Straight Outta Compton and the Historian’s Dilemma

“Instead of sharing an experience the spectator must come to grips with things.” – Bertolt Brecht

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What is it that historians do?

On the one hand, they must tell The Truth. This means reading, watching, listening to, tasting, smelling, or touching every bit of evidence they can find, weighing them against each other, and then putting it all together into a faithful account of the past. Which is pretty much what they do. But on the other hand, because they are humans, living in this noisy and contentious world, historians always have some axe to grind. History means something, they maintain. And besides killing readers with boredom, history without meaning would be useless. It would just be a list of things that happened. Everything that ever happened. So historians have to make the past mean something, too. This means throwing some evidence out, maybe pointing at other evidence that might not seem important and saying, “there it is! The Truth!” Figuring out what to keep and what to ignore is a real dilemma. Nobody will agree. This, in short, is the historian’s dilemma: making choices without appearing to make choices. Making claims about today by appearing to make claims about the past.

This is contentious stuff. Most academic historians have long taken postmodern subjectivity for granted, attempting in turn to do the least harm by pulling into their work as much evidence as possible, from as many opposing voices as possible. Their readers, however, are impatient with both the problem and the solution. Most readers tend to see the past as immutable—as a story just waiting to be uncovered—and the documents required to tell that immutable story as mostly self-evident. Rather than complications of interpretation, readers see challenges of comprehension and accessibility. Knowing where to find documents and how to translate their archaic prose is challenging enough, they claim. With this arcane knowledge, historians should have no problem interpreting what they find and telling The Truth. Efforts on the part of academic historians to incorporate alternative sources, to include an abundance of notes, or to challenge their readers with theory are routinely derided. Amazon reviewers often savage academic books for being too detailed, too unsure—too boring—while school boards argue that they are too interesting, too provocative or heterodox for students. What is a historian to do?

It is clear that Director F. Gary Gray and the producers of Straight Outta Compton faced the historian’s dilemma. Compton is a film obsessed with its own history, as though viewers are listening to a deep conversation between Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and their own reflections in the bathroom mirror about where they’ve been and how they got there. Gray offers is an exceptional rendering of those conversations, replete with outstanding performances from a fairly green cast—anchored by Paul Giamatti—and a workmanlike attention to detail.

Too bad it doesn’t have much to say.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time—the late 1980s, a time increasingly shrouded in pre-Golden Age mystique—it was rough in the Los Angeles ghetto. A group of young black men were making their way through the hard times, honing their talents (or courting an early grave) in obscurity despite the efforts of the police state to break their will or end their life. One day, the group of young men decided to do something about their obscurity and formed a rap group. It wasn’t very difficult to record a hit single, but it was even easier to find a manager who could sell their talents to a record label after they did. They were immediately successful. A bunch of rock-star stuff happened, the group of young men got into a fight, and then the rap group split up. Two of them were immediately successful after the breakup; one wasn’t. A bunch of other stuff happened. The now-unsuccessful one ended his relationship with the agent and then, right before staging a comeback with the still-successful young men who used to be part of his rap group, succumbed to AIDS. The other young men cry and reflect.

That’s pretty much it. One does not get an honest sense of the struggle involved when obscure young black men build a career out of sheer talent and provocation from the very heart of the American nightworld. Police violence, for example—such a prominent part of the film’s first two acts and in the real-life NWA’s meteoric rise to fame—simply disappears in the third act. Gone. Manager Jerry Heller’s treachery is only vaguely outlined. Less vague, perhaps, are the hints of cultural and social tension between the fairly affluent Heller and the rappers he represents, but not much. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s success is not vague at all, however. Both easily sidestep the belligerent malfeasance of entertainment capital: Ice Cube by obliterating obstacles with a baseball bat, Dre by rolling over them with a steam-powered Suge Knight. Eazy-E alone struggles with the system. One-by-one, the fragments of late twentieth-century failure pile on E’s shoulders: friendships broken by bounced checks, a heartbreaking series of moves back toward the underclass, and, finally, the cruel denouement offered by HIV and AIDS. These are Eazy-E’s problems, though, and don’t belong to his friends or the viewer. None but E are complicit in his fall from grace.*

These are tragically missed opportunities. Unfortunately, Straight Outta Compton takes the easy way out of the historian’s dilemma: mere narrative; evidence without meaning. The narrative itself is solid and entertaining, absolutely, but the whole is dissatisfying. By refusing to answer or even pose deeper questions of meaning, the filmmakers leave it up to viewers to formulate their own questions and answers. Is this just another touchstone of American consensus, another tired affirmation that we, too, can be successful if we are talented and hard-working enough to overcome adversity? Perhaps. Or is there something else here, some covert meaning in the filmmakers’ refusal to pose these questions? Maybe that too. Eazy-E is a remarkably tragic figure, after all.

