toward the last time a billionaire egomaniac mounted a third-party presidential bid against a Clinton and a Bush. Well, more to the point, kids like stories about the time in which they were born, and the late-80s and early-90s kids are just now entering their peak consumer-power years. It’s the perfect time for Hollywood to journey back to the era of mullets, grunge, and the first time we used terms like “President Bush,” “Gulf War,” and “politically correct.”
Except that Straight Outta Compton and Show Me a Hero didn’t really spend much time on historical context, which is also a little strange, considering that its lead characters were so hell-bent on mattering, on changing the wider world. It’s one thing for a story like Glengarry Glen Ross (made during the period under discussion) or Foxcatcher (made last year, but set in the period under discussion) to more or less ignore the wider world – that myopia was part of the lead characters’ very telling ignorance.
Speaking of telling ignorance, as a teacher of diversity-focused classes for college students, I can honestly say that a lot of current young adults seem to think that after Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Acts, the arc of the universe proceeded to bend the right way toward the justice of a generally integrated and post-racial America, culminating in the Presidency of Barack Obama. Uh, no, that’s not what happened. Even relatively enlightened accounts can leave people wondering about the real history of the 80s and 90s. For example, Kelefa Sanneh, in last week’s New Yorker, says that in the 2010 book “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander “argued, convincingly, that our punitive solution to the trade in illegal drugs was an overreaction, and one that would never have been tolerated if more of its victims had been white. She urged activists to fight back in explicitly racial terms, demanding that prison rolls be slashed and police departments remade, not merely in the name of pragmatic reform but in the name of black liberation. In many ways, the Black Lives Matter movement is an answer to her call.”
Right. And yet, the disproportion – at least six times as many blacks locked up as whites, who use and sell drugs at the same rate as blacks – was glaringly evident by 1986. Why did it take another generation for #BlackLivesMatter to happen? What were people doing, thinking, at the height of the crack epidemic in the late 80s?
Let’s start shortly after King and Selma and the Voting Rights Act of 1965…the part where high schools often leave off. The Watts uprising of 1965 was a tipping point after which many white liberals failed to understand ongoing black frustration with the fact that their lives were hardly improving, despite King and LBJ’s actions. The tumultuous, widely discussed issues of busing, Vietnam, the space race, the Black Panthers: fewer and fewer whites were sympathizing with black activists’ positions on these, and the 1968 triumph of Nixon’s “silent majority” augured even less sympathy for integrationist policies. By the early 1970s, when blacks brought cheap, potent heroin back from Vietnam to the inner-city streets, crime had become the main concern even for many black reformers (yes, black-on-black crime was even then the lead killer of blacks), who, as Michael Javen Fortner details in “Black Silent Majority,” at first welcomed newly aggressive anti-drug, prison-stuffing laws…this was before anyone knew that the prison population would increase by a factor of six over the next 20 years, mostly filling with black and Latino men, decimating the black community of male leadership. Despite lawsuits and counter-lawsuits and white flight and counter-white flight (as when blacks would follow whites to an “outer-ring” suburb and then the whites would flee again, as chronicled by Thomas Edsall in the New York Times last week), by the early 1980s, a certain inertia had set in. It’s not like everyone could move or wanted to move, and Edsall’s article shows that schools did become steadily more integrated up until 1988 – a year that is Ground Zero for both Show Me a Hero and Straight Outta Compton.
In his 1997 book “Am I Black Enough For You?,” Todd Boyd offers a fascinating take on what he calls three phases of the 80s and 90s. The first, the Race Man period, was dominated by Bill Cosby and The Cosby Show, and suggested that King’s America had basically triumphed and that racial problems were a thing of the past. The second period, which overlaps, reacts to, and helps end the first period, was the Militant Black Consciousness period, best represented by Spike Lee, Public Enemy, and Malcolm X-like rhetoric, right up until the December 1992 release of Lee’s film Malcolm X, which (for Boyd) made it clear that all Lee and the Malcolm legacy really wanted was middle-class respectability. (I can say that I lived in S.E. Washington D.C. before and after the release of that film, and within a month I saw a thousand X hats vanish like snow after a hot day.) The third period, overlapping the second, extending beyond it, and succeeding it, is more of a Nihilist Nigga period, and Boyd says that “this era began receiving marginal attention with the release of NWA’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ in 1988.”
