copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, summer 2016

Post-Ferguson Hollywood

by Jeff Menne

Following his relative success in the 2016 Iowa caucus, Senator Marco Rubio was asked in a CNN interview if he thought the year’s Oscars were too white. “I don’t know,” he said, “What does that mean?” Noncommittal on this issue, he wheeled to the “bigger problems” with Hollywood: “I think the bigger problem with Hollywood,” Rubio said, “is the values they are trying to ram down our kids’ throats and how hard it’s made it on parents.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] One might expect him to turn a liberal talking point into a conservative one. Less expectedly, though, he said he still wants to see Straight Outta Compton (Gray, Universal, 2015), the biopic narrating N.W.A.’s rise to fame in the late 1980s. Rubio has been an outspoken fan. Near the release date, he tweeted that “Team Rubio” would need to “clear two hours on my schedule on Aug. 14. Gotta see #StraightOuttaCompton.” It seems that Rubio gives Straight Outta Compton a pass, making it somehow innocent of Hollywood “values.” I’m less interested in guessing what counts for Rubio as Hollywood values, here, than in suggesting what value “blackness” is given in Straight Outta Compton and more generally in Hollywood’s “Post-Ferguson Cinema.” My analysis rests on Michael Rogin’s famous claim that turning points in Hollywood history have been eased by the “surplus symbolic value of blacks, the power to make African Americans represent something beside themselves.”[2] The problem with the nominations for the 88th Academy Awards was not simply their failure to honor black labor within the industry. The problem, rather, is that this labor is overlooked while the “symbolic value” of black lives outside the industry is ceaselessly harvested by Hollywood.[3]

Take, for instance, a most conspicuous example: in his effort to revitalize the Star Wars franchise, J.J. Abrams cast a black actor, John Boyega, as a turncoat storm trooper, hence recalibrating the geopolitics such that the franchise can satisfy its core audience but reach beyond them too. The franchise, thanks to Abrams, is once again open for business. Relating business and blackness, in fact, has delimited a set of themes that gives recent Hollywood cinema a kind of period integrity. Calling it “Post-Ferguson Hollywood” lets me foreshorten and place in a single framework the concerns begotten by the financial crisis but later aggravated by the policing crisis. Two strains of cinema—one concerning finance capital, say 99 Homes (Bahrani, Broad Green Pictures, 2015) and The Big Short (McKay, Paramount, 2015), another concerning blackness, say Dope (Famuyiwa, Open Road, 2015) and Creed (Coogler, MGM/ Warner Bros., 2015)—seem to have been braided into the commercial logic of franchise moviemaking.

Oddly, what might best illuminate this commercial logic is the unlikely and largely contrived “beef” between Martin Shkreli and Ghostface Killah. Shkreli, known as the “Pharma Bro” after coldheartedly raising the price of HIV medication nearly 6,000 percent, was unveiled as the winner of an auction for the Wu-Tang Clan’s one-of-a-kind album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin; he paid $2 million to be its sole owner.[4] While the Wu-Tang have been known for stunts of this kind—their innovation of the business model was their calling card from the first—in this instance group member Ghostface felt it had backfired.[5] He insulted Shkreli and walked into a “beef” that Shkreli had been trying to stage with a hip-hop star. The theater of it is mostly insignificant, except for the fact that theater is needed. Entrepreneurial capitalism, for Shkreli, needs theatricalizing in order to claim its legitimacy.[6] Shkreli’s insight, it seems, is that hip hop has been a discursive field for capitalism in this mode; this dates back at least to N.W.A., the Compton hip-hop act that popularized the style known as “gangsta rap.” A founding member, Eazy-E had been a neighborhood drug-dealer who wished to turn his capital from bad to good. When he and Dr. Dre recorded the single “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” they transformed illegitimate drug earnings into legitimate record sales: it’s the perfect updating of robber-baron capitalism. But what Straight Outta Compton dramatizes is that Eazy-E’s fatal flaw was to put his trust in an old-fashioned manager still committed to finding the “solo act” within the group. In the process Eazy failed to put the ensemble membership of N.W.A. under contract and was hence unable to produce a franchise for its earnings. Ice Cube was the most important writer in N.W.A. but was unrecognized within its business model—so he got away, discovering in his flight that he could spin a media franchise from his music. First Boyz n the Hood (Singleton, Columbia, 1991), then Friday (Gray, New Line, 1995). F. Gary Gray directed both Friday and Straight Outta Compton, and Ice Cube’s company, Cube Vision, produced both movies; it’s easy to see the latter movie, in turn, as a sly celebration of Ice Cube’s business farsightedness.

What Eazy-E failed to do, however, the Wu-Tang Clang was able to do in an epochal way. Having the leverage of their successful single “Protect Ya Neck,” Wu-Tang leader RZA shopped their first album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) until he negotiated a contract for the band that did not place its individual members under contract but instead left them free to sign individually on the strength of the album. The album was huge, and each individual album to follow—Method Man’s Tical, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and GZA’s Liquid Swords—was negotiated more dearly in turn. In effect, RZA made a franchise.

