I Have A Media Problem


I like writing about cinema. It’s a hobby of mine, something I’d like to do more often. And up to this point, it’s all that I’ve done on this blog—on its WordPress incarnation, at least. That’s all this blog should be—a space for me to display my thoughts on film, and for you, whoever you may be, to read and consider them. It should not be a haven for ads. I do not try to gain your attention with shallow, misleading clickbait. If I link to anything outside the blog, I do so because I find it relevant and intriguing and am confident it will not lead my readers down an Internet rabbit hole. There is nothing frilly in the formatting; I picked this WordPress template (“Minnow”, it’s called) for its simplicity, and because it’s free of charge. My blog is in a sense my ideal for the Internet—absent of distraction, with a single, focused purpose. If there’s anything you’ve ever seen here that’s out of focus, it’s because most of my film reviews are quick, instinctive, stream-of-consciousness first drafts. There’s nothing contrived here, but I understand if it can get tricky to follow. Part of it is my natural writing style. But I’ll work on it. I might just make it one of my New Year’s Resolutions.

All this is more than I can say for the Internet as a whole. When scrolling down my Facebook news feed, for one, I often encounter a vast deluge of clickbait, much of which has a theme—political pessimism. Doomsday prophesying. People griping about the way things are and the direction they’re going in. Money runs the world, and there’s nothing we can do about it, and it’s only going to get worse. We are slaves to the wealthy, and whoever tries to fight against that status quo will be completely defeated, so we should probably just grin and bear it. That sort of thing. All talk about problems, with nothing about potential solutions, and thus nothing useful. What I find especially fascinating is anything written in the tone of voice that says, “You didn’t know this was going on?! You thought the world was hunky-dory?! How naïve of you! This whole time, you’ve been hoodwinked by the political elite and their media monopoly!” There are few things in this world I despise more than the concept of open secrets—of taboo dealings that everyone knows about but no one discusses because of some ludicrous impulse to sustain a fragile veneer of respectability and decorum, if not to protect the innocent. I hold just as much chagrin at the people who pride themselves on the knowledge of such secrets, and who look down upon and exclude the innocents who are unaware of them. As a result, none of the injuries stemming from these secrets are ever remedied, and none of the problems they present are ever particularly solved. You can see why I try to limit my time on Facebook; looking at my news feed can often be a fatiguing, numbing ordeal.

I don’t blame this all on Facebook. Rather, I speak of Facebook as a microcosm for the Internet as a whole—and when I say I’ve been trying to gauge my time on the Web, I mean it. What am I saying when I say I have a media problem? you may wonder. I’m essentially saying I have a trust problem. For an example, I’ll use an issue that I’d like to get to the bottom of, but that I likely never will because of the state of the Internet [trigger warning here]: the case of Juanita Broaddrick, who—at the height of Bill Clinton’s impeachment brouhaha—accused the ex-President of raping her in a Little Rock hotel room in 1978. Whether she is credible has been eagerly debated. Yet, I can’t find anything in the media (besides perhaps the late Christopher Hitchens) that I can rely on to objectively walk me through the case because everything about it has been obfuscated through the narrow lens of competitive partisan politics. Most conservative media seem to meld Broaddrick’s and other women’s accounts into their traditional Clinton-bashing, laden with conspiracies and designed more to get Republicans voted into office than to advance any genuine feminist cause. Most liberal media, in deferral to the Clintons, treat Broaddrick with what we in Japanese might call mokosatsu—which translates roughly into “indifference” or “contemptuous ignorance”—“murder by silence,” more literally. Google “Juanita Broaddrick,” and you’ll see what I mean. Most of what pops up is right-wing sensationalism and commentary from scrappy little blogs such as mine. Why is this? Why do women’s rights only matter to elites when they are convenient to their political outlook? Is it because of the perfect storm of institutionalized misogyny and hypocrisy that we call rape culture? Is the media negligent on this matter because we have consigned this case to a brand of pre-Internet ‘90s politics that the jaded American public is sick of hearing about? Frankly, that’d be pathetic.

