Moviegoers flocked to theaters over the weekend to see Straight Outta Compton; the F. Gary Gray directed biopic about hip-hop supergroup N.W.A. The movie raked in $60.2 million at the box office and has garnered all sorts of attention, including recognition for the breakout performances, most notably by Ice Cube’s son and doppelganger O’Shea Jackson Jr. But there was additional attention put on Straight Outta Compton that should have us all talking.
Anyone who went to the movie theater at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza like I did, or a host of other theaters in which extra security was obtained expressly for the release of the film, can attest to the unusual and alarming police presence. Yes, I say unusual. It’s unusual because N.W.A’s violence-heavy lyrical content, particularly their protest anthem “F**k tha Police,” was not birthed this past weekend. This is 2015, not 1988. Both the song and the group are well known and well within their artistic rights. Even if this were not the case, since when do songs or movies instigate violence? Though highly controversial in nature, N.W.A’s lyrics helped shine a light on police brutality, as well as unjust and unfair practices that still make news nearly 30 years later. With no documented, credible threats to law enforcement or citizens at large, police and theaters that bolstered security ultimately targeted moviegoers, sending the message that blackness and Black men, in particular, are to be feared. I saw SOC at an industry screening earlier last week and had every intention of seeing it again, but was completely put off by the police presence at the theater. Anticipating attacks on police, riots or havoc of some sort further perpetuates the stereotypes that follow Black bodies everywhere we go.
The riots we have seen, the peaceful protests in Ferguson, in Baltimore and other parts of the country – all of that has been spurred by the overwhelming amount of deaths we have seen of Black men, women and children at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us. This has been especially evident within the last year alone. Any violence perpetrated against cops during the pursuit of justice (throwing rocks, etc.) has been minimal compared to the violence they continue to perpetuate against unarmed, innocent Black victims. I don’t mean to undermine or condone the violence that has occurred. However, I am merely noting the marked difference between an officer with a gun and a weaponless victim whose only perceived threat is the color of their skin.
I also understand that Los Angeles, in particular, presents a unique challenge, so to speak; Compton being the birthplace of N.W.A and the specific home to the gangs mentioned in the film, groups whose presence have markedly declined since the 80s and 90s, although neighborhoods can still feel the effects of gang violence. We are also fresh off the heels of the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s tragic death, an unarmed Black teenager whose shooting by White police officer, Darren Wilson, sparked outrage and protest. The 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots also recently occurred. All of this informs the controversial tactics employed by the Los Angeles Police Department.
But what I don’t fully buy is that the police presence for Straight Outta Compton was in response to recent incidents at movie theaters around the country. Real detective work would more likely profile White men who, historically, have carried out crimes against moviegoers in recent history. Like John Russell “Rusty” Houser, who killed two and wounded nine at a Trainwreck showing in Lafayette, Louisiana. Or Vincente Montano, who entered a movie theater in Antioch, Tennessee armed with a hatchet and gun during a Mad Max: Fury Road screening. And then, of course, there is James Holmes, who murdered 12 and injured 70 in Aurora, Colorado three years ago during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. The same can be said of the mass murderers who have killed innocent victims at churches or schools. We will never forget what happened at Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina or to the elementary school children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
If police are so concerned about movie theater security, such a security presence should be made routine at theaters everywhere. Not just the ones with an abundance of Black and brown bodies during the anniversaries of tragic, police-related events, or when theaters showcase films with violent or controversial subject matters that happen to revolve around Black people.
Regardless of the effects of the enhanced security measures, Straight Outta Compton showcased N.W.A’s undeniable cultural impact. It also humanized a group of young Black men who at the time of their height were feared and hated by a segment of the American population because of their image and violent and misogynistic lyrics. Their often problematic and troubling views on women alone have spawned much debate, and director F. Gary Gray has been criticized for failing to address this very issue in the film. But outside of the movie itself, another fail came in law enforcement’s decision to target moviegoers of color in the first place.