Here’s where it gets weird. In making the franchise, the Wu-Tang routed their “powers” through the world of comic-book heroes. Ghostface, for instance, took Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) as one of his aliases. The reason he did, I’d argue, is that the comics have a dehistoricizing pull in them; they replace the moral complications of lived history with the moral neatness of heroes and villains. The Marvel Universe can thus reframe geopolitical debates (military action and international law, the United Nations, etc.) in terms of unmistakable choices between good and evil. What the Wu-Tang Clan did for hip hop, then, is import the good-evil schema of the comics into its world, making of the comics a philosopher’s stone able to transform inner-city struggle into a mass-market object of consumption. The hip-hop artist was in turn less political and more archetypal. And the great trope of the comics—the oscillation between illegitimacy and legitimacy—became its own (i.e. Batman is a vigilante in the illegitimate nighttime world but a millionaire in the legitimate daytime world just as Jay-Z was a drug dealer in the illegitimate streets but a record executive in the legitimate boardrooms). It’s fitting, then, that the “business plan” for the Wu-Tang’s success would be repeated by Marvel a decade later in the movie franchising of their comic-book heroes, and what’s more, that the movies in this franchise would on balance lend themselves to neoliberal readings.[7] As Jay-Z would say of hip hop—“This is black superhero music right here, baby”—so too Ice Cube would say of Straight Outta Compton. “Marvel got their thing, but we got our thing too,” he said, claiming that N.W.A. would be “the real superheroes this summer.”[8]

Perhaps they were. If N.W.A. had become summer superheroes, such that even Marco Rubio wasn’t advised against championing them, then Martin Shkreli was their counterpart. Ghostface called out Shkreli as a “fake-ass supervillain.”[9] He seemed bemused by their tangling. “I don’t even know how it came to this,” Ghostface says, how “in, like, 2016” he should be in a faceoff with “Peter Pan” (as he called Shkreli). Notable in Ghostface’s address of Shkreli is his invocation of the date. In this he implies that in order to understand “how it came to this,” how, that is, Shkreli came to insert himself in a hip-hop imaginary, one would need to add some “real” history to the cultural history that hip hop had developed in parallel. This essay, though it cannot track the long history of these cultural forms, means to reckon with this moment of late-capitalist theater in which a “soft killer” like Shrkeli can trade on hip hop in an effort to make his right to profit as legitimate as any other black kid in the inner city struggling to survive. Selling drugs is selling drugs, Shkreli wants us to think, from Compton to Big Pharma. My argument is that while Straight Outta Compton might have received Rubio’s dispensation, it’s everywhere been the case that recent Hollywood cinema has churned the symbolic value of blackness. The point of this churning, I believe, has been to imagine the moral order of free enterprise through appeals to the righteousness of black struggle.[10]

Though the Oscars became a flashpoint in our recent debates about institutional racism, they are but an epiphenomenon of the exchange between real and symbolic economies. What they index is urgent, without question, but whether the Oscars remain a relevant index is an open question. Host Chris Rock staged the same joke in this year’s broadcast as he did when hosting in 2005: he went to a black neighborhood (this time Compton, the first time Harlem) and asked if people had seen the movies nominated, and no one had. Hence what I mean to do, here, is offer a survey of recent movies sensitized to the value blackness holds in Hollywood’s symbolic economy, then relate this survey, briefly, to the robust visual culture emerging from the #Black Lives Matter movement. In a sense Straight Outta Compton is the movie of its moment, not so much because it illuminates social events but because it at once divulges the internal logic of the Hollywood system and shows why social events are a matter of indifference to it.  

From open markets to credit crisis

What gives recent Hollywood cinema a degree of period integrity, curiously, is its return to the Cold War (i.e. a possible alternative to capitalism) in the same moment it reckons with the free-market cataclysm of the Great Recession. Sometimes this has been a matter of communism in Hollywood’s backyard—Trumbo (Roach, Bleecker Street, 2015) tells the story of Hollywood’s blacklist, and Hail, Caesar! (Coen, Universal, 2016) invents a story about Communist writers diverting Hollywood money to Soviet agents—and at these times it seems the movies are weighing whether or not they can or should be politically effective. But at other times, when it’s ostensibly the political systems themselves being weighed, there is a feeling that the history of African-Americans must be effaced if Cold War historiography is to be politically spun in the right way. Consider briefly Bridge of Spies (Spielberg, Touchstone, 2015). The ideological content of the Cold War is bracketed, largely, so that Spielberg can tell the story of systems by way of the interpersonal story of two equally noble men, US diplomat James Donovan (Tom Hanks) and Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Ryland), both committed to the individual enactment of the best parts of their political systems. Though the movie suggests that, tactically, the US and Soviet systems are equal, its main interest is to declare that these are two good men.[11] But in a rhyming image the movie suggests that if tactically their systems are the same, morally they are not. In East Berlin, Donovan looks out the elevated train window and sees young people rushing for the Berlin Wall, but they are mercilessly shot down by border guards. Back home in Brooklyn, though, Donovan again looks out an elevated train window and sees young people rushing for a fence between one backyard and another, but this time the young people are free to scale the fence and vault carefree to the other side.

This is the difference between a repressive and an open society. The young people in Brooklyn, it bears noting, are white. It’s hard to watch their freedom from repression and not think of the Civil Rights struggles that were coextensive with the Cold War. In this period one might have seen the “Little Rock Nine” on television, or reports of Medgar Evers’s home terrorized in the same way as was the Donovan home. But such struggle doesn’t figure into Bridge of Spies. In its final frames, the movie tells us that Donovan had another diplomatic victory in Cuba, but it does not tell us that as the president of the New York City Board of Education he was unsympathetic to school desegregation. A colleague said that while “Jim Donovan had done some liberal things in his life,” it was nonetheless the case that “he was completely inept in race relations.”[12] Perhaps, then, what we are seeing is the open society not as Donovan had encountered it but as he imagined it. This would be thoroughly Spielbergian: a reconstruction of the patriarch as he appeared to himself. Concerned as he is with patriarchal affect, Spielberg has periodically found ways to square his cinema with African-American history, but it seems that in Bridge of Spies he had to efface it to make Cold War historiography a tidier project.