For me, the case of Broaddrick and Clinton’s myriad other accusers lies at the very foundation—not so much the visible, above-water tip of the iceberg as its unseen, underwater bottom tip—of whether Hillary Clinton, who has stood by Bill despite his outrageous philandering (to say the least), can be trusted with the U.S. Presidency. I don’t think she can. I’m not going to go into the Broaddrick case blow-by-blow at this moment—though perhaps one day, I will, to provide the Internet with some of the objectivity that I’d like to see on it—but for the time being, let me say that right now, I think Broaddrick is credible. That feeling alone is enough to prompt me to display some serious mokosatsu towards all the polls, headlines and punditry trying to proclaim that Hillary’s already sewn up this whole election. She most certainly has not, no more than she had the ’08 election, when she was leading in all polls right up until Obama began showing his muster in the primaries. The media right now is not the American people talking; it’s the money talking. It’s the political and media elite struggling to convince the naïve to vote for Clinton, and to discourage the supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders from believing that their guy has a chance. The way I see it, on the left, the media’s gunning for Clinton, and everyone else is gunning for Sanders; just look at how Sanders has trounced Clinton in some of those online post-debate polls. Let me tell you: the most important issues to me are youth rights and education, feminism, LGBTQIA rights, racial equality, mental health, gun control, social mobility and the wealth gap, Mexico’s drug cartels (the essence of the border and immigration crises), campaign finance, accountability, climate change, and the U.S.’ responsibility for the calamity in the Middle East. I do not agree with Sanders on all issues, but my beliefs do line up with his on most issues—and I consider his commitment to the Nordic model, in particular, exemplary. Come Super Tuesday, he has my vote. (Don’t get me started on the GOP. In that party’s current state, they are against virtually everything I stand for.)

The great films are the ones you keep coming back to in your head. Network is one of those films. If you’ve never seen it, see it. It’s timeless. It has countless great scenes, and one of them is Howard Beale’s maximally ironic on-air rant on the power of television to brainwash, which ends with him pleading, “Turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now! Turn them off!” Reader, when you reach the end of this essay, I beseech you to close this window, turn off your Internet connection, and turn off your computer. Do something else. It’s okay. Take a break from this. Take a break from the aimless pessimism, the exploitation of trauma for attention, the insults to the intelligence, and the relentless fear mongering in which the Web at large revels. The man who directed Network, the late Sidney Lumet, has a book called Making Movies, which is a great primer on the technical aspects of cinema for literary folks such as me. Lumet here says time and again that if a filmmaker is losing concentration during a rush, a take, or a scene, it means it’s not grabbing his/her attention, thus the audience will check out, too, and it should be cut. What I take from this is that maybe I ought to trust my instincts. If I’m losing focus while reading an online article, either don’t trust it or close the laptop. Or both. I should make that a golden rule. After all, I don’t feel excitement reading all the media extoling Clinton; I feel numbness, fatigue, nausea, disgust. I feel lies fighting to win at my expense. I want to escape from it all. I don’t want to wallow in thoughts of “inevitability”. None of us should. We should fight for change. We start by voting.

I Have A Media Problem

Review: “Straight Outta Compton”

Much of the gangsta rap music of N.W.A is a raw explosion of pure id: five men from L.A. manifesting their crude vigilante fantasies—stoked no doubt by institutional racism and socioeconomic stigma—into pulsing beats and street-smart poetry. This puts the rap super-group firmly in a tradition begun two generations prior by Richard Wright, whose novel Native Son sees an uneducated young Black man, Bigger Thomas, accidentally kill a white woman, Mary Dalton, in a moment of race-induced panic. He could try to defend himself, as if that would’ve helped him in the time and place (late-‘30s Chicago), but he doesn’t. Instead, he covers up his deed, frames Mary’s disappearance on another, flees when the ruse is up, and—in the novel’s most controversial moment—slaughters his Black girlfriend, Bessie, when she becomes a burden. In taking responsibility for Mary’s death, he proceeds to flesh out the paranoid white-racist fear of the Black man retaliating against his oppression in ways increasingly cunning and malevolent—and indeed, in these circumstances, that is what Bigger feels he must do to survive. Thus, through Bigger, Wright gave American literature its most defining expression of id. To act violently is an extreme measure, but to think violently—nay, to envision oneself committing violence—is, I imagine, a natural human tendency, to which we may not often admit. The power of works of art like Native Son and N.W.A’s music lies not just in how they bluntly identify our darkest temptations. More so, it lies in how they epitomize art as an act by which we may channel our id in a productive, nonviolent way.

