As four Torrance Police officers towered over the prone members of N.W.A., I bristled with rage in my seat. Jerry Heller was saying all the right things — you can’t come down here and arrest people just because of what they look like! — but that somehow made it worse. His nigh impotence in the moment simply underscored how much worse things would have gotten for the young black men had a wealthy white man not been around to intervene.
In that moment, my anger transcended both the specific officers in the scene and the institution of law enforcement generally, and for the first time in my life I understood how inequality can breed resentment of allies. Jerry Heller was the hero of this scene, and that was precisely why I despised him: not because he had helped, but because his help had been required. The whiteness that made him powerful in that one moment was the same whiteness that made these kids powerless in every moment.
When, back in the studio, Ice Cube subsequently exploded into the opening verse of “Fuck tha Police,” every fiber of my being was behind him. Yet this was the second time I’d heard the track that day. In preparation for the film, I’d opted to spend the afternoon streaming the entire Straight Outta Compton album, and my first listen had elicited a markedly different reaction. Couched in the comfortable safety of my suburban home, Compton made me uncomfortable.
Where hip-hop is concerned, I’m not so much moist behind the ears as dripping. Yesterday wasn’t only my first time listening to N.W.A., it was also my first time listening to real, historic rap. My typical listening choices tend towards overproduction and sanitization, and even my “edgier” modern choices eschew the kind of raw brutality with which Straight Outta Compton bursts. If N.W.A. was born from dissatisfaction with candy-coated popular music, it’s safe to say that the sugary veneer is as fertile for shattering now as it was in 1988.
Of course the reality depicted in Compton is not my reality, and therein lies the discomfort. Part of it stems from the alien nature of a life foregrounded by drugs, sex, and violence; the discomfort of the foreign and unknown from out here in middle class suburbia. But the simple fact of ignorance breeds its own discomfort: the nagging sense that my isolation from this reality is part of the problem, the idea that the othering and subsequent quarantining of terrible conditions is the reason those conditions exist. A major contributor to the situation Black Americans find themselves in is that White Americans view it as a Black problem — and thus not a White responsibility.
Perhaps the greatest horror of Straight Outta Compton is that by the end of the movie I was exhausted, exasperated by the fact that Rodney King, unpunished police brutality, calls for minority censorship under guise of peacekeeping, and finger-pointing at minority art as responsible for the violence it reflects — all featured heavily in the film — could so effortlessly be replaced with this year’s YouTube or CNN footage. In so many ways, Selma is Compton is Detroit is Ferguson is Baltimore, and the only thing worse than how long this has gone on is how easy it would be for me to shrug it off and go back to living like it doesn’t affect me.
In the wake of over a year’s worth of racial tension, I frequently see the expression “Stay Woke.” White America’s ability to fall back asleep — an unexamined luxury — and its well-documented tendency to do precisely that are what make the simultaneous dependence on White action so frustrating. I’ve spent years not understanding that simple truth, rubbing my eyes and whining, “just five more minutes.”
Straight Outta Compton is one hell of an alarm clock. It’s on audience members to stop hitting snooze.