Straight Outta Compton: NWA, the Marx Brothers, and Artistic Expression

Straight Outta ComptonThis is a story about anarchy. About how artists deal with a crazy, messed-up world. And as such, it a story about the value of art. The power of art. The danger of art.

Three young men were searching for a place in a harsh terrain. They were outsiders, hailing from a segment of society that knew all too well how marginalised their voices were. Traditional avenues, be it through politics or through business, were locked away. All they had, it seemed, was each other. They were, in the eyes of most, brothers.

But these young men had hidden talents. Formidable weapons that most of us are not blessed with. One, the youngest of the three, was a verbal genius, creating barbs that cut to the heart of any hypocrisy surer than the sharpest blade. The middle one had the gift of music. In a sense, he did not even possess a voice save for what came out in the rhythm of his expression. The oldest did not share such lofty artistic gifts, but he was street smart. He was a gambler, and a damn good one at that.

Here’s where the story takes a turn. If you are younger than, let’s say 55, you may see the iconic gangsta rap group NWA in the above paragraphs. If you are older than that, you may see the Marx Brothers.

This is not intended to be a traditional review of the new biopic about Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E. That film, Straight Outta Compton, has been well-received and has far surpassed its original box office projections. It is a very entertaining movie. Director F. Gary Gray knew he had a good story on his hands, and he rather wisely mostly got outta the way. He let the compelling characters and the revolutionary music speak for themselves. Having Cube and Dre, along with the late Eazy’s wife Tamica Woods-Wright, on board as producers no doubt provided a ton of material.

It almost certainly softened the portrait as well, and there has already been backlash against the depiction of Dre as a regular boy-next-door who only wanted to spin his funky-ass beats for the world to hear. (The loveable Harpo of the group). I don’t know whether those complaints have validity. My bigger complaint concerns the depiction of the relationship between Eazy and manager Jerry Heller. When NWA began blowing up, Cube, as the band’s primary writer, and Dre, their main producer, felt taken advantage of by contracts that were almost certainly not fair to them. Eazy, who was the original leader of the group, defended Rubin, and the movie never makes clear whether he did this out of genuine gratitude and loyalty, or whether he was complicit in bilking his bandmates. That complaint aside, I liked the movie very much.

Review complete, let’s go back to the Marx Brothers. Four Jewish Brothers coming of age in the vaudeville era and making a successful transition to movies at the dawn of the sound era. Their names were Leonard, Arthur, Julius, and Herbert, but they adopted the stage names that would identify them for their entire lives: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo. They made outrageous comedies primarily at Paramount and later at MGM that have barely dated a minute in over 80 years. They would jettison Zeppo, who generally played the straight man, when they made the move to MGM.

Duck SoupCompare that to NWA. Six young black men growing up in the crime-heavy neighbourhood of Compton during the Reagan administration’s “war on drugs.” Eric Wright, Andre Young and O’Shea Jackson adopted the stage names that continue to identify them to this day: Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. They made a string of groundbreaking albums beginning with Straight Outta Compton for a variety of labels. Ice Cube moved into mainstream cinema, Dre became a headphones mogul, and Eazy died from complications related to HIV at the age of 34. The original group also had writer MC Ren and DJ Yella, and the soon-to-be jettisoned Arabian Prince, all of whom had elements of Zeppo.

Both groups were anarchic. The Marxes, working within the confines of the American film studio system of the 1930s, in which virtually no political statement was permitted, presented a modern world ruled by pomposity. They devoted their stories to popping those pompous balloons in the most madcap of manners.

NWA took direct aim at the treatment of poor black neighbourhoods by the authorities during the war on drugs. Though there is humour throughout their catalogue, this was not the stuff of comedy. When Ice Cube burst out with “Fuck the Police” on Compton’s 2nd track, it was a deliberate provocation, and it got the intended response. In the current movie, the long sequence detailing the creation of that song and its aftermath is one of the centrepieces of the story.

Here’s the point. When Groucho, in the role of Rufus T. Firefly, newly installed President of Freedonia, (Duck Soup, 1933) sings: “If any man’s caught taking graft, and I don’t get my share, We stand him up against the wall and Pop goes the weasel” no one claimed that the Marx Brothers were advocating government corruption and state-sanctioned assassination. When Ice Cube looked around his neighbourhood and was inspired to write in “Gangsta Gangsta” “Taking a life or two, that’s what the hell I do, if you don’t like the way I’m living well fuck you!” the F.B.I. got involved.

O’Shea Jackson, who is one of the more significant American writers of the latter half of the 20th century, has repeatedly explained that he was writing what he observed in his life. Since he has been very successful at marketing the brand known as Ice Cube, it is easy to forget that Ice Cube isn’t real. It is a creation of a writer who used the character to tell stories. Just as Julius Marx created Groucho.

I recognise the differences between film comedies and rap albums. I recognise the difference between Groucho’s obvious comic exaggeration in Duck Soup and the danger inherent in Cube’s detailed portraits of brutal violence. But that very danger is why art exists. If we don’t have it as an outlet, as an avenue for conversation, then we live in a powder keg that will explode with far more frequency than we currently see.

We live in an era in which the gap between the availability of methods of discourse and the sophistication of that discourse is cavernous. An era in which making the transparently true statement that vast majority of both police officers and young African American men are decent citizens invariably leads to outrage, disgust, and vitriol. I hope we never come to a time when men like Julius Marx and O’Shea Jackson are not permitted to use their unique gifts to put the world’s troubles into perspective.

Then we do not have anarchy. We have despotism. I’ll take Freedonia and Compton over that.

 

 

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

8 thoughts on “Straight Outta Compton: NWA, the Marx Brothers, and Artistic Expression

  1. Interesting article, Jon. I think part of the reason why few (if any) people think Groucho seriously advocated putting people up against the wall and executing them for ridiculous offenses is that his tone was so flippant. He was sticking out his tongue at petty dictators while singing a lighthearted, humorous song … at one point even rolling his trousers up to add a nice, silly effect. Meanwhile, NWA’s songs sounded much more aggressive and menacing, which I think scared quite a few people. It’s all in how things are presented. Films such as “If…”–in which the young woman protagonist shoots the school’s top dog through the head at the end–and “Do the Right Thing”–in which the director plays a character who throws a garbage can through the window (if I’m not mistaken) of a restaurant–present issues to people because of the way the ideas are conveyed. They get viewers wondering: Do the creators of these works really believe this? Do they believe in violence against authorities, revolution? It’s a heady subject, and sometimes it’s difficult to separate the artist from the art. I have to do that when I listen to Wagner. So I guess it’s necessary.

    • Thanks Simon. It’s a broad and complex issue. I remember hearing a famous black sports figure once say that people who said racist things publicly annoyed him but didn’t scare him. It was the people who only said it behind closed doors that scared him. Provocative art forces us to confront those hidden issues in the open, which has tremendous value. Artists like Wagner or H. L. Mencken complicate the discussion. They each offer different examples of how prejudice figures into art and public discourse. But the bottom line is we are probably better off for having their work out there.

  2. Intriguing take, Jon, and very well argued. I’m not sure that I’m desperate to see the film, but I’m pleased that we live in a world where it was able to be made.

  3. This was a fascinating comparison, and brilliantly conceived and argued. I have no interest in the music of NWA, so would be unlikely to watch this film, however good the reviews.
    But the Marx Brothers? Now you’re talking, Jon…
    Best wishes, Pete.

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