“How is such music productive?” one might ask. “Wouldn’t it give Blacks a bad image by confirming those white-racist fears you mention—by giving those racists, hand over fist, the means by which they justify their bigotry?” It would not be appropriate to say so. Recall Roger Ebert’s famous statement regarding Justin Lin’s film Better Luck Tomorrow: “Nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers: ‘How could you do this to “your people”?’” No artist should be obligated to please or satisfy everyone, especially not at the expense of accuracy. Ensuring racial equality and respect for people of color means allowing them to depict themselves however they want, in ways beyond such narrow parameters as race, sex, class, etc. It means not pooh-poohing them into pandering to the moderate sensibility of perceiving everything in a positive, cheerily optimistic light, and it means not cramming characters of color into stock archetypes that are built to prove that people of color are people after all, and may even be good people at that—as if anyone ever needed such proof. (Whoever does is truly pathetic.) Bigots, in the meantime, will seek any excuse to vindicate their wrongheaded beliefs—and anything, much less any work of art, no matter how well intentioned, can be manipulated and distorted to achieve those horrific ends. Look at how much catastrophe has been blamed on the Bible. Dare I add, it would be even more unconscionable to call N.W.A’s music evidence of “racist self-hatred.” Those men were not ashamed to be Black, nor ashamed to be gangsta rappers if not gangstas, much less did they let the culture they grew up in sucker them into being so ashamed. I’m convinced they were proud of who they were.

These thoughts and more went through my mind as I was watching Straight Outta Compton, which covers the decade (1986-95) in which N.W.A formed, rose, splintered into solo projects, bickered, made up, and faced challenge and tragedy. I’m not into rap—my preferred music genres are classical, prog and alt rock, and electronica—but Compton got me interested in it, and I feel it serves as a strong primer for novices coming in with no knowledge of the subject. The film opens with tight introductions to the group’s three critical members, in their hardscrabble days before fame. Eric “Eazy-E” Wright is seen trying to pull off a drug deal. When his ego gets in the way, an LAPD ambush gives him time to escape—the smiley-face on the police tank’s battering ram is the first of the film’s many startling quotidian touches. Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, a disc jockey, gets the most hackneyed overture. Dousing himself in beats in his bedroom, he gets a wake-up call when his mother scolds him for missing a job interview and lectures him on how he needs to swallow his pride and forgo music if he wants to make a living. That got me worried. That worry was dispelled, thankfully, in the scene after when O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, writing rhymes in a marble journal, witnesses a Crenshaw Mafiosi hold up a school bus to give his naïve peers a taste of the gangsta life they so idolize, yet know next to nothing about. This scene, I take it, will come as a shock to those unfamiliar with the time and place. It is essentially a hostage situation, and it makes clear that what these young men proceed to rap about, they have direct experience with.

