Watch: Where Does ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Really Come From?
I was seven years old the first time I saw John Singleton’s powerful debut film Boyz N The Hood
. I remember how I watched it too: It was one of three movies on a six-hour unlabeled VHS tape that my mother’s cousin had recorded off Pay-per-view. At the time there was a lot of excitement and anticipation towards the film from the adults in my family; this was supposed to be a good movie. And it ended up being a very good movie. Outside of the matter-of-fact handling of its material and its investment in its palpable screen characters, there were embedded themes of gentrification, social unrest and the repetitive nature of violence in poverty-stricken urban areas. Upon first viewing however, the film’s unruly anti-heroes who were taking an eye-for-an-eye vengeance towards each other were the persons of interest who transfixed the seven-year-old in me. As I got older, I began to pay more attention to those embedded themes and often found myself disappointed in how the slew of street films that followed mostly relied on shock violence for value, while offering little introspection. Still, it’s important to note that even as a child, I felt that Boyz N The Hood
something; the year before I watched Boyz
, the Rodney King Riots were a fixture on the living room television set. Those were the same streets I would later see in Singleton’s film.
As I write this, the country is entering its one-year anniversary since the untimely and awful death of Michael Brown, the eighteen-year-old black man who was fatally shot in cold blood by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death sparked civil unrest last summer; this week, unrest has resurfaced in Ferguson. On Sunday, August 9, 2015, police in Ferguson shot another eighteen-year-old black man (Tyrone Harris Jr.) during a demonstration in commemoration of Michael Brown’s passing. Coincidentally, during this same week in 1965, the Watts Riots—which started when a black motorist was arrested for drunk driving—brought 4,000 bodies from the California Army National Guard to a Los Angeles neighborhood. The clash would result in thirty-four deaths. And on Friday August 14th, the musical biopic on N.W.A. (Straight Outta Compton) hits theatres across the country. I’m not listing all of these events to stress some cosmic coincidence; if anything, it’s to further shine some light over what I’ve been ruminating on as of late.
In the simplest terms, I could best describe it this way: we are in a heightened state of national unrest. On the one hand, gang wars have been happening on the tough streets of this country for decades. On the other hand, you have the law enforcement that tries to combat those wars in an effort to retain order for the communities. But in between those hands is a complex, layered and deeply rich history of varied philosophies (the pacifism of Dr. King vs. the radical retaliation of the Black Panthers), taste-making media gatekeepers (CNN vs. Fox News), and (most unfortunately) racism. From the glorification of street gang violence to the misconstrued views that all black men wearing hoodies are thugs (a la Trayvon Martin), the power for understanding and the possibility for gauging what we’re saying with these films lie in the moving images presented to the public.
And this isn’t some soapbox declaration. Street violence has been an element in my personal life from the get-go. Shortly before I first watched Boyz N The Hood, gang members shot my father’s brother-in-law several times here in the streets of Chicago; he survived the incident only to move his wife and kids out of the city not too long after recovering. The weekend I moved out of state for college, I received a frantic phone call from my mother: the oldest son of a family friend was shot and killed in a drive-by across the street from my mother’s apartment. He was in early 20s, was not in a gang, and sadly was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even though I don’t live in Compton, where numerous gangbanger films take place, growing up in the violent streets of Chicago positioned me to observe these films on two levels: as entertainment and as personal social filmmaking.
With my latest video essay titled Street Culture, Street Cinema, my aim was to conjure up a visual melting pot of historical violence and contemporary carnality to show the generational passing of the torch; this torch of course carries the burden of voices that aren’t heard or that have already accepted a fate of bleakness and social immobility. I’m not saying that decontextualizing street gang films is going to save the world—but at the same time, when the world we live in quickly calls a black shooter a “thug” or a “threat” and yet somehow manages to marginalize a white shooter as only being “mentally ill,” well then, the responsibility falls on all of us to look deeper into the media we devour on a daily basis. I worry that a social media mantra like #BlackLivesMatter only gains traction because of its populist “hip” factor—the same way that a catchy rap song about murder captivates the pop culture public. That simply won’t do. The reality is that Black lives struggle. They have struggled for a long time. Civil rights violence, segregation, and class struggle are all a large part of this nation’s oral and visual history. But that somehow becomes mute the minute the national media dialogue focuses much of its efforts on proving how certain cops are not racist and how that week’s Black victim was already going down the wrong path anyway. It’s not as clear-cut as that. Gang culture spawns from inopportunity in low-income housing neighborhoods coupled with desperation for a crack at the American dream. The problem is that most movies don’t delve into the “why” but more into the “where,” which are the streets, where the bullets soar through the air like Shakespearean verses stressing the tragic, inescapable plight of life. I hope that, while watching my video essay, one can come closer to feeling both the historical and emotional undercurrent that permeates every image of street violence. Much in the spirit of my first viewing of Boyz N The Hood, our eyes should penetrate through these images with a fervent yearning to want it all to be about something, and to ultimately mean something.
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOWwhich boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.