Straight Outta Colonialism: What Straight Outta Compton Reveals About Racialized Policing in Saskatoon

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Social media has been buzzing about Straight Outta Compton, an autobiographical film produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, two members of the N.W.A. The film grossed approximately $60 million in the opening week alone and is likely going to be this summer’s biggest blockbuster.

Despite the pre-existing celebrity status of the film’s characters, it is still significant that a film that portrays police brutality in a realistic fashion has a mass appeal. This type of messaging does not get broadcasted often in mainstream theatres that otherwise pump out movies that are either liberal or entirely reactionary in their political content.

Make no mistake though; the film is still a Hollywood production. As an autobiography, it is also intended to glorify those producing it (especially Dr. Dre) while excluding inconvenient facts that make them look bad. As much as the film has a radical undercurrent, it also promotes bourgeois values (i.e. individual successes, competition, objectification of women’s bodies).

Like other Hollywood films praised as progressive (i.e Avatar and Elysium), Straight Outta Compton is not without ambiguities and contradictions. I could go on with my interpretation of the film’s content and contexts that produced it, but since other people are already writing about these things, I’m going to shift my focus a bit and talk about the film’s political impact; how the state reacted to the movie and what it reveals about the Saskatoon’s social dynamics.

One of the most memorable scene from Straight Outta Compton. During the Rodney Kind riots of 1992, Bloods and Crips signed a peace treaty to unite against police violence.

One of the most memorable scenes from Straight Outta Compton. During the Rodney King riots of 1992, Bloods and Crips signed a peace treaty to unite against police violence.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, its release was apparently threatening to the status quo. As the film opened in Saskatoon last weekend, Saskatoon Police decided to dispatch a special duty officer to the Galaxy Cinema downtown. The theatre also hired a private security and reportedly used a metal detector to screen its patrons, many of whom are expected to be Indigenous and other youth of colour from the west side of the river, often negatively associated with street gangs.

They softened their security in the following week when I visited the theatre, but I still had my bag searched by the private security, before going into the room with the screen. It seems like the Canadian state could not just let this movie pass, like hundreds of similar blockbuster films that have come and gone through the Cineplexes of this country.

I don’t know how successful this was though, and if it was necessary at all. Interestingly, out of all movies now playing at the Galaxy Cinema, Straight Outta Compton is the only one that does not have its poster out on the theatre’s wall facing north on 20th Street. Whether this is intended or not, I cannot qualify. Either way, it would prevent pedestrians from spontaneously walking into the theatre to see the film, and even help the theatre reduce the number of undesirables entering its premise. It certainly confused me and a friend of mine who thought for a moment that we arrived at a wrong theatre.

Straight Outta Compton was curiously not one of the

Straight Outta Compton was curiously the only film not listed on the “Now Playing” films displayed on 20th Street.

The room was still full of people (thanks to the internet), but since we arrived late, we could not assess the demography of the audience. We sat next to a group of Indigenous youth though and they seemed to find a great joy in watching the film. They laughed every time the police was cursed at, perhaps remembering their own experience of police harassment in the streets of Saskatoon.

The reactions the film has generated locally are just a few of many examples in which the bourgeoisie controls public space through its Repressive State Apparatuses (i.e police and private security) and Ideological State Apparatuses (i.e movie theatres and the media).

When I organized a hip-hop show, I was told by the venue’s booking manager that they were going to have extra security “just in case” because of the genre, even though none of the performing artists were Indigenous or associated with gangs.

I observed a similar dynamic when a group of young musicians held a rap battle in July at River Landing. They could not gather and spit rhymes without the watchful eyes of a police cruiser parked across the street. Few officers were also present, for no apparent reasons, at the spoken word event for the evacuees from Northern Saskatchewan. Both of these events involved many Indigenous artists and audiences.

Generally speaking, if you are a group of Indigenous/POC youth in Saskatoon, you can’t go anywhere without being followed by the police. They don’t have to have any political motives to be considered a threat, though rallies and protests that involve Indigenous issues do tend to bring out more officers than other groups do.

In spite of the film’s Hollywood grandeur and omission of certain facts, it is still an accurate portrayal of the great antagonism that divides the settler-colonial societies. It seems like the film found a perfect audience on both sides of this divide.

