'Straight Outta Compton': how the city is shedding its bad rap

Compton officials and activists hope to use the film's momentum to project another narrative to a public that they say is far too willing to believe the worst about historically black communities. 

Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures/AP
This photo shows (from left) Aldis Hodge as MC Ren; Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella; Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E; O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube; and Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre in the film 'Straight Outta Compton.' The movie, released in US theaters on Friday, topped the charts by Sunday.

“Straight Outta Compton,” the R-rated biopic about N.W.A, the founders of hip hop/gangsta rap, opens with a violent FBI drug bust inside a graffiti-strewn crack house in a run-down Compton neighborhood. Such an image has become so synonymous with this Los Angeles suburb in the public mind that some surrounding communities have scrubbed the very name Compton from street signs and landmarks to avoid the association.

The up-from-poverty-and-racism breakout hit defied expectations by roaring to the top of the charts this weekend, pulling in $60.2 million at the box office. City officials and activists hope to use the film's momentum to project another narrative to a public that they say is far too willing to believe the worst about historically black communities. 

“The Compton of 25 years ago is not the Compton of today,” says City Manager Johnny Ford. “A lot has changed, and a lot more is going to keep changing.”

To start, these changes include improved statistics, such as a falling homicide rate. More broadly, the changes can be seen in strategies that have worked in other cities, such as tax incentives for businesses, training for unskilled workers, and better options for youths of all ages.

Some also place importance on redefining Compton as a vibrant locale that is shedding a dark image shaped by extensive media coverage of drug crimes and drive-by shootings. But others question whether the suburb ever really deserved a down-and-out reputation.

Among Compton's new strategies: a solid package of tax incentives for major retailers, such as Target, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart, to open stores; help cutting red tape for permits and licenses; low-interest loans and development grants; and dedicated project coordinators and ombudsmen.

Last month, the city council voted to reduce fees for youth sports programs from $40 to $10 – and it’s giving a free pass to those who cannot afford the new lower fee.

This twin emphasis on investment in both businesses and youths has been key to the city’s transition, says Najee Ali, executive director of Project Islamic H.O.P.E. He notes that gang violence has been curbed through partnerships with law enforcement, as well as through job training and a focus on a range of activities for youths of all ages. Last year, there were 17 killings in Compton, down from a high of 87 in 1991, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“For some of these kids, a trip to the beach is the first time they had the opportunity to get out of the city,” says Mr. Ali, adding that skill training is crucial. “The quickest way to stop a bullet is with jobs.”

A new vision for Compton was key to Aja Brown's 2013 campaign for mayor. Only the second woman to hold that post, and also the youngest, she cited the Bible when asked about her campaign's theme: “Proverbs 29:18 says, ‘Without a vision, the people perish,’ " she said. 

Now, with “Straight Outta Compton,” she's embracing her Hollywood moment. “She sat down with the folks at Universal and said, ‘Look, this is about my city, and it will have a huge impact. I want some good to come out of it,’ ” says Jasmyne Cannick, public information officer for the city of Compton.

As a result, the film has a plug for the city’s booster website, comptonup.org – a clearinghouse for community, civic, and safety initiatives and commentary.

But perhaps the most felicitous piggyback for the city comes from one of the film’s producers, Dr. Dre, aka native son Andre Young, who is also one of the rappers depicted in the movie. Although the details are yet to be hammered out, Dre has pledged all the artist royalties from his newest album, “Compton,” for the construction of a youth and performing arts center, Ms. Cannick says.

While some of Compton’s initiatives reflect best practices from other places, the community’s work is also characterized by partnerships across a variety of constituencies (including former gang members) and "a nimbleness in making decisions," says Mike Smith, professor of communication at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

“Most of this can be attributed to Mayor Aja Brown, and might not be easily duplicated elsewhere,” he says via e-mail. The challenge, he adds, is crafting a narrative to capitalize on the developments and attract more investments.

There are several public-relations efforts – some of them led by the mayor herself – and they were launched well before the movie was released, Professor Smith notes.

But Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, is one who scoffs at the notion that Compton is undergoing any sort of radical transition. The public is quick to accept the image of a dysfunctional, crime-ridden city when it is an African-American population, he says, “but the reality is that Compton has long had a well-established and functioning middle-class,” not to mention a reasonably well-run system of governance.

He suggests that a deep-seated racism is at work in the characterization of the city as dysfunctional at any point.

“Compton has long had a bad rap, no pun intended,” says Mr. Hutchinson, who is the author of a dozen books on the black experience.

Compton’s racial demographics, he notes, have shifted from majority black to two-thirds majority Hispanic.

“Once the city is no longer majority black and is majority Hispanic, will there be the same fascination with its problems?” he asks. “My guess is no.”

Perhaps ironically, Compton does not have a movie theater, so residents wishing to see “Straight Outta Compton” have to, well, get outta town. City officials hope this will change soon. “We have identified land for a movie theater," says Mr. Ford.

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