The hype came like a large wave from the looming perfect storm. The past two months have been full to the brim with hype, trailers, and unfortunately a dead body, telling us that we don’t have to wait any longer. It’s here!!! The bio-pic we’ve all been waiting for, and that will somehow overcompensate for the lackluster Biggie Smalls blockbuster, Notorious. Well, after viewing the film I can tell you that it’s all it’s cracked up to be, and much much more. However, from an historian’s perspective it seems that the story could have stretched far longer, I say close to Shoah length! (Shoah, a French documentary about the Holocaust was released in 1985, and clocked in at over ten hours long, sounds like a great date movie!). The essence of that rant on length is important because the film is crafted beautifully. However, to the historian and avid fan, there are many instances where time literally collapses on itself in order to avoid hinderance to the movie’s flow. This epiphany hit critical mass when I was explaining to my lady, Saskia, that the scenes we’re watching are all interconnected, yet they tell a much larger story.
There have been many supporters as well as critics of the film. I, like most viewers, enjoyed the Hollywood aspect of the film, which is full of gritty situations, tense dialogue, and scenes that could scare your socks off (dealing with Suge) to moments of tears (as when Eazy E is dying in a hospital bed). It hit a cord with all of us, and in light of the Black Lives Matter campaign it seems like it’s release was inspired by divine intervention. The drama is captured brightly, and the environment is set as we see the tension. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get to see the full breadth of the other members because it was mostly focused on Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy E who all had a hand in bringing this film to life. I don’t doubt all of their tales, yet when corroborated with evidence it makes it far more of a grey zone. This was one of my biggest criticisms of the film. They only give us one-dimensional characters who do bad things in order to survive. There is no grey matter in the film, no pun intended to the director. Eazy’s philandering with many women was omitted. Dr. Dre’s beatings of women was also deleted. Ice Cube’s image was also sanitized for the masses because he’d rather seem like a relatable character. I remember in the 1990’s seeing Cube as white America’s worst nightmare. Since then he’s become a Hollywood fixture. However, deleting these scenes only adds to the notion that we’re dealing with saints who never existed in reality.
A great aspect to the film are the many items thrown in for a chronology. It picks up the pace on a languid historical process. Instead of detailing the feud between Cube and the group, especially their manager Jerry Heller, it’s a pastiche of collage work. It would have been great to mine that for more historical information. Instead of being dissed, and then dropping one of the best diss tracks, I’m talking about “No Vaseline,” it should have been further explored. This is what I meant earlier where time collapses unto itself by being crushed by the narrative. There was more to the details about the back and forth, and of course the short segment where he recorded “No Vaseline” got the most time. Thankfully all these songs can be heard today, and hopefully the viewers will go back and listen to these tracks, especially “100 Miles and Runnin” which was the opening salvo.
Also, the reactions by the group and by Heller are very telling of the history of the music industry, as well as black and Jewish American relations. Heller is a Jew who came up in the music industry, and has faced anti-Semitism at various points in his life. In the film it seems like no one in the group cares much about the anti-Semitism of the song. That’s true because what would black dudes from Compton care about anti-Semitism. It’s not part of their reality. Heller’s character doesn’t come off as sympathetic, or even ethical for that matter, because he had nothing to do with the film. The same goes for Suge Knight.
Heller’s anger in the film is interesting for historians because when he freaks out he blurts out that he’ll call the JDL. The JDL (Jewish Defense League) was a rough and tumble group of Jewish fighters or thugs (depends on who you ask), which was formed by Meir Kahana. In reality the JDL was heavily involved in the hip-hop world during this period. The JDL, and its insane splinter group the JDO (Jewish Defense Organization) headed by Mordechai Levy, were very vocal with threats of violence first in defense of Jerry Heller and Ruthless Records, but later the FBI would allege that the JDL actually blackmailed Heller, so go figure. Not only were they involved in this matter, but they were very vocally about the anti-Semitic rants of Griff from the group Public Enemy. Bill Adler, Director of Publicity for Rush Management at the time, that he was told by Levy that there was a truck full of Jews with bats on the lookout for Public Enemy, and especially Griff. Levy would eventually shoot at a JDL member, Irv Rubin, on top of a building in the Bowery. Talk about Jews fighting. but I digress.
Another interesting aspect of the film, that catches the historian’s eyes is not only the collapse of time, but also a collapse of geography. The best example of this is during the scene where Dr. Dre enters the offices of Death Row Records as we view the hedonism and warped debauchery going on during its heyday. He then walks into a recording studio where we see Tupac recording his song “Hail Mary.” We should take note that the song was from his Makaveli album “The Don Killuminati.” Dre plays the music for what would be the seminal duo with him and Tupac titled “California Love.” Take note that in reality Tupac did not begin work on this Makaveli album until way after he worked with Dre. But I digress once again. Dre then leaves the studio and he confronts Suge Knight and his cohorts about their amateurish ways in light of his professionalism. We also see a man stripped naked while a woman is holding a gun to him. Dre proceeds to freak out and eventually punched one of Knight’s crew. Who knows if this is exactly the truth or embellishment? However, what we do know is that the accounts read that this occurred at a party located far from the studio. This is the example of collapsing geography in order to convey the many factors leading to Dre’s departure from Death Row. This is a remarkable feat by the director, editors, and cast but it also beckons us to ask for more raw data.
So much more information could have been presented but Hollywood has its time limits. Each member of the group had his own history and there is so much more story that could supply not only sequels but prequels as well. It would be great to see a biopic on the situations in L.A. in the 1980’s, or better yet the situations in New York City in the early 1970’s that bred the art of Hip-Hop. One thing that should definitely be written about the film is that it opened more doors for these types of films, as well as more documentary films about Hip-Hop. In the past few years we’ve seen a wealth of documentaries of all sorts, but the hip-hop genre is still new and fresh. In the following decades we’ll probably see more of these Hollywood vehicles such as the triumph and tribulations of Public Enemy, The Passion of DMX, how about a Geto Boys flick? There is so much history and a wealth of information that can be presented along with a stellar soundtrack. Not only are we seeing it on film, but print has also changed the way we frame the history of hip-hop. One of the best recent publications is Ed Piskor’s Hip-Hop Family Tree series, most recently with volume 3. Piskor presents the history of hip-hop through comic book vignettes that are easily digestible and accessible to all readers. These are the new trends of hip-hop history and I’m looking forward to contributing soon enough.
Peace and keep watching!!!
#StraightOuttaCompton #N.W.A. #Dr.Dre #IceCube #JerryHeller #JDL #JDO