Why “Straight Outta Compton’s” Success Could Be a Benchmark for Change (guest contributor Rel Dowdell)

Straight Outta Compton (photo: Universal)

With the NWA biopic “Straight Outta Compton” making a whopping $56 million plus this weekend at the box office and leaving every other film in the dust, many, especially industry insiders, are shocked. I, honestly, was not. The diverse lives of African-Americans have appeal to many all across the world, especially when presented with top flight studio marketing and support. In fact, one may be shocked to know how many others that are not of African-American descent can relate to the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the African-American life. Our lives often times share a universal thread. Hopefully, some of the aspects of “Straight Outta Compton” will be relatable to all. Here are a few things that I believe should be noted.

One, I hope the film enlightens America to the ongoing problems with police and how minorities are treated by them, which builds an angst and chasm that is very hard to bridge and heal. I hope that police officers can see how much damage has been done towards my generation since the Rodney King years and how it needs to be assuaged. I have a personal story to share. Years ago when I was living on Girard Avenue in Philadelphia, I was working late teaching as a professor of English at Community College of Philadelphia. I noticed on my way home that a police car was following me for a good while. I thought when I got home that the police officer was going to drive past me seeing that I had parked my car in front of my apartment building. However, the misadventure was just beginning. The police officer pulled up right beside me and started blaring his lights and siren. He got out of the car and I could see he was a Caucasian male. It was even difficult to see that since his flashlight gave chase to my face as soon as he came around the front of his car all the way up to my driver’s window. He asked me why I pulled over and parked my car. I said I lived there. He said I did not, for he knows who all the residents were on that block. I said I was a college professor. He said that I wasn’t because I don’t fit the “description” of a college professor. He insisted that I was someone of “interest.” After a long while of his hollering and berating, neighbors in the area came out to see what was going on.

In “Straight Outta Compton,” when Ice Cube, MC Ren (my personal favorite lyricist in the group), and the rest of the group were harassed by the police outside of their studio, they actually behaved pretty responsibly and complied to the requests of the officers by getting on the ground face down. I, however, became too angry to comply with any requests. I argued back with the police officer tit for tat. After all of the neighbors came out confirming to the officer that I lived there, the officer finally backed off enough to ask me for my license and registration. After taking my ID back to his car and sitting there in his car for over an hour, he came back to my car, gave me back my info, said nothing, got back in his car, and drove off. I was livid. One of the neighbors, another young African-American male, came up to me and said the same police officer harassed him as well and was glad I held my ground. In “Straight Outta Compton,” the deft hip-hop musicians of NWA used their angst and rage against the police to record one of the signature songs. Since I am not a rapper or lyricist, I did something else consequential. I knew the Philadelphia Police Commissioner whose name was Sylvester Johnson because he came to one of my film’s screenings. I called him the next day, met him in his office, told my story, called the other brother who came up to me as a witness, and got that police officer transferred somewhere else (you know I recorded the cop’s badge number). It is time for the mistreatment of law-abiding African-American males by law enforcement to cease. Racism cannot be tolerated on any level. Police serve an invaluable role in society, and they are most certainly needed. There is no need to mitigate the important stance that they have by continuously racially profiling, harassing, and even killing, African-American males for no reason. Whether you’re a hip hop artist, banker, pastor, Democrat, Republican, or educator, no one is above being harassed by the police. The West Coast has NWA’s iconic song. The East Coast has its own iconic song by another gold standard artist in KRS-ONE with “Black Cop.” It is good to see that there are those who are venting their frustrations creatively instead of otherwise. For that, America should be thankful.

Additionally, the film also shows that any group, no matter how noble its intent, can be disbanded by outside forces if unity is not the foremost standard for the group. This rule goes for any team, organization, society, or even among friends. The bond you create can be destroyed or infiltrated by a shrewd and cunning outsider if you let it happen. In the film, Suge Knight and Jerry Heller led to the untimely demise of NWA when their success was at its peak with different tactics. With you, me, or anyone else, it could be anyone who does this to you and those within your circle. The members of NWA are interchangeable with any members of your own circle. Watch the film and you will see commonalities with them and those you have associated with. Protect your friendship and trust with others with strength and prayer. Know the signs of those who want to be in your position and create confusion and chaos within your infrastructure.

In the end, I hope and pray that the success of “Straight Outta Compton” does more than just entertain on the big screen. I hope it sparks enlightenment and change on the big screen of life. I hope others, especially African-Americans in Hollywood, get behind other projects and get them made. For those with the clout, this means you. There’s room for everyone to succeed. If you help someone else make a successful project, guess what? You will benefit the most. Everyone – in every race – needs to learn to send the elevator back down to others in order to help lift others up.

Big shout out to Thomasena Farrar for allowing me to contribute my thoughts on this film as well as giving me the opportunity to see “Straight Outta Compton” weeks before its release – in a preview with the director F. Gary Gray, Ice Cube, Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson, Jr., and Jason Mitchell.

Rel Dowdell

Rel Dowdell is an acclaimed screenwriter, director, producer, and professor – who also happens to be an avid movie lover and oral expert on Black film. His second feature film, Changing the Game, was one of 2012’s highest rated African-American dramas and is 83% fresh on the popular movie critic site Rotten Tomatoes. Changing the Game is currently airing this month on Fuse TV – click here to check local schedule listings. Click here to read Rel’s review of the film “Straight Outta Compton.” 


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