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.
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.
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.