The Compton You Haven't Seen On Screen
Straight Outta Compton is a music biopic that captures the dramatic rise and evolution of rap supergroup N.W.A. But there's one character that doesn't change much in the film, and that is the city itself — the City of Compton.
From the movie's opening scenes in 1986, viewers see a city defined by strife and crime, as the camera follows soon-to-be rap star Eric "Eazy-E" Wright to a darkly lit house in Compton, right before a drug raid. Almost 30 years later, I went to visit a Compton cricket player — right before a quinceañera.
Sergio Pinales is Mexican-American and a product of the Compton streets. He's also a longtime member of the Compton Cricket Club, an unlikely organization whose players and cofounders are part of a current exhibition in England's prestigious National Portrait Gallery.
Outsiders have a lot of stereotypes about Compton, but it's impossible to pigeonhole Pinales, who grew up during the rise of N.W.A and other Compton-bred gangsta and reality rap groups. The icons he looked up to were cricket players, not rap stars.
"I'm more of a subtle person," Pinales says. "I'd rather listen to some Sade or you know some slow groove music like that. Bob Marley." It turns out his mom, Maria Pinales, is more excited about the Straight Outta Compton movie than he is. "I'm old," Maria Pinales says, "but I love all that music."
Thanks to cricket, her son became a new kind of Compton star, and achieved something she could never have imagined. "Who has the opportunity to have tea with Prince Edward?" she asks. "Or get a tour of the Palace?"
The trips abroad for cricket have taken Sergio Pinales a world away from the place he grew up, and still lives. His life reflects an odd collision with the Compton you know and the Compton you don't — which is clear as his jovial voice narrates our driving tour of the city, including different cricket practice fields as well as dividing lines, including one intersection Pinales points out, "that actually separates the Bloods from the Crips."
We're joined by Katy Haber, one of the cofounders of the Compton Cricket Club. She started the group with a partner, homeless rights advocate, Ted Hayes, as a gang prevention program in the mid-'90s. Though Haber has been immersed in the world of cricket since attending public school as a child in England, bringing it to Compton was a new challenge and a culture shock.
"I remember once I was driving with one of the guys, and I had a red Toyota at the time, and all of a sudden he got very quiet," Haber recalls. "And I said, 'Why are you so quiet?' He said, 'This is Crip area. We're in a red car.'"
In her day job, Haber's a veteran of the film industry. She helped produce the sci-fi classic, Blade Runner, and she's begun to see the future through the lens of cricket, as well. "We went to City Council and we brought the team in," Haber says. "We were looking at a city council of predominantly African-American city councilmen, and the entire team was Latino. I thought, 'God, this is interesting.'"
Compton, which was once predominantly African-American, has shifted to majority Latino. This change barely registers in pop culture, and when it is discussed in local media, it's often in relation to economic and political power struggles, or gang rivalries.
But as Pinales and I are talking on the street, another vision of race relations comes into focus. One of his childhood friends spots him while driving by; Chache Hopkins swings a U-turn and rolls up curbside with his father, Gene Hopkins, at the passenger side door. Both are African-American.
"What up, Serg?" Gene Hopkins shouts from the car. Pinales walks over and shows Hopkins images from the cricket exhibition in London. "That's fantastic," Hopkins tells him. "You know, I mean, I didn't know that we had anybody from Compton playing cricket."
When Pinales explains that he's doing an interview, Hopkins jumps in. "You know, I think Compton has got a real bad rap," He says. "We're residents of Compton. I've been in Compton all my life. I've never been affected by any gang violence or any of that."
Hopkins is a retiree, and says he'd like the world to see his hometown in a more nuanced way.
"We did have an era that was really bad. We did have an era. But I think that's kind of passed over now. You know, it's not like that anymore. But then you have movies like Straight Outta Compton and stuff that perpetuates that whole thing all over again in the eyes of the world."
We did have an era that was really bad. We did have an era. But I think that's kind of passed over now. You know, it's not like that anymore.
Compton is not yet Brooklyn or Oakland — other areas where easy train access and gentrification have reshaped neighborhoods, making some areas unrecognizable from even a decade or two ago. However, it is one of the few cities in Los Angeles County with two light-rail stops and freeways on every side. Its central location even earned it the nickname "Hub City."
Cris Liban is an executive at the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who says that as a transit hub, Compton has been the testing ground for ambitious, region-leading mass-transit initiatives — like a farmers' market along its train route to try to address food deserts. He says Compton will benefit from the system's expansion over the next three decades, as L.A. County attempts to rely less on cars. "We'll be able to increase our number of stations, rail stations, from about 80 to about 160. We are the nexus."
Compton City Manager Johnny Ford says location and transportation are qualities the city touts, to convince new companies and residents to move in. "Wal-Mart will be coming into the city, and that's an additional 350 jobs," Ford says, adding that Compton can finally tell a new story with numbers. "Historically, for years, our unemployment level has been up at 17, 18 percent. We just dipped to ten percent."
The new Compton is embodied by Mayor Aja Brown, at 33 its youngest mayor ever — her office overlooks Compton's light-rail line, which connects the city to the rest of L.A. County. Brown cites statistics that show the difference between Compton of the 1980s and now: In 1989, the city recorded 86 homicides. As of our interview, she says, it's only had seven this year. "Our violent crime has gone down 50 percent, even in the last year. And over the last 20 years, crime is down 71 percent."
When I think about Compton, I think about redemption
Compton's international image was forged in a 1980s era of gang feuds, civil unrest and the crack epidemic. So were its most famous rappers. Its soundtrack may always be rap, but today it's a different type of beat.
"There's so many opportunities, economically and socially, and just the location advantage and all the great institutions that are here, that this community is definitely poised for a huge revival," Brown says. "And so, when I think about Compton, I think about redemption."
Characters in Straight Outta Compton tell a story of redemption. In fact, Dr. Dre — a founding member of N.W.A, the group the film is based on — called his latest album Compton, and promises to donate royalties to help build a new performing arts center there. And now the city that shaped the rap stars is starting, cautiously, to tell its own story of redemption, too.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.