In the other significant Cold War movie, The Man from U.N.C.L.E (Ritchie, Warner Bros., 2015) remakes a TV show originally run in peak years (1964-1968) of the Cold War. The movie, unlike the show, evokes blackness rather insistently. In its opening sequence, 16 mm footage of East Berlin is scored to Roberta Flack’s “Compared to What,” and then the closing sequence is scored to Nina Simone’s “Take Care of Business.” But these musical cues don’t make sense historically because the movie is set in 1963 and Flack’s song was released in 1969 and Simone’s song in 1965. So the songs aren’t meant as accurate period detail. Nor do they make sense narratively, because the Civil Rights mood they set falls outside the story. It’s worth supposing, however, that the version of the ‘60s that interests the movie is one structured by the availability of blackness as a stylistic option. This, in Tom Wolfe’s cynical account, is the ‘60s as the birth of “radical chic,” from the licentious themes of rhythm and blues music to the iconic fashion of the Black Panthers.[13] In the movie black style seems available to some, but not others; it’s available to Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), for instance, a British spy who does a lip-sync rendition of Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me”. The audience of her song, the Russian spy Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is obviously denied the option—he is without style, even without blood, so the movie jokes.

He blushes at her seductive display. His Russianness, we recognize, is meant not simply as a matter of political unfreedom, but as a kind of bodily and expressive unfreedom. Politics has been coded as style. This has long been part of the ideological history of the Cold War, and we can attend to its form as it has been telescoped for us in the Berlin Wall speeches of Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. The “armed guards and checkpoints” first restrict “the right to travel,” Reagan said, which is to say one’s bodily freedom. But in his speech he quickly converts this from an issue of free bodies into one of economic freedom: the Marshall Plan, the Wirtschaftswunder, reduced tariffs, free trade, and lowered taxes. This trajectory, naturalized by now, is what lets the movie so lightly joke about Illya the Russian spy’s style without it seeming politically committed. It’s the same operation, this historical flattening, that lets the movie make black culture of the Civil Rights era the stuff of style rather than politics. Hence if we are to recover the politics of Gaby Teller’s performance of Solomon Burke, we would have to recall the itinerary of the song: written by Bert Berns and recorded by Solomon Burke, it instantiates the often strained musical partnership between Jewish-American and African-American culture that has marked jazz and rhythm and blues alike.[14] The song was then retailed by the Rolling Stones for white audiences as part of a movement that mined R&B charts for Pop hits. Gaby Teller’s Britishness, hence, reminds us of this buried history at bottom of what culminated in the “British Invasion.” But her Britishness relates, too, to James Bond, the British spy who made espionage a drama of perfect stylishness, not geopolitics, and who was the model for the American Napoleon Solo, protagonist of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.   

The movie’s interest in blackness is puzzling: it evokes African-American culture even as that culture floats free of black bodies, and it deals with color throughout the movie, but not in the sociopolitical terms of race but rather in the aesthetic terms of production design. Color is it theme, that is, but not race. The television series on which it is based had begun its run in black and white but in its second season converted to color, as part of what, for cinematographers, was the era’s great shift.

Revisiting this “classic property” today, then, gave cinematographer John Mathieson “a fascinating opportunity to revisit the sensibilities of the past from a modern perspective.”[15] Though he shot the movie in digital, Mathieson says he hates it because “the color integrity’s not there.”[16] But they retrofitted an older Cooke lens to get multicolored lens flares. The emphasis on color begins in the cinematography but is picked up in the dialogue. When Agent Solo is captured by the Nazi, Uncle Rudi, he is told that his torture will be the stuff of art. “Not in black and white like the others,” no, Rudi says, he works in “Kodachrome—the colors are so real you can almost taste them.” Once again the Nazis are called upon as the heavy, as Hollywood movies do whenever they wish away historical complexity, but here the movie, because it has turned inward to industrial history, seems to raise more contradictions than it manages. Sure, the switch to color helped define the period style, but when the Cold War is the occasion for such industrial self-reflection, one recalls that Hollywood in this era persecuted its own for Communist sympathies but it had made nice with the Nazi regime in order not to lose its markets; the former ideology made racial equality one of its tenets whereas the latter made racial persecution one of its. In these matters, it’s fair to say, Hollywood industry has been on the wrong side of history too often. The movie is so odd, then, because it keeps raising the politics of the era only to aestheticize them, which is what Walter Benjamin said the fascists were doing, and hence it’s in danger of putting Hollywood itself in the same position as its own Nazi heavy (fig 20 and 21).

This is how scrambled the politics of contemporary Hollywood, particularly its racial politics, have become. One sees this not only in today’s reassessments of the Cold War, but in the effort to take on the recent financial crisis. In the last year, two movies—the notable The Big Short and the slight 99 Homes—narrated the housing market collapse of 2008-09. These stories might have been expected vehicles for African-Americans, considering how disproportionate an effect the crisis had on black wealth: compare a 31% decline per black household to an 11% one per white household.[17] The predatory practices that drove the subprime market tended to target elderly and minority communities. Black borrowers making more than $200,000 a year, a study found, were “more likely to receive subprime loans than white families making less than $30,000.”[18] But neither movie anchors its narrative in this demographic fact. Rather both movies tell the story, as many other stories were told this year, from the perspective of entrepreneurs—cf. Ex Machina (Garland, A24, 2015), Steve Jobs (Boyle, Universal, 2015), and Joy (Russell, 20th Century Fox, 2015). What separates the movies is their moral regard for entrepreneurs, particularly when their enterprises come out of dispossession. Indeed, 99 Homes feels like a morality play, with the entrepreneur Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) embodying Greed and the dispossessed homeowner Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) embodying Desperation. When driving through a neighborhood of “For Sale” signs and darkened homes, Carver tells Nash that he’s seen “nine opportunities” on the last block, that if Nash tunes his vision this way he too will see opportunity where others do not. Ultimately, the movie hangs on Nash’s decision to emulate Carver or reject him. But it hangs on this, we might say, because it finds dramatic interest in the collapsing ideology of the white property owner whose “family home” is the public mark of his authority. It is of marginal interest—and as a ready supply of pathos—that a black family and an elderly man are foreclosed on, too. The central interest lies in the declassing of the white male, still vital and still capable of building communities, but pushed instead to break them down into assets and sell them at different, more abstract levels of the market.

