The Strength of Street Knowledge vs. The Power of Hollywood

It's been a long time since we've last screened a cam (1), but in the case of "Straight Outta Compton", it seems like the right thing to do. It's not a bad film per se, but of course what you're going to witness is no longer the strength of street knowledge, but the power of Hollywood -- and the willingness of the surviving protagonists -- to turn one of the most explosive moments in rap history into a rather slow-burning epic populated by a cast of thoroughly likable characters whose rightful anger, cinematographically reconstructed and contextualized as part of an unprecedented success story, doesn't produce much more than appeasement. It's not that N.W.A's confrontational and divisive approach is entirely lost in the process, and obviously it is "the right film at the right time", but by attempting to make canonical a message that at the time was quite radically contingent -- "Straight Outta Compton" (the album) doesn't just foreshadow the 1992 L.A. riots, but also their complexity and contradictions -- the whole operation loses quite a bit of its edge. Hindsight flattens, and while in hindsight, "Straight Outta Compton" is undoubtedly one of the greatest albums ever made (somewhat front-loaded maybe, just like the movie), at the time, hardly anyone who wasn't a direct addressee took much of a notice. America hated it, Europe ignored it, and Public Enemy stole the show. They stole it because they were into global communications and properly political propaganda, they stole it because their music was full of references to black militancy that any white middle-class kid could look up on whatever we used before Wikipedia, and they stole it because even white intellectuals were susceptible to the warm and fuzzy feeling of Brechtian dialectics that their music, however baroque it all sounded, managed to transport. N.W.A on the other hand may have had nailed a sound that was aggressive yet funky, not exactly minimal, but sufficiently reduced to serve as a blueprint for an entire generation that would subsequently fill in the blanks -- and the movie at hand owes a lot to the fact that this particular mix of punch and bounce has aged so well, has become one of the most recognizable aural signatures of Hip-Hop as rebellion -- but whatever Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E and MC Ren had to say about cops and bitches, there really wasn't much appreciation for it at the time. Unlike, say, Boogie Down Productions, Eric B. and Rakim, the Jungle Brothers or EPMD, who by 1988 were beginning to earn recognition beyond their immediate audiences, up to the point where established music critics were warming up to the idea that this whole rap thing might actually evolve into a fully legitimate genre and art form, N.W.A didn't have much of a lobby. In retrospect one might think that the heirs and heiressess of twenty years of radical counter-culture should have been more susceptible to a message like "Fuck tha Police", but no punk would make it past the first few "punk-ass niggaz", no feminist past the first few "suck this, bitchez". "Straight Outta Compton" just didn't resonate with white audiences -- other than, eventually, the FBI. Only a million people bought the album, but as legend has it, they all started a riot. And that riot, just like most of the other key moments of the movie (judging by any of the teasers or trailers) looks a bit too Hollywood, too cinemascope, too 4k -- and it all sounds a bit too dolby-surround, especially N.W.A live on stage -- for the entire chain of events not to appear strangely predetermined, almost inevitable, and at the same time conspicuously fabricated, rigged, late 80s that feel as if they could be late 60s, or as if it didn't matter if they were of if they did, just as if the story of N.W.A was a universal parable rather than something that actually happened at a specific time and place. The visual and acoustic texture of the film, both its grit and its gloss, never stops to remind us that its mission is to write history, that it's winners who write it, and that they often prefer a bold pen. Of course (a) that's fully intentional, (b) who would deny that Dr. Dre, whose most recent victory lap has taken him Straight Into Cupertino, is a winner, and (c) there would have been worse candidates. Still, this is why screening a cam seems appropriate, even if somewhat nostalgic (nostalgia not for South Central L.A. but for the medium of the cam, whose golden era some of us may still remember). The distance to the original is relatively small -- it's quite watchable, and where intended, the dialogue is audible -- but there is just enough blur and burn in the image to make the action appear a little less authentic and thus a little less fake, and the audio, even if just minimally distorted, adds realism and at the same time produces a subtle Verfremdungseffekt that the film is otherwise lacking. Our hope is that in this particular form, the whole thing looks and sounds a tiny bit less timeless. Since originally, the assumption that one can create situations, circumstances, encodings or filters, sometimes even inadvertedly, through which false timelessness and fake cinematic truth fades and lets conditions of production, distribution or consumption shine through, sometimes even conditionality as such, and not as a vague impression, abstract idea or mere afterthought, but as concrete and finite regions of pixels times pixels times time on a wall that you can actually point your finger at, was one of the reasons why, ages ago, we thought it was a good idea to run this cinema (2).