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Jazz and Alienation: A Film Review (Jimmy’s Hall and Amy)

I had a rare occasion of watching two films at the Roxy Theatre this past weekend. One is Jimmy’s Hall directed by Ken Loach and the other is Amy by Asif Kapadia. I was originally planning to write about the former and other Ken Loach films, but since there are so many interesting parallels and contradictions between Jimmy’s Hall and Amy, I decided to write a “cross-review” of the two instead.

The obvious similarities are that both films are British production and about jazz. But there is also a less obvious undercurrent that connects the two. They are both about alienation, representing the different ways in which the protagonists’ engagement with jazz either empower and unite people or sow divisions, compromise their autonomy, and ultimately destroy them.

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Barry Ward as Jimmy Gralton.

In Jimmy’s Hall, set in 1932 Ireland, jazz is represented as a revolutionary culture. Though initially a foreign import brought in from New York by an Irish communist and the film’s protagonist Jimmy Gralton, it becomes a symbol of free expression, community, and resistance to the autocratic rule of Catholic Church. More importantly, jazz symbolizes internationalism and class solidarity, as Jimmy describes his favourite jazz parlour in New York as “the only place in the United States where blacks and whites dance together.” The film also represents jazz as a medium that symbolically unifies the two oppressed nations in struggle (Black/Afrikan and Irish). Overall, in Jimmy’s Hall, jazz is used to overcome alienation.

Meetings and debates are Ken Loach's auteur.

Meetings and debates are Ken Loach’s auteur.

On the contrary, Amy Winehouse’s engagement with jazz accelerated her alienation from her friends, family, and even her own creative freedom. For Amy, daughter of a taxi driver and a pharmacist from Britain, jazz was a means of upward class mobility. However, she was so successful in this attempt that she was forced to give up her privacy, health, and ultimately her life for fame. Though she became extremely wealthy, she had virtually no control over her life as she neared the end of her life, dictated by managers and record company executives. She could not even start her rehab until she fulfilled her contractual obligations, and in one occasion she was kidnapped from her flat and flown to Serbia to perform at a concert (albeit unsuccessfully), when her health was significantly deteriorating.

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse

Despite these differences, both films take a tragic direction as Jimmy and his comrades are prosecuted for resisting the hall’s closure and opposing the Catholic Church allied with the Irish “Free State” (watch this film to learn more about the history of this alliance). Jimmy is arrested and deported back to the U.S.A, a permanent alienation from his homeland and beloved community. Amy becomes isolated and taken advantage of by her parasitic father and a boyfriend, who allegedly introduced her to hard drugs while riding the gravy train.

Unlike Jimmy’s Hall, which is set in a time when jazz was political and subversive, Amy takes place in a time when jazz has become commercialized, de-politicized, and even whitewashed. Ironically, however, most of her remaining allies near the end of her life were progressive Black artists (i.e Yasim Bey and Questlove) and her bodyguard who is also Black. Despite her commercial success and distance from the revolutionary roots of jazz culture, she is seemingly aware of her music’s popular appeal when she responds to a TV host who asks if her upcoming album is “accessible.” Her answer is along the lines of: “Yeah I guess it’s accessible. Not poppy, but accessible. Jazz has become an exclusive, elitist music.”

Explicitly socialist realist orientation of Jimmy’s Hall may be a strange comparison to a biography of a celebrity. Still, the ways in which these two films overlap with and contradict one another around the themes of jazz and alienation are interesting to me. Both films are now playing at the Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon.

Paris of the Prairies: What’s in the Name?

Some metaphors are meant to be purely formal. Others are endowed with some actuality and a twist of irony. The recent campaign by the local elites and “creative class” of Saskatoon to re-brand the city as “the Paris of the Prairies” falls into the latter category.

It appears as though this metaphor has no material basis. This re-branding may just be a new way of advertising the city as hip and fashionable. When I heard it for the first time, I simply dismissed it as a dumb PR campaign to promote gentrification and the bourgeois culture in general. But when I thought about the history of urban development in real Paris, I noticed an interesting parallel and contradiction implied in representing Saskatoon as its twin.

