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.


Kevin J. Olson said...

I think I'm looking forward to this one more than any other installment (save "The U" and "Run Ricky Run"). Great thoughts here...I'll return later tonight after watching it.

Ed Howard said...

I just caught this last night. Great fun. I wanted to see it for the hip-hop/NWA stuff, not so much the football stuff, and it was certainly interesting from that perspective. I especially loved the casual conversations between Snoop and Ice Cube as they hang out, tossing a football around and musing about the meaning of the Raiders for them when they were growing up and getting started as rappers. I loved the animated material about NWA's origins, too, with Ice Cube delivering autobiographical narration through a cartoon version of himself. Made me wish the whole film was just Ice Cube reminiscing and recounting the group's history, rather than continually tying it back to the Raiders (can you tell I'm not a football fan?). My favorite moment was the slightly goofy way he describes them settling on the name NWA based on Eazy-E's recommendation.

And damn, Al Davis was frightening.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: I agree ... both that the N.W.A. stuff is the strength of the doc in general and that the moment where they discuss choosing the group's name is the specific highlight -- so perfectly animated! (Speaking of the animation, if you haven't seen the Dock Ellis video, here's part of it. Good stuff.)

Anyway ... The Raiders stuff was less interesting, and yet after wishing the entire thing had all been about N.W.A., I decided I'm grateful that the subjects are merged, precisely because it keeps rap history from being, well, ghettoized. This really shows how N.W.A. tied into the American culture in ways that most people never would have considered.

We need more history like this.

Daniel said...

Saw the first half of this last night and really like your idea about how Ice Cube brought a perspective to this would have been sorely lacking by another filmmaker (speaking of which, I'd still like to see Stacy Peralta's documentary about the Crips and Bloods and consider that same point).

On a more personal level, I was born in LA in '81 and though I was obviously too young to know what was going on at the time, I had a kind of innate appeal toward the Raiders. Even still do, in a weird way (though I'm loyal to the Vikings). The first hat I believe I ever owned (which I dug up last night; I'm in the process of moving) was the black "Los Angeles Raiders" (in script) baseball cap that Eazy-E used to wear. Of course I didn't wear it because of him since I was too young to know who he was, but the Raiders still had that "cool" L.A. aura around them even without the rap & gang influences. It was almost like a statement of bold independence to be a Raiders fan. I don't know of another team these days that has that appeal.

Anonymous said...

So I just read about six different movie reviews from you, and every single one is you bashing the movie. You are seriously one of the most fucking annoying people I've ever read.

Jason Bellamy said...

JPeaslee: Did you read this review? I'm bashing it? Really?

Sato Printer said...

If only every person in the world would follow all the rules that you gave... I think that everyone should come and visit your website

Anonymous said...

Your job as a future mother is to learn the god's ways and to help your child understand despite the negative reinforcement and conditioning of today's society. Without consciousous parents the child will have no hope, and may even exaserbate their disfavor by becoming corrupted in today's environment.
Your ultimate goal is to fix your relationship wiith the gods and move on. You don't want to be comfortable here, and the changes in Western society in the last 100 years has achieved just that.
1000 years with Jesus is the consolation prize. Don't be deceived into thinking that is the goal.

The gods tempt people for which they are most weak. Artificial Intelligence will create desire in people's minds for the following sins:::
1. Alcohol
2. Drugs
3. Preditory "earning"
4. Homosexuality
5. Gambling
6. Something for nothing/irresponsibility (xtianity)
7. Polygamy/superiority over women/misogyny (Islam)
Much like the other prophets Mohhamed (polygamy/superiority over women/misogyny) and Jesus (forgiveness/savior), the gods use me for temptation as well. In today's modern society they feel people are most weak for popular culture/sensationalism, and the clues date back to WorldWarII and Unit731:TSUSHOGO, the Chinese Holocaust.
It has been discussed that, similar to the Matrix concept, the gods will offer a REAL "Second Coming of Christ", while the "fake" Second Coming will come at the end and follow New Testiment scripture and their xtian positioning. I may be that real Second Coming.
What I teach is the god's true way. It is what is expected of people, and only those who follow this truth will be eligible to ascend into heaven as children in a future life. They offered this event because the masses have just enough time to work on and fix their relationship with the gods and ascend, to move and grow past Planet Earth, before the obligatory xtian "consolation prize" of "1000 years with Jesus on Earth" begins.

The Prince of Darkness, battling the gods over the souls of the Damned.
It is the gods who have created this environment and led people into Damnation with temptation. The god's positioning proves they work to prevent people's understanding.
How often is xtian dogma wrong? Expect it is about the Lucifer issue as well.
The fallen god, fighting for justice for the disfavored, banished to Earth as the fallen angel?
I believe much as the Noah's Flood event, the end of the world will be initiated by revelry among the people. It will be positioned to be sanctioned by the gods and led for "1000 years with Jesus on Earth".
In light of modern developments this can entail many pleasures:::Medicine "cures" aging, the "manufacture" of incredible beauty via cloning as sex slaves, free (synthetic) cocaine, etc.
Somewhere during the 1000 years the party will start to "die off", literally. Only those who maintain chaste, pure lifestyles, resisting these temptations, will survive the 1000 years. Condemned to experience another epoch of planet's history for their ignorant pursuit of xtianity, they will be the candidates used to (re)colonize (the next) Planet Earth, condemned to relive the misery experienced by the peasantry during history due to their failure to ascend into heaven before the Apocalypse.
Never forget:::It is not a house of Jesus.
If this concept of Lucifer is true another role of this individual may be to initiate disfavor and temptation among this new poulation, the proverbial "apple" of this Garden of Eden. A crucial figure in the history of any planet, he begins the process of deterioration and decay that leads civilizations to where Planet Earth remains today.
Which one is it? Probably both:::
One transitions into the other, allowing the gods to wash their hands of obligation to their Chosen One.

You are faced with a lifetime to work and prepare for your next chance. Too many will waste this time working, etc.