Some see it as an opportunity, while others believe it is a chance to show how far a troubled community has come.
But all are in agreement: “Straight Outta Compton” has put the American city on the world map — for better or worse.
Directed by F. Gary Gray, best known for his music videos, the biopic about the pioneering rap group N.W.A. traces the roots of the young men’s rage against mostly white police in their gang-ridden home of Compton and other parts of the Los Angeles area.
The film, which opened in the United States on August 14, has been a surprise hit with cinema-goers and has topped the North American box office in its first two weekends in theaters.
“It’s not a movie, it’s a commercial for my business,” joked Hodari Subadu, who organizes guided tours of Compton and says he has seen an uptick in interest in what he does.
Lonzo Williams — a music producer and owner of nightclubs who was instrumental in the rise of N.W.A. and one of its original members, Dr. Dre — was delighted at the exposure too: “It’s going to make me a celebrity!”
“They use their creative license to make it work,” he said of the film which depicts him at the beginning, adding he has a book in the works “that’s going to explain all these details.”
Williams, a gold chain around his neck, says the gangsta rap genre that has become synonymous with Compton has been something of a poisoned chalice.
“It gave a very bad reputation to the city,” he concedes. “When we listened to some songs, it seemed that the streets were littered with bodies.”
– Gang war –
Masai Minters — a counselor at the University of California, Los Angeles and a proud Compton native — agrees the city, the hometown of a new generation of rappers such as Kendrick Lamar and The Game, is not always fairly represented in music or film.
“We’ve got a great neighborhood,” he says, driving along pretty streets adorned with well-kept gardens.
“My parents have been living here since 1959. There are some very stable, comfortable and successful families in Compton. I feel very safe.”
But it was not always like that, especially in the 1980s, when N.W.A. began making its name.
Filmmaker Jo Brown, a friend of Minters, said: “At the time N.W.A. started, the city became infected by a conflict between the Crips and the Bloods.”
“They created a violent atmosphere throughout the community. Gangsta rap was born out of that and as things became more violent in Compton, the music started to reflect that,” says Brown, pointing to the walls of a building tagged with symbols of the still-active gangs.
For music expert Greg Everett, gangsta rap originated elsewhere in California — he points to Ice-T, who came from Los Angeles.
“But N.W.A. put Compton on the map and the focus became on Compton.”
– Better times? –
Times might have changed for the better in Compton to some extent, but some say what gave rise to gangsta rap — anger at perceived police brutality and discrimination — is as relevant as ever.
Last year’s killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri triggered protests in the United States and was the first in a series of high-profile similar incidents over the past 12 months.
“It hasn’t changed one damned bit,” said Minters.
“It’s still the same problems we’re facing now: jobs, police brutality. It is very difficult for young blacks.”
Everett agreed, saying that the film “tapped into something very important, especially for African Americans with police violence, et cetera”
Others, like Corey Takahashi, a journalist and professor at Syracuse University, say Compton is a very different place these days.
For one, it has become predominantly Hispanic, while violent crime is down markedly since N.W.A. first made its mark.
“In 1989, the city recorded 86 homicides; it only had seven this year. Violent crime has gone down 50 percent and crime is down 71 percent over the last 20 years,” said Takahashi.
by Veronique Dupont