Paris as we know it today is a product of class struggle, like any other cities in the world. The most seminal transformation of the city happened between 1853 and 1870 when Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte or Napoleon III, a self-proclaimed Emperor of the Second French Empire, and a protagonist of Marx’s 18th Brumare of Louis Bonaparte, appointed Georges-Eugène Haussmann to direct its full-scale renovation. Haussmann’s plans included the annexation of the surrounding suburbs, and construction of new public works such as sewers, fountains, and aqueducts as well as new parks, squares, and avenues. The city centre was also peppered with symbols of modernity such as department stores and monuments.

Georges-Eugène Haussmann

Georges-Eugène Haussmann

Of course, Napoleon and Haussmann’s vision of new Paris was not only modern (in a cultural sense), but also ideological. Their plans also included the demolition of working-class neighbourhoods deemed unsanitary and overcrowded. Haussmann subsequently acquired the nickname of “the demolisher.” For Haussmann, however, these neighbourhoods were not a liability and even health hazards. They were politically dangerous.

Between 1830 and 1848, Paris experienced seven armed uprisings in which residents of these neighbourhoods actively participated. Narrowly constructed streets also made it easier for the rebels to build barricades. It was for this reason Haussmann’s plans included the construction of wide avenues and boulevards which made it easier for the troops to manoeuvre around and repress the people more effectively.

The Rue St. Nicolas du Charonnet, one of the narrow Medieval streets near the Pantheon on the Left Bank, in the 1850s

The Rue St. Nicolas du Charonnet, one of the narrow Medieval streets near the Pantheon on the Left Bank, in the 1850s

The avenue de l'Opéra, created by Haussmann, painted by Camille Pissarro (1898).

The avenue de l’Opéra, created by Haussmann, painted by Camille Pissarro (1898).

Haussmann overall understood very well that control of the population means control of the space, as David Harvey points out. Nonetheless, his plans not only failed to contain the working-class discontent, but also exacerbated it. While they sought to eradicate poverty, they only displaced it and moved it elsewhere. The speculative rise in the rents forced the poor to the city’s outskirts and the slums newly developed in the centre. This spatial segregation still persists to this day and has created conditions for social upheavals and the surge of revolutionary movement represented in the Paris Commune of 1871, the revolts of 1968, and the riots of 2005.

One of the battles at Paris Commune. Though significant, it ended in a colossal failure and most of its participants were massacred. Its lessons were learned in revolutionary movements that followed i.e Russian Revolution of 1917.

One of the battles at Paris Commune. Though significant, it ended in a colossal failure and most of its participants were massacred. Its lessons were learned in revolutionary movements that followed i.e Russian Revolution of 1917.

Nearly a century and half later in Saskatoon, Canada, a home of also very wide streets, a similarly draconian process is taking place. Like in Haussmann’s time, very little to no input is solicited from poor and working-class peoples. Posh restaurants, boutique cafes, and a hip “co-working” space increasingly occupy the core area of the city. River Landing is awaiting the construction of new luxury condos and a grotesquely modern art gallery that is going to replace Mendel Gallery but with entrance charge.

Despite the rhetoric of “diversity” and “mixed neigbourhoods,” increasing rent is already pushing the poor residents of Riversdale (mostly Indigenous and people of colour) further west and into suburbs, while the police constantly harass and terrorize them. These are all part of the bourgeoisie’s plan to transform Saskatoon into “the Paris of the Prairies.” Developers, city planners, and BIAs of this city are new Haussmanns of Saskatoon, albeit using less overt means and more liberal rhetoric. The extent of Saskatoon’s social apartheid and gentrification in Riversdale is vividly documented in Allan Casey’s reportage.

Pre-gentrified 20th Street in Riversdale, Saskatoon.

Pre-gentrified 20th Street in Riversdale, Saskatoon.

We should remember though that we are also seeing the contradictory effect of this process. It is not a coincidence that Idle No More emerged out of Riversdale and many local residents participated in it. People also took to City Plaza, a shopping mall located downtown, to hold round dances. This tactical choice was often criticized, but the location made sense. In spite of shopping malls being a symbol of hyper-modernity, consumerism and bourgeois ideology, it is also where many Indigenous residents of the neighbourhood frequent due to its geographical proximity and utility of the facilities in the building (i.e food court).

Idle No More round dace at City Plaza.

Idle No More round dace at City Plaza.

While the real consequence of “Haussmannization” of Saskatoon is yet to be seen, here is hoping that it will meet the fate similar to Napolen’s reign, as famously caricatured by Marx: First as farce, then as tragedy.