The problem with Show Me a Hero and Straight Outta Compton is that they spend more time on hairstyles than the hairy situations of the Reagan era. In their rush to get to their lead characters’ rise and fall, they barely show how desperate was the situation of black inner-cities circa 1986. One gets a better sense of this period from reading the just-released, current #1 bestseller “Between the World and Me,” where Ta-Nihisi Coates discusses the raw fear, chaos, and poverty of Baltimore during his teenagerhood. The early scenes of Straight Outta Compton give a slight sense of urban decay, and we do hear radio pieces of Reagan in the opening seconds, but let’s make it even clearer: Reagan’s conservative rhetoric – if you’re poor it’s your fault – and his war on drugs had taken everything to a new level. As had AIDS, gun proliferation, and crack cocaine. Or as Nelson George put it in “Hip-Hop America,” “Gangsta rap (or reality rap or whatever descriptive phrase you like) is a direct by-product of the crack explosion. Unless you grasp that connection nothing else that happened in hip hop’s journey to national scapegoat will make sense. This is not a chicken-or-the-egg riddle – first came crack rocks, then gangsta rap.” And with crack rocks also came a dramatic new urgency to get out of the ghetto, as seen in inner cities all over America, and atomized by Lisa Belkin in her 1999 book “Show Me a Hero.” (Top review on amazon, from 1999: “As for Hollywood, I don’t think they’ll have the guts to make this movie. There are no pat happy endings here and no easy answers.” This may say something about our need to be far from this kind of history before we can tell it.)
In HBO’s version of Show Me a Hero, blacks are coming into Yonkers the way that termites arrive in a basement – nobody really knows from where, or why. As Emily Nussbaum pointed out in her review, the one glaring weakness of the show is that it doesn’t give black people or Yonkers’ urban situation equal time with the white politicians who spend so much time arguing about them/it. This failure of context is particularly dismaying because David Simon oversaw the show, and Simon’s previous show, The Wire, superbly contextualized the integrationist problems besetting its young white mayor (played by Aidan Gillen). Show Me a Hero’s Bruce Springsteen music is (repeatedly) deployed with sincerity on more than one level: Bruce’s working-class white whingings are truly meant as windows into the souls of our leads. At least the show is smart enough to contrast this, more than once, to someone playing Public Enemy out of a boom-box (much like Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing).
Ah, but if Chuck D-level militancy was all Yonkers residents had had to fear from their new black neighbors in 1989, well, that would have been one thing. But as Boyd wrote, something more fearsome, more we-don’t-give-a-fuck, less institutional, more Mike Tyson-ish was happening at the time (on both coasts). As Wesley Morris just wrote in Grantland, “N.W.A didn’t invent “scary” as the black-male trope. They perfected it…N.W.A. seemed to reappropriate and harness all that supposed guilt and rub it in America’s face.” 1987 is when Show Me a Hero begins, and Nick Wasicsko becomes mayor because he opposes 600 units of new housing (mostly for blacks). Then in 1988, the federal judge proves unmovable, and Wasicsko goes back on himself and tries to get his white constituents to go along…and they freak out. Sure, it’s possible Yonkers residents hadn’t heard of N.W.A., the band who’d come out with “Boyz N Tha Hood” in 1987 and the “Straight Outta Compton” album in 1988. But they knew vaguely of ghetto desperation (whether or not they understood Reagan’s role in fostering it), and they might have heard something about the bloods and the crips – they knew of nihilist niggaz, and were afraid. In this, they had something in common with Top 40 stations around the country, who, for the first time since Elvis, refused to play rap music that was too threatening, and something in common with the F.B.I., who put N.W.A. on notice. (The band wore this as a badge of honor.) MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, in 1990, were both the white-friendly cure as well as the reason gangsta rap had to get even harder, to make sure we never heard from them again.
It might seem as though I’m saying that if N.W.A. hadn’t been founded, we would have had to invent them. But I have something like the opposite problem with Straight Outta Compton: I’m not sure the film does enough to show just how special the band was. For one thing, half of rap in 1988 was based on sampling, and peak N.W.A. was pretty much original (excepting “Express Yourself”). For another thing, where’s everyone else? LL Cool J gets a quick shout-out, but what about all the other seminal hip-hop groups of the time? It’s hardly enough to see Dre grooving to Roy Ayers’ (wonderful) 1976 song “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” – clearly N.W.A. was adapting from more immediate precedents. This may sound like a contradiction, but had the film shown a bit more of what was going on (Run-D.M.C., B.D.P., Eric B. and Rakim, Ice-T, etc.) the film might have made a credible claim that N.W.A. moved hip-hop’s center of gravity to the West Coast, or even invented gangster rap. Yes, B.D.P. came out with “Criminal Minded” in 1987, but KRS-One was always on the more reformist tip, while N.W.A. was more “I don’t give a fuck, that’s the problem.” There’s an epoch-making brilliance to “Gangsta Gangsta” (per the film, Ice Cube was already rapping this song at clubs before formally joining N.W.A.) singing “what the fuck are they yelling?” before singing the title, as though to say, they’re calling us gangsta, so we’ll call our song that, we’ll even call ourselves that, but – next line – “it’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality.” (Hence Nelson George’s reminder that gangsta rap was sometimes called reality rap.) When it came to non-P.E., non-B.D.P., non-manifesto-spouting bands, no other rappers came close to moving hip-hop from the relative frothiness of LL Cool J’s “Radio” to the more hardcore stuff. No one else could have made, or did make, Run-D.M.C. and the Fat Boys seem so irrelevant so quickly. I didn’t need that credit sequence about Snoop and Tupac and Eminem: duh. N.W.A.’s influence goes a lot deeper than a few stars.