But then again, maybe not. Ultimately, one must ask: what is the argument? I don’t know. Straight Outta Compton doesn’t have the answers.

* And maybe Jerry Heller, but, again, the details are hazy.

Dope and the Location of Culture

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“A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.” – Martin Heidegger, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”

A month after its release, there’s a particular scene from Dope that still sticks out in my mind. It’s when Shameik Moore’s character Malcolm Adekanbi—a charismatic protagonist, I’ll just say here at the outset—is frantically driving to meet a Harvard alumnus as part of his college application. He’s driving away from an impossibly, hilariously complicated situation to one that is even more outrageous and complicated. Along the way, he sees someone completely unexpected, however, in a completely unexpected situation. The camera pans to his face. Dumbfounded, he asks aloud: “what the fuck?” The audience asks it with him before he (and they) are inexorably carried onward, further into a story rich with anomalous characters and ridiculous situations. The scene I remember is a fleeting moment, unnecessary to the story, but that question—Malcolm’s bewildering and fleeting encounter with the wholly new and unexpected—captures Dope’s cultural meanings more than any other could.

First, the film itself. Dope is a bildungsroman for the twenty-first century. Protagonist Malcolm Adekanbi is a product of Ira Berlin’s fourth great migration—a Nigerian-American geek living in a rough section of Los Angeles—where he and his friends Jib and Diggy share a love of early-nineties hip-hop and play robopunk songs in their band, Awreeoh, while they finish their senior year of high school. Malcolm is ambitious. He plans to attend Harvard University, on one hand, and his college application frames the narrative. Much of the story takes place at school and in classrooms. But Malcolm wants to be “dope” on the other hand. An encounter with drug dealers and street violence offers Malcolm an inside look at his neighborhood and his own strength. Stuck with a backpack full of molly, death threats and the danger of arrest hanging over his head, and looming standardized tests, Malcolm (and Director Rick Famuyiwa) must resolve the tension between his ambitions in order to survive. Famuyiwa resolves them in style. Dope is engaging, warm, outrageously funny, beautifully rendered, and vibrant.

While I’d like to take credit for reading Heidegger closely and taking detailed notes, the quote that opens this review is the epigraph of postcolonial scholar Homi Bhabha’s 1994 book The Location of Culture. In The Location of Culture, Bhabha argues that the re-iteration and repeated translation of hegemonic cultures associated with colonialism—or “globalization,” if that term is more palatable—leads to the formation of new cultural identities in the “interstices” between opposing social or cultural forces. Because they can only translate the received hegemonic wisdom of nation, race, gender, and so on for themselves, minorities and oppressed populations create “hybrid” identities that transcend these simple categories. Globalization and hybridity go hand-in-hand. Forced to puzzle over entirely new identities and situations, colonizer and colonized alike must both sometimes throw their hands in the air and ask, like Malcolm Adekanbi, “what the fuck?”

Dope is about hybridity. Malcolm crosses the boundaries between “geek” and “dope”; between generations, marrying his love of nineties hip-hop to his skill with the tools of twenty-first century cunning, like bitcoin, digital money laundering, and the dark web; between poor and affluent; between East Coast and West Coast; between African and African American. Without entirely new categories, it is impossible to pin Malcolm down and label his identity.

Malcolm’s friends and enemies demonstrate the futility of creating new labels. Drug dealer and gang member Dom quizzes his street counterparts on logical fallacies; Malcolm’s lesbian friend, partner-in-crime, and bandmate Diggy crosses the boundaries between genders; friend Jib—who claims to be 14% African—and stoner hacker Will—emphatically not African but unapologetically crass in his use of the N-word—cross the boundaries between races. Even Malcolm’s band, Awreeoh, crosses the boundaries between punk rock and hip-hop with a subtle nod toward race. Situations, too, cross the boundaries of class and morality: upper-class acquaintances struggle in vain for street cred; Malcolm is sympathetic and good, but he sells drugs to earn his way into the Ivy League. Hybridity abounds.

And it is wonderful.

Dope crosses boundaries without turning the mirror on itself and preening for attention. Its characters navigate a world of ambiguous definitions and unsteady moorings without sinking beneath the onerous weight of racial awareness and class-consciousness. Their awareness feels more real, more like a tool to adapt to the world as well as shape it to their own ends, rather than the self-destructive rebellion or acrobatic accommodation a previous generation of storytellers demanded from their characters. Famuyiwa—perhaps uniquely positioned to comment on hybridity by his location within the Nigerian diaspora—captures the fracturing of the twentieth-century’s colonial order better than any filmmaker in recent memory. If millennials exist, this is surely their film.

Insidious: Chapter 3 and the Wage of Postmodern Capital

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Open with a reluctant medium, an unsuccessful reading.