Here is where The Big Short comes in. In it, there is no trace of the social problem film, nor anything of the morality play. Conspicuously, the only black actor is at the top of the hierarchy. Adepero Oduye plays Kathy Tao, the liaison between Morgan Stanley and Mark Baum’s fund, FrontPoint. When Baum’s team actually surveys the damage on the ground to homeowners, they speak with a Latino man (Oscar Gale) who learns he is on the bad end of a rental contract. This man appears in the film’s final scenes, his family and belongings packed into their car. But overall the face of the dispossessed homeowner is a stripper’s. In a comic scene, Baum pays for a private dance so that he can learn the details of a stripper’s mortgages (she has five houses, we learn, and one condo). This is a target market of an unseemly mortgage broker, who likes making loans to strippers because they are cash rich but have no credit history nor any income verification, and hence are susceptible to subprime products.

What this means for the movie, however, is that it can play more comfortably in a comic register. The victim of the “big short” position of the title is not the homeowners who will be evicted, but the entire banking system whose overconfidence in a rigged system left it highly exposed. It’s a comedy, that is, because its protagonists are all lovable misfits (“a few outsiders and weirdos”) who critique the system from within but avoid being crushed beneath it. In fact, the “weirdos” profit. It’s Revenge of the Nerds set in the world of high finance. Only in off moments does the movie force a reckoning with what befalls “average people” on the other side of the process. “You just bet against the American economy,” Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) tell his colleagues, “which means if we’re right, people lose homes, people lose jobs, people lose retirement savings.” And this toll is not something the movie can depict—it tells us this much—because it’s unavailable for depiction as such. Pop culture distorts it, deflects from it. Hence the movie’s joke that Selena Gomez will now clarify for you the function of a synthetic CDO.

Banking, though, manages what pop culture fails to imagine. “You know what I hate about fucking banking,” Rickert asks, “it reduces people to numbers. Here’s a number: every one percent unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die. Did you know that?” The point of the movie is that we do not know that, and that in some important sense we cannot know that because the kind of knowledge we would need to have—the kind that produces action—is qualitative, not quantitative.

“The strength of street knowledge”: hip hop and frontier economics

None of the above is surprising. It’s not that Hollywood movies are, categorically, unable to engage social events qualitatively. But it’s no secret that Hollywood is soothed by quantitative thinking. Studio heads keep their jobs when they show profit. In recent months, for instance, Warner Bros. executives have tried to fend off the qualitative rejection of the DC comics movies by citing their early box-office embrace. This defense works until the qualitative response catches up with the quantitative, as it did with Batman v Superman (Snyder, Warner Bros., 2016).[19] In the recent Money Monster (Foster, TriStar, 2016), in fact, when a hedge fund publicist must frantically search for the firm’s “quant,” it’s easy to imagine it as the movie’s own desperate bid to produce a quantitative proof to Hollywood that movies such as itself, from the near-extinct “midbudget” sector, should still be made. Indeed, Relativity Media staked its existence on a claim to having such data—an algorithm, they said, that could predict a movie’s performance—but CEO Ryan Kavanaugh lost credibility when his company filed for Chapter 11 last year. Thomas Tull, though, a “quant” of a different kind, bet rather that the $100 million tentpole was the more stable market. A premise of his bet, however, is that a production needs to come from “presold” property, such as a comic book or a video game; it can’t be original material. “It’s very hard to build a new thing,” Tull admitted.[20] Thus when forming Legendary Pictures in 2000, he began with Batman, moved on to Superman, and mixed it up with Frank Miller’s 300 (Snyder, Warner Bros., 2007). What is surprising about Straight Outta Compton, then, is that Tull would produce it among the first of his Universal projects despite it being a midbudget biopic seemingly outside his bailiwick of comics and gaming. He had supplemented his tentpole productions with midbudget movies, it’s worth noting, but they had been based in his other passion, sports (cf. We Are Marshall [McG, Warner Bros., 2006] and 42 [Helgeland, Warner Bros., 2013]). But one can imagine Straight Outta Compton fitting perfectly within the Legendary canon, defined as it is by comic-book heroes and sports legends, because Tull is known as a “fanboy” and he believes the like is his target market. “This is my group,” he has said, “They like stuff I like.”[21] Hip hop is on the same Venn diagram, and Straight Outta Compton is presented in fanboy tones (hence it omits Dr. Dre’s assault of female journalist Dee Barnes). More than this, for a self-styled entrepreneur such as Tull whose mission was to bring private equity markets to Hollywood, Straight Outta Compton is a bildungsroman of the entrepreneur, following Eazy, Dre, and Cube as they grow into businessmen, and their business is the sort that turns childhood passions into a specialized product over which only the adult child has mastery.

