Though I normally would reserve my film reviews for SmashCut Culture, I recently got asked to do an in-depth review of Straight Outta Compton for Liberty Unbound and took the opportunity to dig a little deeper into the surprisingly libertarian messages in the movie.
Get the gist here:
There are very few movies I would describe as explicitly “libertarian,” but as unlikely as it may seem, F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton is high on that list.
The film interweaves the stories of legendary hip hop artists Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and chronicles their rise out of violence and poverty to fame and fortune as the groundbreaking gangsta rap group, NWA (“Niggaz Wit Attitude”). This is not, as you might imagine, a film for children or even most teens. It depicts a life experience steeped in drugs, gang violence, and police brutality in one of the poorest, most dangerous parts of Los Angeles in the 1980s. Against this backdrop, three teenagers looking for a way out created one of the biggest entertainment acts of the last three decades, and irrevocably changed the face of the record industry.
At its heart, Straight Outta Compton is a great entrepreneur story, but more in the tradition of The Godfather than Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Nearly all of the business dealings that occur throughout the film are built on threats and violence, and certainly not what libertarians would endorse. But contrary to what a lot of people might assume given NWA’s music, there is no glorification of gangs or gang culture in the film. In fact, a major theme is the drive to escape violence, even though it swirls around every character in the movie.
But the theme of commerce over violence was not the only libertarian quality to the film. It also depicts a fascinating period of American culture when actual government censorship (and threats of censorship) were on the rise. While the movie touches on the way censorship affected the growing gangsta rap scene around the country, I think few people today are fully aware of how extensive the governmental push against free speech really was back then.
In 1985, a group of four “Washington Wives” — Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius — created an organization called the Parents Music Resource Center ostensibly to persuade the music industry to “voluntarily” adopt a ratings standard that would protect children from hearing what these women called “porn rock.” These influential ladies convinced the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to convene a hearing to discuss the issue on September 19, 1985. Even though his own wife founded the PMRC, then-Senator Al Gore features prominently as a speaker in these hearings, instead of recusing himself as he obviously should have done, given the blatant conflict of interest.
The full hearings are completely maddening to listen to, but they are worth watching or reading because they make it crystal clear that the Washington Wives’ claims of simply wanting the industry to adopt their proposal really came at the point of a gun. At the time, my own state’s Senator from Nebraska, Jim Exon, had an exchange with Frank Zappa that perfectly makes the point:
Sen. Exon: “This is one senator that might be interested in legislation and/or regulation. To some extent recognizing the problems with free rider expression and my previously expressed views that I don’t believe I should be telling other people what they have to listen to, but I really believe that the suggestions made by the original panel for some kind of arrangement for voluntarily policing this in the music industry is the correct way to go. So if it’ll help you out in your testimony, I might join Senator Hollings and others in some kind of legislation and/or regulation unless the free market system — both the producers and you, as the performers — see fit to clean up your act.”
Frank Zappa: “Ok, thank you. . . . Ok, so that’s hardly voluntary.”
Quite so. Similar to the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) in 1930 and the Comics Code Authority in 1954, these ratings systems and the so-called “voluntary” censorship instituted by industry groups have often come as a direct result of threats from the government.
You can watch the PMRC hearings on YouTube:
This drive to censor or restrict art on behalf of the poor, innocent children of America is nothing new, and although Senators like Jim Exon (D-NE), Al Gore (D-TN), and Ernest Hollings (D-SC) claimed that they weren’t violating the First Amendment by holding hearings and “encouraging” the recording industry to “clean up its act”, the reality is that the only reason Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver even showed up to the hearings at all was because of the very real threat of force behind everything government does.
And the PMRC got their wish:
So just a few years later in 1989, when NWA and gangsta rap gained popularity, the old “seduction of the innocent” fears were already a major issue in American politics. In 1990, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) adopted a “Parental Advisory” labeling system to warn parents of explicit or otherwise unsavory lyrical content, in no small part because of the music being released by NWA, Ruthless Records, and Lench Mob Records. But parental advisory warnings weren’t enough for a lot of people in America, and throughout the film, we see activists smashing records, protesters picketing concerts, the federal government issuing threats, and even police officers in Detroit specifically dictating to the band that they wouldn’t be allowed to play their hit “Fuck Tha Police” on the grounds that it could incite a riot.
Straight Outta Compton makes an incredible case for a more libertarian society both in the power of commerce and money to take people out of violence and crime, and even more importantly, in its explicit defense of free speech.
Check out the rest of the review over at Liberty Unbound, and watch the trailer for the film here: