The new biopic movie Straight Outta Compton chronicles the rise of the gangsta rap group N.W.A. (Ni**as With Attitude) whose first studio album “Straight Outta Compton” in 1988 revolutionized hip hop music and culture. Controversy erupted when N.W.A. songs contained lyrics depicting the brutal truth about living in Compton, a poor and racially charged town in southern Los Angeles County.
The movie offers interesting research paper topics on censorship, police abuse and law enforcement.
Censorship of offensive lyrics
A topic for a term paper that the movie delves into is the issue of censorship. Should popular media like songs, books and films be censored (or should artists censor themselves) if they bring to light something unpleasant about society? Milt Alerich, assistant director of the FBI office of public affairs, actually sent N.W.A.’s music label Ruthless Records a now infamous letter asking them to stop writing such songs as the not-so-subtle “F*ck tha Police.”
The FBI said the lyrics incited violence against the police. N.W.A. had another reason. “Once in everybody’s lifetime, you get harassed by the police for no reason, and everybody wants to say it, but they can’t say it on the spot,” N.W.A. singer MC Ren explained on the Arsenio Hall talk show, reported in “Who Got The Camera?” by Eric Harvey for Pitchfork.com August 14, 2015. N.W.A. was saying the lyrics were really venting off steam for millions of silent voices in black neighborhoods suffering from overzealous law enforcement. This situation rings true nearly three decades later with recent lethal altercations between black citizens and the police.
The question is whether the FBI, a music label or anyone else has the right to censor an artist’s creation. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says that Congress shall not pass a law restricting a person’s right to freedom of speech. But it doesn’t say a music label can’t restrict a band from publishing or performing offensive lyrics.
Police abuse relevant today
A current issue on civics portrayed in the movie that you can write a research paper about is the tenuous relationship between the black community and the police. The recent, near-endless stories of white cops shooting unarmed black men plaster news headlines, cause riots and denigrate our justice system.
The movie’s director, F. Gary Gray, grew up in South Central Los Angeles where the movie takes place and used some of his own experiences of police brutality. Actor Corey Hawkins who plays singer Dr. Dre remarked in “‘Straight Outta Compton’: Police Abuse in N.W.A. Biopic Still Relevant Today,” by Bob Strauss, published in Daily News August 11, 2015: “The timing [of the movie’s release] couldn’t be, for lack of better words, more perfect. It’s a sad relevance, and it’s sad that we’re still having this conversation. I’m tired of seeing people dying every day, I’m tired of seeing people go to jail for nothing. We’ve just got to start a dialog and keep our foot on the gas like they kept their foot on the gas.”
Depictions of violence
The movie depicts the violent lives of the rappers who live in a world of drugs, guns, music business deals gone wrong, personal slights and insults and police brutality. In a scene reflecting real life, cops in Torrance, California harass the black singers gathering outside the recording studio where they are making their album.
In a review in the New Yorker’s “‘Straight Outta Compton’ Is Straight Outta 2015,” posted August 15, 2015, Richard Brody remarked, “Police violence is seen throughout, in unjustified and brutal stops of black men guilty of nothing…when the police, without arresting them, proceed to handcuff them, beat them, … intimidate them, and assert dominion over them. These tactics have nothing to do with law enforcement and everything to do with power relations, with asserting authority and demanding subordination.”
For your term paper, you could discuss how popular culture like movies and songs reflect real world issues, bring concerns and debates into the public forum and call for public policy to change.
What other real issues can popular culture bring to the public debate? Tell us in the comments.