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Peaceful or War-like Resistance?

Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray
Peaceful or War-like Resistance?

Selma

Directed by Ava DuVernay; Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Coman Domingo; 2014; PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language. DVD released May, 2015.

UnknownStraight Outta Compton

Directed by F. Gary Gray; Starring O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti; 2015; R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use. DVD released January, 2016.

Art is political. Period. Anyone who says it is not, does not know what they are talking about.

Gee, Drew, how do you really feel about it…

Of course, some art is more political than other art, though all good art is strongly political because the clearer, the more complex and important the themes and ideas promoted in that art are, the more political the piece of art is. Take film for instance. Frozen carries messages far more powerful and life-changing than does Kung-Fu Panda (1, 2, or 3), and it is greater art because of it. While the Kung Fu Panda movies do call for courage, promote education and speak to not judging a book by its cover, Frozen demands of us that we affirm the power of women, the importance of family, and the power of self-sacrificial love. Like the torso of Apollo in Rilke’s poem, the movie demands: “You must change your life.”

It is rare, however, when a piece of art—particularly a film—is straightforwardly political in the way that Selma is. Of course any biopic of a political figure is something of a different animal than other films, though the depth of controversy films of this genre engender is related not only to the actual story being told in the film but also the distance the viewer is from the actual events. Almost no one in the country would object to the teachings of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012); much of that film dealt with Lincoln’s relationship to his children and his wife, even in the midst of its exploration of the events surrounding the passage of the thirteenth amendment. Selma also deals with Martin Luther King’s personal life, but almost all of even that subtheme is portrayed as another part of the civil rights movement and King’s part in it. Additionally, all who were involved in opposing or supporting Lincoln have long been dead, while many still live who did, and still do today, oppose the actions portrayed in Selma.

It would be hard to object to the statement that Selma intends to promote political action in the mode of Martin Luther King’s teachings and legacy. David Oyelowo, the movie’s star and primary driving force not only on screen but off, has said as much in interview after interview. Growing up in awe of the young preacher and activist, Oyelowo always wanted to portray him and fought hard to get the movie made and to keep it very true to the events as they happened leading up to and including the march on Selma. He succeeded on both counts. It is a movie filled with (but not damaged by) the preaching and discussion of civil disobedience, even as it portrays the practical carrying out of that agenda. Well made in every way, the movie was nominated for Best Picture, though controversy swelled around the lack of nominations for Oyelowo and the film’s director Ava DuVernay, both of whom did excellent jobs.

The important thing, though, is that King’s principles of civil disobedience are accurately portrayed in Selma and as thoroughly vetted as a movie would allow. The political pressure exerted by King on President Johnson and on other lesser lawmakers and lawkeepers is explored thoroughly, and the Biblical foundation of the movement is emphasized over and over. From crucifixes on the wall to King’s preaching and teaching, civil rights and civil disobedience both are at the center of the thought life of the picture.

            Selma is self-consciously political, though. When one turns to Straight Outta Compton the picture is very different. I intend every bit of both meanings the word “picture”. At a press conference at the center point of the movie, just after N.W.A. has had to shut down a concert in Detroit because of gunshots ringing out and the ensuing riot, the question is asked by a reporter, “How do you explain inciting a riot in Detroit? What do you have to say about that?” The responses to that question are interesting. First, Easy-E, the leader of the band at that point, says, “I have to say that we didn’t incite that s–t.” Then Dr. Dre adds, “Ya’ll just got a snapshot of how Americans really feel.” followed by MC Ren’s “We gave the people a voice. We gave the people truth.”

It is more than just a statement of grammar to say that much of the content of the song that provoked the gunshots, a song they had been requested by the police not to sing, entitled “F–k Tha Police” is not only inflammatory but literally made up of the imperative “F–k the police!”, a refrain that is used over and over again in the song’s narrative. Even the movie, hagiographic to the nth degree, seems to agree with the judgment that N.W.A.’s “art” incited the riot, but the film deflects that stigma at this point in the press conference by raising the notions of free speech and expression. Comment (in response to MC Ren’s statement about truth): “Yeah, but your songs, they glamorize the lifestyle of gangs, guns, drugs” to which Ice Cube says, “Our art is a reflection of our reality. What you see when you go outside your door? I know what I see…You get AK’s from Russia and cocaine from Columbia.” Easy-E adds, “And none of us ain’t got no passport. You might want to check the source.” The clear implication? We, i.e. N.W.A., didn’t do anything but exercise our first amendment right to free expression; what happens when we do that is someone else’s problem.

The response by the band—really by the whole movie—to the questions fail in two ways. First, art is not just expression. It has political overtones, even demands, if accepted as true and embraced as relevant. Secondly, art that is as emotional and inflammatory to the situation in which it is exhibited as N.W.A.’s songs were (and are) clearly participates in the results even distantly related to it, and it is foolish and naïve to believe there is no responsibility for those results on the part of the artist(s). N.W.A. didn’t need a passport to participate in the gangland violence, the drug addiction and the debauched sex that their songs engendered and continue to engender in our world.

Certainly Straight Outta Compton is about a lot more than political action. The themes of money and its stranglehold of power among poorer people, when they become rich, of the music industry and its machinations, graft, and complexity, of the difficulty of relationships when the money gets to be so much—all of these and more trump the theme of political action in the movie. And just as certainly, Compton portrays N.W.A. as being comprised of five talented, ambitious young African-Americans who mostly just want to make their music and be left alone, though it portrays them just as much as wanting to get rich “by any means necessary.” Politics and social change did not figure largely in their vision of their future.

But that doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t have a political voice, and it is clear that that voice promotes confrontation, violence and radical measures as the means to the end of what? Racial tension? No; if anything the band’s music promotes such tension. Co-existence? No; that doesn’t seem to be a dream of the band members at all. Attaining the American dream? Here one seems closer to the film’s vision of what N.W.A. sought. But it is true that N.W.A.’s audience seems to have seen more, and sees more today. The courtroom drama that makes up the verses of “F–k Tha Police” frames a notion of political action that more and more young blacks feel compelled to use. They see themselves as being oppressed by a racist and power-mongering police force and therefore being justified in their angry response with gangster style violence.

Race and its ugly repercussions in our society, especially as they relate to criminal activity, racial profiling and police action, is as important a topic as anything in American culture today except possibly terrorism. Christians need to affirm the truths laid down in the civil rights movement by Dr. King, but a discussion that takes into account both films would make comparisons between different sorts of leaders and between direct political action and indirect artistic action a fruitful way to talk about this crucial difficulty in America today.

A note to the reader: The extended, unrated version of Straight Outta Compton contains scenes of vulgar nudity and sex unimportant and gratuitous to the story. While several scenes in this version do fill in nicely some of the tensions in the character of Easy-E, which are deficient in the theatrical cut, the theatrical cut is still the better vehicle for the discussion. As I wrote in my review: “The movie is not for the faint of heart. Of course the lyrics of rap are filled with cursing of every kind, and guns, drugs and sex are everywhere in this movie. Unfortunately, that is the life of the characters portrayed in Straight Outta Compton, and we should not berate the filmmakers for portraying them that way. We should weep for them.”

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