There are very few movies I would describe as explicitly “libertarian," but as unlikely as it may seem, F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton is high on that list.
The film interweaves the stories of legendary hip hop artists Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and chronicles their rise out of violence and poverty to fame and fortune as the groundbreaking gangsta rap group, NWA ("Niggaz Wit Attitude"). This is not, as you might imagine, a film for children or even most teens. It depicts a life experience steeped in drugs, gang violence, and police brutality in one of the poorest, most dangerous parts of Los Angeles in the 1980s. Against this backdrop, three teenagers looking for a way out created one of the biggest entertainment acts of the last three decades, and irrevocably changed the face of the record industry.
At its heart, Straight Outta Compton is a great entrepreneur story, but more in the tradition of The Godfather than Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Nearly all of the business dealings that occur throughout the film are built on threats and violence, and certainly not what libertarians would endorse. But contrary to what a lot of people might assume given NWA's music, there is no glorification of gangs or gang culture in the film. In fact, a major theme is the drive to escape violence, even though it swirls around every character in the movie.
Nightly news warned parents of the pernicious influence gangsta rap had on America's innocent children.
One of the most powerful moments for me was seeing the direct parallel that the film draws between police brutality against Rodney King and the LA Riots in 1992, and the brutality and coercion with which business "deals" were conducted as relationships fell apart among Ice Cube, Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). The culture of violence from the streets of Los Angeles spilled over into every other part of these guys' lives, even while they were all working to leave the dangers of that life behind. The film makes it abundantly clear that this wasn't what any of them wanted and they weren’t proud of it.
More importantly, however, Straight Outta Compton contains one of the most powerful defenses of free speech that I have ever seen in cinema.
As I grew up with a love of music and entertainment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I remember a lot of people talking about the events depicted in the film. But I was a bit too young and, as a white kid in rural Nebraska, too disconnected from the gangsta rap scene blowing up around the country to fully appreciate it at the time. The thug image cultivated by NWA and its successors was a huge source of consternation for authority figures. Nightly news warned parents of the pernicious influence gangsta rap had on America's innocent children.
But the history that a lot of people have forgotten was that NWA rose to prominence at the fever pitch of a new censorship movement that started with outrage over sexually explicit lyrical content in pop music such as Prince's "Purple Rain" and the supposedly "Satanic" lyrics of heavy metal.
The congressional hearings make it crystal clear that the Washington Wives' claims of simply wanting the industry to adopt their proposal really came at the point of a gun.
In 1985, a group of four "Washington Wives" — Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius — created an organization called the Parents Music Resource Center ostensibly to persuade the music industry to "voluntarily" adopt a ratings standard that would protect children from hearing what these women called "porn rock." These influential ladies convinced the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to convene a hearing to discuss the issue on September 19, 1985. Even though his own wife founded the PMRC, then-Senator Al Gore features prominently as a speaker in these hearings, instead of recusing himself as he obviously should have done, given the blatant conflict of interest.
The full hearings are completely maddening to listen to, but they are worth watching or reading because they make it crystal clear that the Washington Wives' claims of simply wanting the industry to adopt their proposal really came at the point of a gun. At the time, my own state's Senator from Nebraska, Jim Exon, had an exchange with Frank Zappa that perfectly makes the point:
Sen. Exon: "This is one senator that might be interested in legislation and/or regulation. To some extent recognizing the problems with free rider expression and my previously expressed views that I don't believe I should be telling other people what they have to listen to, but I really believe that the suggestions made by the original panel for some kind of arrangement for voluntarily policing this in the music industry is the correct way to go. So if it'll help you out in your testimony, I might join Senator Hollings and others in some kind of legislation and/or regulation unless the free market system — both the producers and you, as the performers — see fit to clean up your act."
Frank Zappa: "Ok, thank you. . . . Ok, so that's hardly voluntary."
Quite so. Similar to the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) in 1930 and the Comics Code Authority in 1954, these ratings systems and the so-called "voluntary" censorship instituted by industry groups have often come as a direct result of threats from the government.
So just a few years later in 1989, when NWA and gangsta rap gained popularity, the old "seduction of the innocent" fears were already a major issue in American politics. In 1990, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) adopted a "Parental Advisory" labeling system to warn parents of explicit or otherwise unsavory lyrical content, in no small part because of the music being released by NWA, Ruthless Records, and Lench Mob Records. But parental advisory warnings weren't enough for a lot of people in America, and throughout the film, we see activists smashing records, protesters picketing concerts, the federal government issuing threats, and even police officers in Detroit specifically dictating to the band that they wouldn't be allowed to play their hit "Fuck Tha Police" on the grounds that it could incite a riot.
NWA played it anyway and they were arrested.
What follows in the film is a press conference sequence that contains one of the most rousing defenses of free speech I've seen in a film in a very long time. Ice Cube explains that the lyrics to their music were not endorsing gangs or gang violence. Instead, he defends NWA's words as "a reflection of our reality" and asserts that no one has the right to control what they write, say, or perform.
Police officers in Detroit specifically dictated to the band that they wouldn't be allowed to play their hit "Fuck Tha Police" on the grounds that it could incite a riot.
Technically speaking, the cinematography by Matthew Libatique (Iron Man, Black Swan) is gorgeous to look at throughout. And with Ice Cube's own son playing his character, the casting is shockingly spot on, and the performances are uniformly excellent. Where the film suffers a little is in editing the stories of the three main protagonists together. While several clear themes and character arcs stretch across the whole movie, there are also a few disconnected scenes that don't entirely matter to the story — although one such scene involving Dr. Dre is one of the most emotional moments of the movie. The biggest problem is that once the band starts to split up and the guys go their separate ways, it's not always totally clear whose story the film is really telling.
But ultimately, Straight Outta Compton is a fantastic movie where violence and gang life ultimately give way to legitimate business and freedom of expression with a surprising amount of heart, drama, humor, and a ton of great music.