No need to rehash the history; the film outlines it very well. The three coalesce with Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson, pop out their first single “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” and get the attention of manager Jerry Heller. It’s a new breed of music, and it’s not for everyone, but Heller sees it stir crowds and recognizes its innovation, and that to him means money. The film does not sugarcoat the controversy of the lyrics; the charges of misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, violence against police, etc., are not invalid. (What the film leaves out about the more immediate ways in which the men objectified women in real life, we can assume.) It may thus strike more P.C. viewers as ironic that such content did not diminish N.W.A’s popularity among concertgoers, in particular among women. But it is not ironic at all because N.W.A’s fans understood what they were about: brutal honesty, releasing stress, fully taking advantage of the First Amendment. They didn’t have to present themselves as likable or agreeable because sometimes, they just weren’t. They wanted to fight urban injustice and give a voice to the oppressed, and often, that involved embracing their egos and removing their filters. Their music was never really meant for the privileged, nor for the sensitive, and that makes it stronger; there were no audience expectations to indulge. Why does the FBI send them a gag order? Why do Detroit police try to ban them from performing “Fuck tha Police”—which one cop terms “F. the Police”—in concert? These bodies accuse the group of trying to incite riots, but they know as well as their fans do that they’re not doing that at all; they rap, in part, as an alternative to riot, as an escape from the violence of Compton. What the FBI and the police are concerned about, I believe, is that these men are challenging their power, which they reassert through censorship. N.W.A knows this, and exploits it ingeniously.

There’s plenty of history to cover in these two and a half hours—the murder of Dre’s brother, Heller’s financial antics, Cube’s early departure and the ensuing dissing match, the Rodney King fiasco, Dre’s move to Suge Knight’s Death Row Records, Knight’s thuggish antics, Dre’s mentoring of Snoop Dogg and Tupac, Eazy-E’s ugly fate, etc. The film has rightly been accused of rushing and cramming, and of playing with facts and sidelining women. (Dre and Cube were producers—a curious conflict of interest, to some.) The way I see it, its breadth and ambition give it the feel of an epic rap anthology, complete with inserts, homages, name-dropping, masculinity to a fault, political bravado, egotistical one-upmanship, and a paradoxical notion of fragmented vignettes linked together to create a fluid, logical arc. This is not just appropriate. Even if unintended, it is a novel approach to the cinematic form—a depiction of rap history using the structures of rap, fraught with commentary on the effect of media on history and our daily lives. Not to mention, the performances are terrific. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. pulls no punches playing his father, and his casting is far from nepotism. Witness the scene in which he trashes the Priority Records office with a baseball bat over an advance dispute, and the later moments when he is softened by fame, fatherhood and a film career. (An early mentor of his was F. Gary Gray, a clever choice to direct this film.) Corey Hawkins, as Dre, captures a similarly wide transition from naïveté to moral confrontation, culminating in a climactic choice to abandon Death Row for good. Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown, Jr. make strong impressions as Ren and Yella despite limited screen time; Paul Giamatti perfectly negotiates Heller’s esteem for N.W.A’s music with his insidious money grubbing; stuntman R. Marcos Taylor, as Knight, switches from tenderness to brute menace on a dime. Best in show is Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, the baitiest role, played with boyish simplicity and not a shred of sentiment.

Compton made me wonder: have we really come that far? Even with Obama, has much changed at all? The scenes of racial profiling—of cops making impulsive decisions based on dumb, lazy associations between race and predilection for crime—feel fresh, and they’re not without a contemporary, if avant la lettre, veneer of classism. (Exhibit A: the Black cop who disagrees with Heller on whether rap is art.) Speaking as a white man who can admit he has made some stupid comments about race in his lifetime and who has thus written this review with care—if we want to make America as free and equal as it aims to be, we all have to contribute to stop these systemic issues. Slogans and soundbytes have always struck me as unreliably incomplete. In that sense, I do not feel it is enough to say that Black Lives Matter. What we must say is: Black Identities Matter. People of color have the right not just to live and live in peace, but to thrive, to enjoy life, to fulfill their goals, to speak loud, to be listened to, heard and understood. In art and narrative, we have a duty to give them representation and depict them faithfully. American cinema today is neglecting that duty. Straight Outta Compton is a move in the right direction in that regard, and it is much more than that: flaws and all, it is a bracing, innovative portrait of a quantum shift in music history, juggling searing character studies and provocative moral dilemmas. The scenes and songs hit hard, and weeks after watching this film, they are still looping in my head.

Grade: A

In memory of Sandra Bland, Raynette Turner, Alison Parker, Adam Ward, and all others.

Review: “Straight Outta Compton”