Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Raiders and Rap: Straight Outta L.A.
Twenty-two years ago, a fledgling hip-hop group from a Los Angeles suburb synonymous with gang violence preceded the title track of its second album with a declaration: “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” These words – part promise, part threat – defined not only “Straight Outta Compton,” and the album of same name, but the entire angle of approach for N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitudes), the self-described lyric-spitting “gang” whose insuppressible hits, also including “Fuck the Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta,” helped shape the genre we now call “gangsta rap.” Lyrically, Straight Outta Compton was defined by its glorification of gun-toting violence and its eye-for-an-eye rallying cry against police brutality. Visually, though, the album was branded by the rap group’s signature style: black men clad in nearly all-black attire that was nondescript save for headwear that often bore the emblem of the hometown NFL franchise with a conveniently complementary color scheme. So it was that the Los Angeles Raiders became married to a music revolution, until their logo came to stand for a cultural identity as much as an athletic team.
Straight Outta L.A. is a documentary that looks back on the ways the Raiders both shaped and were shaped by the gangsta rap movement. The film is directed by Ice Cube, who as a founding member of N.W.A. and a long-time Raiders fan is something of an authority on both subjects. In this, the 14th release of ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series, sports and culture get equal time. Ice Cube’s contribution to the series is a personal film, part The Band That Wouldn’t Die, in which Barry Levinson explores the relationship between an NFL team and its fanbase, and part The U, in which Billy Corben details how the University of Miami and rap group 2 Live Crew symbiotically developed their hard-core reputations. It’s always a bit surprising to encounter 52 minutes of ESPN programming with scant athletic highlights – Rod Martin’s fourth-down tackle of John Riggins and Marcus Allen’s subsequent 74-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XVIII are the only times the documentary pauses long enough to enjoy football as football – but that’s what makes the “30 for 30” series so frequently compelling. Ice Cube takes the Raiders’ come-and-go relationship with Los Angeles, a series of events now remembered almost exclusively as an example of team owner Al Davis’ curious handling of the franchise, and he flips it over, revealing a much more compelling story underneath.
Unless you’re from Los Angeles, or, more specifically, unless you’re from one of L.A.’s more impoverished neighborhoods, home to the people who truly identified with – not just enjoyed – the lyrics of N.W.A., Straight Outta L.A. might not be history as you remember it. And that’s what’s so invigorating about it. Watching the documentary, I found myself thinking of the woman interviewed in Steve James’ No Crossover who expressed reluctance about sitting down with the white filmmaker to talk about Allen Iverson’s troubled background because she felt that only black people should be chronicling black history. As an objection it was narrow-minded, but as an ideal it was commendable. In that spirit, Straight Outta L.A. tells a history that, despite the widespread popularity of the NFL and rap, we can feel comfortable guessing that most white storytellers (reporters, filmmakers, whatevers) would have overlooked. Indeed, Ice Cube’s film might as well come packaged with the same stamp of authority as the rap album that inspired its name: “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” Amen!
Yet for as personal as Straight Outta L.A. feels in terms of its narrative, cinematically it’s a collective achievement. Cinematographer Alex Van Wagner fills the film with vivid HD images of everything from the majestic L.A. Coliseum to the glittering L.A. skyline to the yellow-toothed grin of octogenarian Al Davis. Meanwhile, editor Dan Marks revives archival still photographs with flashy Ken Burns-esque zooms and pans performed at record-scratching speed. Not to be overlooked, No Mas and James Blagden, who animated the Internet hit “Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No,” deliver about four minutes of expressive black-and-white cartooning that dramatizes N.W.A.’s formation. Throughout its regrettably brief running time, Straight Outta L.A. feels impressively in-the-moment and reflective, with N.W.A. hits and the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited” effortlessly transporting us back to the 1980s. The film is a mishmash of cultures and authority figures: John Madden and Chuck D, Bill Plaschke and Ice-T, Howie Long and Snoop Dogg. Somehow it all works. The sports guys talk sports, the hip-hop guys talk hip-hop and Ice Cube unites these seemingly disparate elements as a director, as a music artist and as a football fan.
Ice Cube makes for a compelling host in this historical examination, but it’s Plaschke, the talented Los Angeles Times columnist with a well earned reputation for buffoonery, who delivers this film’s most crucial observation: Speaking of the way the Raiders were adopted by L.A.’s blue collar working class made up of African-Americans, Hispanics and Latinos and Asian-Americans, Plaschke notes that these minority groups “had a home in the Raiders.” And of course the reverse was true, too: the Raiders had a home with these often-overlooked fans. And yet no matter how many hats, jackets or tickets these relatively lower-class NFL fans bought, it wasn’t enough for Davis to keep the Raiders in L.A. In 1995, the Raiders went back to Oakland after Davis failed to get a new stadium built – the kind lined with lucrative suites and expensive seats that more than likely would have priced out the team’s most ardent fans. This latter bitter reality is the elephant in the room that no one discusses in Straight Outta L.A. And even though Ice Cube says the Raiders will always belong to L.A., it’s tempting to wonder how much he believes it. After all, it must mean something that when he sits down to interview Al Davis, Ice Cube wears not vintage Raiders gear but a modern Dodgers hat. Black, of course.
Straight Outta L.A. premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.