What is so surprising about Straight Outta Compton, finally, is that it seems to urge the renewal of capitalism in the moment that The Big Short sought to remind us how near it recently was to collapse. It seemed the least likely movie—had we taken bets—for such boosterism. But in the wake of the credit crisis, free-market ideologues have pushed back against proclamations that “We Are All Socialist Now” and instead doubled down on “‘entrepreneurial’ capitalism with robust competition and incessant ‘creative destruction’,” as Cato Institute fellow Brink Lindsey puts it, as a bulwark against “heavy-handed industrial policy, cronyism, and corporatism.”[22] In this defense, the figure of the black entrepreneur has been an alibi. Fortune, for instance, singles out black female-owned businesses as the largest growing demographic, having increased 322% since 1997. And Steve Forbes would say that Jay-Z, first a rapper and then the Def Jam CEO, “epitomizes the essence of the American entrepreneurial system,” and his success only attests to the “wonders of free enterprise,” defined, for Forbes, by its “openness to newcomers.”[23] It can look like “openness,” today, but no record labels would distribute hip hop when it came out, which is why in 1983 Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons began Def Jam and made millions (they released LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy). They were entrepreneurs of necessity. The same can be said of the spike in black female-owned businesses. “We attribute the growth in women-owned firms to the lack of fair pay, fair promotions, and family-friendly policies in corporate America,” says Margot Dorfman, CEO of the US Women’s Chamber of Commerce. “Women of color, when you look at the statistics, are impacted more significantly by all of the negative factors that women face. It’s not surprising that they have chosen to invest in themselves.”[24] The “openness,” here, is part of the rhetorical armature that would re-describe necessity as liberty.

Blurring that line (between economic necessity and liberty) has let the powerful speak in the language of the powerless. “I view myself as a person,” Donald Trump has recently said, “that—like everybody else—is fighting for survival.”[25] When Brink Lindsey argues for “creative destruction,” indeed, he makes his appeal to a “frontier economics.”[26] It’s not a matter of the geopolitical frontiers of capitalism (i.e. China’s opening economy, India’s, or the “tiger economies”), which are sites of “catch-up growth,” Lindsey says, but a matter of internal frontiers. Rich economies can’t keep doing what they’re doing, can’t simply extend the processes already in place, but must open new frontiers within by way of innovation. But some forms of innovation, Thomas Frank says of “financial engineering,” give a bad name to the innovation-dependent “creative economy”; they wear out these once valorized concepts.[27] Consider a scene in The Big Short. In an English pub Ben Rickert trades a credit default swap by phone, when the bartender overhears him quoting figures on the order of a hundred million dollars. “What are you, a drug dealer or a banker,” the bartender asks, “because if you’re a banker, you can fuck right off.” Though Lindsey considers the “frontier” a matter of technology as much as anything else, like the Kennedy administration did when it invoked Manifest Destiny in its New Frontier, for the metaphor to work, to stir the imagination, it needed a frontiersman to embody it. The New Frontier had the astronaut, but the economic frontier had only the banker making esoteric deals on Blackberry, laptop, or Bluetooth. Next to this Eazy-E strikes quite a figure. He could sound plausibly like a contemporary outlaw in the Wild West of Compton when, on N.W.A.’s first album, he rapped, “I got a six-shooter, yo I’m mean and brave.” The tropes were in place already, from the swaggering country blues of “John Hardy” and the folk tradition before it, and in Eazy’s case he was riffing on more recent entries such as the Beastie Boys’ story about “a little horsey named Paul Revere” and the “sheriff’s posse on my tail” (the song, “8 Ball,” most prominently sampled from the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere,” “Girls,” and others). But when the Beasties called themselves outlaws, their imagery was cartoonish, whereas when Eazy-E did, it fit with narratives of rising gang violence on the West Coast: his imagery, thus, seemed naturalistic. The most deregulated space in the national imaginary became Compton, thanks in no small part to N.W.A., and its entrepreneurs were called hustlers, and there are two reasons you can’t knock the hustle: it’s a matter of necessity, and it’s a force of class rise.

What makes Straight Outta Compton so curious, then, is its commitment to telling stories that on their face are systemic (economic necessity, social class) but in individualist terms. In an early scene, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is so wrapped up in his music that he misses a job interview that his mom had arranged for him ). They argue. “I already know what I want to do with my life,” Dre tells her, “and it definitely ain’t sitting in some cubicle takin’ orders on a bullshit-ass job.”

Growing up in Compton, this suggests, the options are not appreciably different than in any other suburb in America: it’s the stability of a desk job, or the self-fulfillment (and risk) of creative endeavor. Today, Dre’s remark might resonate with college kids launching start-ups for the same reason. In this perspective, the system looks virtuous, and hip hop is not a critique but an affirmation of it. Success in hip hop, like any enterprise, means betting on oneself. In this sensibility the movie joins others such as Dope and Creed in placing black experience either here or there on a trajectory into the elite class. The latter two movies must contort their genres in imagining this: in Dope Malcolm (Shameik Moore) makes it out of his Inglewood high school and into Harvard by pulling off an improbable drug deal, and in Creed the son of Apollo Creed, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), belongs in the elite class by birth but nonetheless rejects the jobs offered him to pursue instead an option typically left to the poverty class: boxing.[28]

Consider in this light the scene from Straight Outta Compton in which Dre leads police on a high-speed chase. After zig-zagging through traffic, Dre is stopped at a police barricade with a helicopter circling overhead, but his arrest is peaceful, his civil rights left intact. Compare this to an early scene of Ice Cube being harassed for no reason (“I ain’t explaining shit to you,” the cop tells him), and his parents being intimidated for trying to help him (“I will ruin your fucking night,” the cop tells his mom), and it seems clear that what is being narrated are the privileges of Dre's new class position. He’s no longer in Compton, where no rights apply; he’s on an affluent police-beat. But the movie doesn’t exactly address this: it makes it seem he’s racing through downtown L.A. when in fact arrest records show it to have been Beverly Hills. In selecting this mise-en-scene the movie invests in a kind of L.A. noir—multiple lanes of traffic, the glare of streetlights overhead, skyscrapers illuminated from bottom story to top—but at the expense of a systemic critique of the policing patterns throughout the city: How are police disposed differently, it might have demonstrated, in a Beverly Hills arrest and a Compton arrest?