These first five minutes or so of Insidious: Chapter 3 sum up the remaining ninety-two minutes with depressing clarity. Sure, Leigh Whannell and Blumhouse have manufactured a suitably dark aesthetic, an occasionally unsettling package of jump scares and visceral death fetishes, a nightmarish and demonic villain, and an angelic white protagonist, but the parts are greater than the whole.

Neither individual parts nor whole package, to be clear, are very substantial.

The story takes place a few years before the initial installment in the Insidious series, some time in the late-mid 2000s, when teenager Quinn Brenner opens a door to the dark reaches of “The Further”–readers familiar with the rest of the Insidious series will recognize this dreary world of underpowered handheld lamps and hideously re-embodied voices–by visiting spirit medium Elise Rainier in order to make contact with her departed mother, Lilith. After the reading goes wrong, Quinn ignores Rainier’s frank advice to avoid talking to dead people and makes a connection with a respirator-wearing demonic presence–an angry old miner with black lung, perhaps?–through the air vents of her family’s hipster-proletariat apartment building while trying to reach her mother. This initiates a classic haunting sequence–what screenwriters call “fun and games”: bumps in the night escalate rapidly to full-on bodily violation and spirit possession. Skeptics must turn believers and seek the assistance of psychic intermediaries. Elise Rainier returns, thus, and overcomes her own demons to lead the final confrontation with evil. But–surprise!–the battle is far from over at the end. The Lambert haunting from the first movies hangs over the ending and clears the air once again for a fourth instalment in the series.

Storylines float to the surface and sink away again, barely acknowledged. Main character Quinn’s teenage friendships, fledgling romantic interest, and acting ambitions form an important leg of the story in the beginning of the film, for example: they are almost completely forgotten by its conclusion. The “Man Who Can’t Breathe” haunts a seemingly empty building. His backstory–a former resident of the building turned soul-devouring denizen of “the further”–is left undeveloped. The fact that he is old and was obviously disabled at death is enough, apparently, to explain his paranormal anxiety. Quinn’s troubled relationship with her father is unconvincingly resolved; her brother is a foil, at best; her friends are forced caricatures.

There is little here for viewers interested in questions of race, gender, class, and age–Insidious is a rather retrograde product on the whole in these areas, in fact–but the cinematography is effective in a workmanlike way, and the movie will keep your attention for the entire 97 minute runtime. Which is nice, I guess.

This, then, is the wage of postmodern capital: a wholly predictable haunted house, a ham-fisted and cynical rumination on mortality mediated by basic cable spiritualism, and an open door for the next commodity in the series to enter the pop culture milieu. Insidious: Chapter 3 is effectively ineffective. It is maximally profitable with a minimal investment on the part of its producers. They’ve risked no cultural capital, placed nothing more than money on the line. Viewers–myself included–have so far responded by paying them back the money and then investing our own cultural capital in the film. This insidious arbitrage is the truly horrifying part of the entire experience.

The producers of the Insidious series are not alone. Neither are they cynical magnates laughing and rubbing their hands together as they steal from bovine audiences. They are logical actors at work in a global system that glorifies the most gruesome forms of self-interest. Hollywood is driven by profit, after all, and motivated by an army of willing promoters among the public to profit from the easy sell of franchises today more than ever before. They can’t help themselves.

We can’t help ourselves. Brand relationships broadcast through social media are an easy and powerful forge of identity claims. If I’m the kind of person who likes Insidious in a public way, whether you agree with my preference or not I hope that you’ll form an opinion of me that is favorable to my social strategy. Bundles of preferences are movable pieces in a game of identity claims that, powered by the internet, forms the very fabric of postmodern existence. Preferences can be easily and quickly located on the left-right spectrum of the culture wars; rapidly deployed to build or dismantle relationships with other people; worn; shouted aloud; photographed. We are what we like.

Hollywood franchises like Insidious are vitally important pieces in this game. Simple preferences–for the color green, say, or for long walks on the beach–are easily overshadowed by the cultural complexity of brand relationships. More than merely personal decisions, preferences for brands involve negotiating bundles of meaning. Apple computers, for instance, are symbols that stand in for images, videos, songs, other people you’ve known who have owned them, and conversations you’ve had or overheard–in addition to objects that do things and with which you may spend a great deal of time in interaction. These symbols do thirty years’ worth of cultural work daily. So, too, The Avengers, Jurassic Park, and so on. So, too, Insidious.

Viewed alone, Insidious: Chapter 3 is mostly hollow. It is merely visceral. As part of a franchise, it is completely empty. It is little more than a single level in a vertical marketing video game. The “Man Who Can’t Breathe” is just a minor boss in a dungeon, a bump on the road to progressively “harder” bosses in even more deeper dungeons. Where does the game end? Who will be the final villain? Will the whole finale be one long jump scare planned and carried out by the Dark Angel Beelzebub to put this “insidious” horror film brand in a shallow grave once and for all? One can hope.