But back to context: in Straight Outta Compton Dr. Dre drives through the rioting streets of L.A. in late April 1992 (really? Dre did that?) and the sequence ends with a visual of a red bandana tied to a blue one. Now, I happen to know that symbolizes the truce between the bloods and the crips, but before that moment the film hasn’t even obliquely mentioned that conflict. Did gangster rap or even militant consciousness (as espoused by Ice Cube, anyway) have anything to do with the L.A. riots? Well, the film can’t be expected to confront that, and I can agree the ambiguity works there. But it would have been nice to hear a character speculate on gangsta rap’s post-riots turn toward something less insurrectionary with Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.” Perhaps that’s implied, but a better film would have forced Cube and Dre to look in the mirror a little more often.
By the time Show Me a Hero gets to 1992, it settles into the show it should have been all along, with anxious black families, mostly represented by intelligent women, wondering how to get along with their judgey white neighbors. Nick Wasicsko, not unlike Eazy-E in scenes set around the same time, senses that his moment has passed, and strives to grasp at some fading chance at glory, even re-write history if he can. But he can’t. Integration has happened and passed him by. His fate is fascinating, not least because of Oscar Isaac’s towering, unpredictable, Al Pacino-like acting abilities (the fact that he’s actually Hispanic, and convinces us he’s “a dumb Polack” as he calls himself, adds to the show’s power). But give the show’s writers credit for making us understand why Nick couldn’t see a life outside politics and his own inability to spearhead reform. Comparatively, in Straight Outta Compton, AIDS hits Eazy-E like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky. Were we supposed to read something from his “Wet and Wild” party (where we see him avoiding the women), from his relative monogamy at the end, or understand a cautionary tale from the hotel room orgy scene? Really?
(If so, we hardly see the other bandmates worrying that they dodged a bullet. Critics complained that the film didn’t show Ren and Yella enough, but I was more bothered at the glaring omission/subordination of women. While I’m talking about the hotel orgy scene, I have to say that having attended hip-hop shows back then and having watched who was taken backstage, I feel it’s rather unlikely that the hotel orgy would have had zero white women, almost as unlikely as that Detroit crowd being as white as the film made it appear. Oh I know why the filmmakers did it that way, I’m just saying. P.S.: Pro tip to surviving being the only white guy in an Ice Cube mosh pit back then: lip-sync every single lyric. That’s what I did anyway.)
Female mistreatment is both a sub-theme and a problem for both films. Perhaps I was the only one who felt bothered that during N.W.A.’s hotel orgy scene, they lock outside their hotel room a buck-naked “Felicia” who looks a lot darker than the woman (pursued by her boyfriend) who answered to that name. Of course, the film avoids N.W.A.’s worst excesses of misogyny and homophobia, excluding songs like “I Ain’t Tha 1” (my mother, an arch-feminist born in 1938, loved that song; she just loved Ice Cube’s rhyme style) and Dre’s actual physical assault of Dee Barnes. It’s true that the film doesn’t owe us the entire story, but it’s also true that ten years told entirely through mansplaining feels a little incomplete. Something similar bedevils Show Me a Hero, despite the book having been written by Lisa Belkin; Nick’s world is mostly white men arguing. Yet Nick’s last moral straw breaks when he runs against his old friend Vinni (played by Winona Ryder), and the last two episodes provide meaty roles for the new black female residents as well as a white woman who had opposed them now working for them (played by Catherine Keener). Show Me a Hero shows no heroes, but delivers on the title’s implicit promise in more ways than one, eventually showing us what happens instead when communities finally do the right thing.
Despite certain missing elements, both Show Me a Hero and Straight Outta Compton are required viewing for those who wish to understand what happened to black America between Martin Luther King and the election of Barack Obama. Basically, the twin problems of racial profiling (and thus, stuffing prisons with blacks) and the crack epidemic resulted in either more desperate struggles to integrate, as in Yonkers, or a new disenfranchised nihilism that both thrilled suburban white kids and (this was related) scared the hell out of their parents. If Boyd is right that Malcolmism more or less became irrelevant after 1992 (surely the riots and Bill Clinton’s election were also factors), one can see how after fights like the ones dramatized in these films, ghetto problems were punted for a generation. (The DOJ report on Ferguson, Missouri, makes it clear that prior to last summer’s protests, no one working there had any problem with 90% of the city’s cops being white and 90% of the cars stopped being driven by blacks.) If we needed cameras and the internet for #BlackLivesMatter to matter, well, that was predicted by Ice Cube in his 1993 song “Who Got the Camera?” As Barack Obama told David Remnick about his Presidency, “at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.” Knowing the paragraphs before, and the paragraphs of, N.W.A., Nick Wasicsko, and the black women who moved to the East Side of Yonkers in the early 90s, tells us a lot about our current story.
DAMN, that shit was dope.