The only thing curious about Straight Outta Compton swerving from issues of a systemic kind is that its makers would have expected it to be understood within the horizon of the #Black Lives Matter movement. Principal photography began in August 2014, and a few days later Michael Brown was shot down by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The movie's shooting script was in place already, true, but it would now resonate more deeply with a conversation then unfolding. In the opening scene, for instance, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) goes into a dope house which has been under surveillance and is shortly demolished by an armored police vehicle. The scene would cross-reference debates about the militarization of the police force. So it was inevitable that the movie become vehicle for these issues, inevitable because N.W.A. is still most famous for its anthem, “Fuck tha Police.” And while the movie does deal with police violence and racial profiling, those issues get reduced to a stage in a process both aesthetic and commercial. In the midst of recording their debut album in Torrance, California, the members of N.W.A. step outside the studio for lunch break. Outside Compton, it’s implied, their uniform of black Raiders and Yankees gear is alarming. Police pull up, shouting for the group to drop to the ground, before their manager, Jerry Heller, comes to their defense. “What are you crazy,” he objects, “That’s police harassment. You can’t come down here and harass these guys because they’re black—people have rights”). Though angry, the members of N.W.A. are well-behaved, and if Ice Cube in particular seems anxious to say his peace, he instead remains silent and returns to the studio where he sublimates his anger in song: “Fuck tha Police” roars forth, an aesthetic correction to a social problem. From there the group tours the country and the police run-in is put to canny use not only as the raw material in their aesthetic production, but as a marketing lever for it. When the FBI sends them a strongly-worded warning to desist from playing their song, it’s Eazy-E that senses opportunity. “This right here is a gift,” he tells the others, “This is free publicity for N.W.A. We take this to the press and we show them what type of intimidation, discrimination, and harassment that we dealing with from our government.” What we see in this is how their outsider status, their oppression and persecution, puts them in a privileged position to open new markets. Craig Watkins notes the “paradox” that an “intensification of racial and economic polarization in the United States produces space for the emergence of cultural practices that derive much of their symbolic efficacy from locations of marginality.”[29] Producing space, here, is making a market that wasn’t intelligible as such. Watkins’s paradox is that their proprietary relation to it comes from being marginalized. Branded by state officials, Eazy accepts the brand and monetizes it.

This is what is meant by “the strength of street knowledge,” the brash declaration which opens N.W.A.’s debut album. Street knowledge is the authority to command a market. But if the movie is only half interested in police violence in itself, or in the LA Riots in themselves, it is fully interested in how street knowledge is formalized as corporate strategy. Eazy is the figure of street knowledge, and the agent of its conversion into something else. The movie’s opening image communicates this much: fade into Eazy opening his car trunk, he unscrews the stereo speaker from its case, and within the cabinet lies a bag of dope—behind the music, we’re told, is the economy of the streets.

In a subsequent scene, Dre tells Eazy, “You can sling dope, you can sling records.” Part of the drama stems from Eazy needing to make his illicit gains legitimate. He can only do this, Jerry Heller tells him, with the latter’s help. “I can make you legit,” Jerry promises, “I can get you into that building.” Jerry has access to the establishment, in other words, but the point of the movie will be that in this moment of industrial transformation N.W.A. represents an establishment vanguard while Jerry represents its old guard. Jerry expects to cherrypick the star, Eazy-E, and nurture his career at the expense of the others; his error is to believe that N.W.A. is the vehicle of Eazy-E as the Supremes was for Diana Ross. In turn, he needs but one signature: Eazy-E’s.

The drama of the movie, therefore, becomes a drama of contract. Ice Cube, the group lyricist, thinks he’s undercompensated for his part, and he leaves before Jerry and Eazy can put him under contract. When Cube’s solo record Amerikkka’s Most Wanted charts higher than N.W.A. has, Jerry assures Eazy, “The fact is, Ren is as good a writer as Cube, maybe even better.” This plays as a joke for a contemporary audience who will know full well the asymmetrical influence Ren and Cube have had on hip hop. The joke loops back to the original meeting between Jerry and Eazy when Jerry marshaled his credentials (“Elton John, War, Styx, REO Speedwagon”) and Eazy asked, “You manage anybody this decade?” The object of ridicule is not only Jerry’s ineptitude at identifying talent of this new kind, but his failure to imagine how to manage talent in this new regime. Seeing in N.W.A. only one act was a failure to see in it three acts. The group was ready to spin out careers for Eazy, Dre, and Cube, but because Jerry is committed to a superannuated model of stardom, he misses the big payout.

The payouts are frittered away, we see; so many record companies are begun that coining names for them (Ruthless, Death Row, Aftermath) is troped in the movie as a kind of corporate parlor game; money—and this is the final, affectionate message—is left on the table. What Eazy could not do is make a franchise out of N.W.A. and monopolize a market he was helping to open up. It’s the bildungsroman of Eazy’s incomplete formation as a businessman. One strain in hip hop, indeed, has been intent on fragmenting the market and controlling a niche rather than broadly operating it; the “beef” has been the technology of such market division. In the movie’s later scenes, Eazy makes amends with Cube and Dre because he knows now their centrality in realizing his project. “We shouldn’t have dissed each other in the first place,” Cube tells Eazy, “Making the fans choose between us? That wasn’t cool.” The movie was made in partnership between Ice Cube’s company, Cube Vision, Dre’s Crucial Films, and Broken Chair Flickz (once Eazy-E's company, now his widow’s) and in these final scenes the input Cube and Dre had into the movie is easy to detect. They grant Eazy his entrepreneurial vision in the line of dialogue “I’m the Berry Gordy of this shit” but there’s nonetheless the palpable regret that he might have been the Russell Simmons of this new form. Embedded in this reflection on Eazy-E, that is, is a reflection on hip hop as a modular form whose logic, we must note, undergirds today’s franchise filmmaking. Consider how a hip-hop track is credited: the main act first, followed by all those “featured” on the track; the effect on an MP3 player, then, is that rather than list an album under one act it subspeciates into several acts. It’s a unitary form that calls attention to the integrity of its components. J. D. Connor has described franchise filmmaking in terms of componentry, a matter of “arrangement, exchange, and interaction.”[30] This can explain why the catchphrase from Friday, “Bye, Felicia,” is dropped somewhat gratuitously into Straight Outta Compton: the one must refer to the other in an enterprise of “world-building,” as Connor calls it, where each strengthens the integrity of the other. This is Ice Cube’s media world, we are reminded, with his preferred director F. Gary Gray once again stitching together its units. In the movie’s final sequence we are reminded, too, that Dre learned his lesson after recording albums for Eazy and Jerry, and then Suge Knight—“Just focusing on the music,” he tells Suge, not the contracts—to focus rather on deploying his brand across the market. The end credits document Apple’s $3 billion acquisition of Dre’s Beats, a headphone company founded by the rapper and Jimmy Iovine. In these credits, Eminem is shown saying that Dre “taught me a lot, not just rap-wise but business-wise.” Hip-hop lessons and business lessons are structurally equivalent, so much so that when marketing the movie Universal executive Doug Neil had movie trailers customized for demographic segments on Facebook. Research told Neil that for a white audience Dre was “the face of Beats” and Cube was an actor; for this demographic the movie was pitched not as the biopic of a rap group but of media moguls.[31]

