‘Straight Outta Compton’ and the Politics of Modern Day Minstrelsy

As I’m sure me and you, your mama and your cousin too, are aware, there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton. The press has gone to great lengths to discuss the film’s misogyny, its colorism, and its erasure of women. I’m still slack jawed a week after finding out the film’s director F. Gary Gray was the person who taped the 1991 TV segment that ultimately led to Dr. Dre’s assault of Dee Barnes — an incident that, of course, was omitted from Straight Outta Compton. Gray commits a monumental feat in cowardice, and the twist is something I’m more used to seeing in caper films from the ‘40s. Life is stranger than fiction.

Speaking of life being stranger than fiction, as has been well documented, Straight Outta Compton screenings across America were the subject of heightened security, with guards and metal detectors. Movie theaters, law enforcement, and even Universal Pictures — the studio that funded the movie — apparently considered Straight Outta Compton to be dangerous, perhaps because the thugs would come into the theater and have gang wars during the denouement. It’s apparently okay for a studio and theaters to make massive amounts of money from a film based on inherently black subject matter, involving the real lives of real black people — but when it’s even suspected that black folks will turn up to the theater, the Monolith of White America begins to lose its shit, because all White America wants is a minstrel show.

There really isn’t a more blatant indicator of how black Americans are perceived in this country than the context of entertainment. Even in this setting, black Americans are seen as heathens with violent tendencies, despite the fact that they are not being the frequent agent of movie theater violence. That just so happens to be white males, the arbitrators of all rules in the Western world — which, by the way, is the pathology behind most shootings. When white males, the rulemakers, don’t get their way, they act out. This is how any spoiled person acts. Really, it’s the whole pitch for MTV’s Super Sweet 16 or Bridezilla. Shootings carried out by white males are essentially temper tantrums turned up to 1,000.

In entertainers, the image of the dangerous black male is relished. 50 Cent sold millions of records in a bulletproof vest bragging about surviving more shots than you took on your 21st birthday. Chief Keef, a symbol of the more unsavory aspects modern day Chicago, became the subject of stardom when he began filming music videos while on house arrest. As soon as he was able to leave the house, the Monolith of White America gave him a gun at a shooting range because he’s dangerous, edgy, and violent. There’s a publication that ceremoniously decides to have Dispatches From the American Ghetto because the Monolith is fascinated by dangerous, edgy, violent black entertainers.

In these instances, black entertainers are seen as at least somewhat multifaceted. They’re worthy of at least some semblance of nuance. That’s the whole point of an N.W.A. biopic. But who are those stories being told for? If in the 25th hour, the thought of black people coming to see a movie makes anyone terrified, it’s because it wasn’t exactly intended for them in the first place. Perhaps the film, inherently tied to blackness, was intended in large part for white audiences. And if you’re gazing at black environments in Steve Irwin-esque amazement, gawping at black entertainers, their life, and their art, you are engaging in a minstrel show.

Black celebrities still face racism and microaggressions to a degree that’s far beyond of what any sane person would deem acceptable. Richard Sherman was called a thug because he merely yelled and talked trash. After Kanye West drank a bottle of Hennessey and snatched the microphone from Taylor Swift, he was called “nigger” on Twitter at rates that possibly rival that of Barack Obama. However, entertainers–thanks to their ability to dance, sing, dribble a ball, i.e. entertain–fit comfortably into the structure of capitalism and the American caste system. They are allowed to have their stories told — but the question of whether anyone is really listening is where it all gets dicey.

The story of N.W.A., if you are actually listening, is one of an oppressed race that sometimes turns to crime. Redlining, underfunded schools, imposed poverty, a police force that isn’t working in your favor, and a host of other factors are what turn men into criminals. It’s survival instinct. The same instinct led to the creation of modern gangs by undereducated immigrants from Italy and Ireland, who faced the same gross prejudice black people face today. Will screenings of Black Mass find moviegoers searched for weapons despite the movie’s subject, Whitey Bulger, being one of the most dangerous criminals in American history? Probably not. I don’t believe Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed or a host of similar movies faced such a fate.

The idea of a movie about N.W.A. being the catalyst of danger is disrespectful, dehumanizing and ignorant. Recently, there was a widely reported altercation that took place at a Shell near a theater that screened Straight Outta Compton in Orange County — and lo and behold, there was no connection to the movie itself. In any case, if fights near a movie theater were the threshold for newsworthiness, we’d never have space on the news for anything else. But, this film is “special.” During their career, N.W.A. saw their fair share of criticism for lurid subject matter, which of course is at least worth some discourse. However, a film with black actors with black content that awakens a fear of black men as some sort of feral negro? It makes me wonder if we’re actually talking about Amos ‘n’ Andy.