Get in-formation: new media and black visual culture

It seems only natural that as a biopic produced by its subjects, Straight Outta Compton would give them a hagiographic treatment, that lionized individuality, in the end, would be its upshot. If despite the events it depicts the movie only weakly resonates with today’s events, this might owe to the conditions of Hollywood art—its high capital outlay, production timetables, and the obstinacy of its forms are all paid for (potentially, anyway) in social irrelevance. Chris Rock is right. In a moment of crisis, the moment of #Black Lives Matter, Hollywood has nothing much to say. Yet the #Black Lives Matter movement rests so much on imagery. Controlling the narrative of Trayvon Martin, for instance, meant controlling which picture of him circulated and whether this image would license calling him a “thug.” The moment was defined by surveillance footage and dash cams, by when the footage of Michael Brown’s shooting began and how much of Sandra Bland’s arrest was offscreen.[32] And moreover, what has emerged in response to the crisis has been an agonized, often defiant visual culture. Beyoncé’s “Formation” video dropped on the eve of the Super Bowl, Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance, and so on. Beyoncé, in fact, has contributed to debates over the “death of the album” by suggesting in Lemonade that in its reimagined form it will be “visual.”

For all that Hollywood traffics in imagery, this seems to suggest that it’s been displaced from the center of visual culture. Critic Wesley Morris has recently attributed this to the way that Hollywood franchises have dimmed star power (stars such as Christian Bale and Ben Affleck get to play Batman, but Batman is ultimately the star) while stardom has migrated to the Internet where it can seem “unmediated” to its consumers.[33] The Internet does seem to have immediacy of various kinds: if Beyoncé wishes to prepare fans for her Super Bowl performance, she can do so on the Internet at any hour. Television, too, can establish a feedback loop with events in the offing in ways movies cannot. Hence Shonda Rhimes’s ABC show Scandal can make the episode “The Lawn Chair,” which deals with the shooting of a 17-year-old black man by a white cop, and it can be timed to coincide with the Department of Justice’s findings on the Ferguson Police Department; and Empire (a Fox show about a hip-hop mogul whose empire is built on an original investment of drug money) can take the same topic as does Straight Outta Compton—the industrialization of hip-hop culture—but let it open onto new-media transformation as the more relevant object of inquiry.

In a sense what is at stake is mediality itself, the moment when something becomes an image event and who behind the scenes can shape it. The power of the Internet, in this respect, is that it seems to denarrativize the image event. Consider the shots in Lemonade of the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Gardner holding pictures of their sons. They are not strictly nonnarrative; they are fitted, now, into another narrative Beyoncé is constructing. But they are now pried, these sons of theirs, from the national narrative formed around them. Beyoncé’s visual album plays in an idiom quite different from Hollywood’s classical narrative: it is impressionistic; its protagonist seems plural rather than singular, it is Black women, a generational protagonist cast in deep time; it is thus out of Julie Dash or Terrence Malick, not Hollywood. There are cynics who will question if Beyoncé helps #Black Lives Matter or if she uses it to help her brand, but a question such as this is made indeterminate by the culture industry. There is a basic wildness to the image, nevertheless, that gets tapped in both Beyoncé’s “Formation” and Azealia Banks’s “The Big Big Beat.” In the latter it’s the framing device of the narrow corridors of a correctional facility for Banks’s erotic dancing that makes it seem like so much contraband. When Banks dances on top a police car, it seems like a reference to Beyoncé’s “Formation,” as though there might now be a tradition of Black women astride police cars.

The image has been potent enough that police have organized boycotts of Beyoncé’s shows, in an act reminiscent of the Detroit police protests of N.W.A. in Straight Outta Compton. But it’s possible there is a more primal potency in the ambiguous line “Okay ladies now let’s get in formation,” which reads at once as a call to get in either dance or combat formation and as a call to get information.[34] That perhaps the goal is to get information in formation—that being witness to information as it is being given form is the political act—suggests how nearly synonymous controlling the media and political revolution are. This is a truth that Hollywood insulates itself against, and that the Oscars merely stage manages, but because the Internet rubs against it more regularly it’s fair to say it’s become the center of visual culture today.


1. Rubio said this in a CNN interview with Carol Costello on February 2, 2016, the morning following the Iowa caucus. See http://time.com/4205016/marco-rubio-oscars-so-white/ [return to text]

2. Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1996), 14.

3. The hip-hop group Public Enemy’s Professor Griff remarked on the fact that the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony used his group’s song, “Fight the Power”: “The show can’t claim the blackness of Public Enemy’s message.” See http://pitchfork.com/news/63855-oscars-2016-public-enemys-fight-the-power-bookends-ceremony-amid-diversity-controversy-chuck-d-weighs-in/

4. In 2015 the Wu-Tang Clan held an auction for their album, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” of which they had made only one copy. See http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/posts/la-et-ms-wu-tang-clan-actually-found-someone-to-pay-millions-for-its-secret-album-20151124-story.html

5. The evident business savvy of the Wu-Tang Clan was the subject of a comedy sketch on “Chappelle’s Show.” The joke of the sketch, “Wu Tang Financial,” was that while the Wu-Tang had made smart financial decisions, white investors would nonetheless never entrust their money with them, the gap between the Wu-Tang “street” sensibility and a white middle-class sensibility being insuperable.

6. Steve Jobs is the ur-example of this, for he depended on theater to make a case for his righteousness in the public eye. The difference is that while Jobs’s ethical standards came under fire often enough, he was, unlike Shkreli, largely able to exculpate himself by way of this theater. Shkreli has used his theater only to intensify his “bad boy” image.

7. See Dan Hassler-Forest, Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (Zero Books, 2012).

8. Brent Lang, “‘Straight Outta Compton’: Ice Cube Praises Universal Chief Donna Langley’s ‘Big Balls’,” Variety April 23, 2015.

9. Ghostface made his address to Shkreli in a YouTube post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmJGKtEwomE   

10. This is not new. Stephen Metcalf has critiqued Robert Nozick, the canonical libertarian, for pressing his normative claims by recourse to the famous “Wilt Chamberlain argument,” a “cynical” way, Metcalf says, to make capitalism at its purest a matter of “a black ballplayer finally getting his due.” See Metcalf, “The Liberty Scam,” Slate, June 20, 2011.

11. In an early scene, when Donovan meets the accused spy, Abel tells him, “Mr. Donovan, you have men like me doing the same for your country—if they were caught, I’m sure that you would wish them to be treated well.” In a later scene, when US and Soviet agents meet to exchange prisoners, Donovan worries, “I think they have snipers.” His colleague says, “I’m sure they do… because we have snipers.” The movie, that is, makes a consistent point that both sides in the Cold War employ the same tactics.

12. See David Rogers, 110 Livingston Street: Politics and Bureaucracy in the New York City School System (New York: NYU Press, 1984), 232-233.

13. See Tom Wolfe, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (New York: Picador, 2009).

14. See Michael Billig’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Jews (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2001) and Eric Lott Love and Theft (New York: Oxford UP, 1995).

15. Phil Rhodes, “Superspy Alliance,” American Cinematographer 96.9 (Sept. 2015), 56.

16. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. See Pamela McClintock, “‘Batman v Superman’ Plunges 69 Percent in Second Weekend to $51.3M,” Hollywood Reporter, April 1, 2016: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/box-office-batman-v-superman-880012

20. Natalie Robehmed, “Box Office Billionaire,” Fortune, February 10, 2016: http://www.forbes.com/sites/natalierobehmed/2016/02/10/the-global-mogul/#695b88735700  

21. Mark R. Madler, “Almost Legendary,” San Fernando Valley Business Journal, March 23, 2015.

22. Brink Lindsey, “Frontier Economics: Why Entrepreneurial Capitalism Is Needed Now More than Ever” (April 2011): http://www.kauffman.org/~/media/kauffman_org/research%20reports%20and%20covers/2011/04/

23. Steve Forbes wrote this endorsement in the Foreword to Zack O’Malley Greenburg, Empire State of Mind (New York: Penguin, 2012).

24. Amy Haimerl, “The Fastest Growing Group of Entrepreneurs in America,” Fortune, June 29, 2015: http://fortune.com/2015/06/29/black-women-entrepreneurs/

25. Trump said this in his primetime interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly.

26. Brink Lindsey, ibid.

27. Thomas Frank, “Nor a Lender Be,” Harper’s, February 19, 2016: https://harpers.org/blog/2016/02/nor-a-lender-be/   

28. Genre is a key term for discussing both these movies, but it’s a discussion I will forgo here. Suffice it to say, the genres that get contorted are the high-school movie and the boxing movie. Their different itineraries are interesting, no doubt, because they are socioeconomic: the high-school movie subdivides into a middle-class and a poverty-class variant, the former usually being a matter of “youth rebellion” and the latter usually being a matter of “inner city violence.” On balance Dope takes more from the middle-class than the poverty-class variant, making its drug-deal plot feel strangely out of place. The boxing movie, though, has only a poverty-class tradition, it seems to me, and this makes Creed’s middle-class iteration a genre novelty.

29. S. Craig Watkins, “Black Youth and the Ironies of Capitalism,” That’s the Joint!, eds. Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal (New York: Routledge, 2011), 698. 

30. J. D. Connor, “Making Things Right,” Los Angeles Review of Books, January 7, 2016: https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/making-things-right-star-wars-episode-vii-the-force-awakens

31. Nathan McAlone, “Here’s Why ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Had Different Facebook Trailers,” Business Insider, March 16, 2016: http://www.businessinsider.com/why-straight-outta-compton-had-different-trailers-for-people-of-different-races

32. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland were several of the key incidents behind the rise of #Black Lives Matter. For overviews of these incidents, see the following:

33. Wesley Morris, “The Superhero Franchise: Where Traditional Movie Stardom Goes to Die,” New York Times, May, 19, 2016: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/05/22/movies/in-x-men-apocalypse-and-captain-america-superheroes-versus-movie-stars.html

34. See Joshua Clover, “Get Information,” The Nation, March 9, 2016. https://www.thenation.com/article/get-information/