To celebrate its 30th anniversary last year, ESPN mounted “30 for 30,” a still-unfolding series of new documentary films about sports over the last three decades. Installments already aired include Barry Levinson’s “The Band That Wouldn’t Die,” about the Baltimore Colts; Peter Berg’s “Kings Ransom,” about Wayne Gretzky’s trade to the Los Angeles Kings; Ron Shelton’s “Jordan Rides the Bus,” about Michael Jordan’s adventures in minor-league baseball. “The Birth of Big Air” ( Spike Jonze, Jeff Tremaine and Johnny Knoxville on BMX rider Mat Hoffman) is among those still to come.
Tuesday night brings the premiere of “Straight Outta L.A.,” rapper-actor Ice Cube’s highly watchable film about what might be called the aesthetic intersection of the Raiders — back in the 1980s and ‘90s, when they were the Los Angeles Raiders, after and before they were the Oakland Raiders — and Southern California hip-hop as embodied by N.W.A., the platinum-selling, hard-edged Compton-based group to which he belonged. And though it doesn’t deeply develop or substantially support all the ideas it advances, it does set up interesting resonances.
Although Cube sets his tale solidly within the context of the time — of Reaganomics and ghetto drug wars — this is less a story of events than it is of image and self-image whose only tangible measure is the rate by which N.W.A.'s adoption of the team’s brand gear and black-and-silver color scheme increased sales of Raiders merchandise. Oddly, among all the real accomplishment recounted here, on the football field and in the recording studio, this is largely a story about the power of design. With a different name, a different logo or less dramatic colors — “Purple and gold,” says N.W.A.'s MC Ren, “I don’t think that would have looked good on us” — this might not be a story at all.
Cube enlists a wide variety of voices to tell his tale, including players, marketing men, politicians, reporters, ex-gangsters, scholars and his biggest fish, quixotic Raiders majority-owner and general manager Al Davis. (“History will dictate what I am,” he says. “You do it your way, don’t let the culture tell you what to do. That’s being a Raider.”) From music, and the street, are such hip-hop philosophers as Ice T, Chuck D and Snoop Dogg, who tosses a football around with Ice Cube on the field of a significantly empty Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and pinpoints the way the Raiders’ take-no-prisoners Weltanschauung reflected rap’s own: “We couldn’t represent flowers and trees and birds… We had to represent something like a pirate attitude.”
“Straight Outta L.A.” is also Cube’s own story. He had become a fan of the Raiders when he saw them “beat the hell out the Eagles in Super Bowl XV,” and with the Rams having decamped to Anaheim, “as far as they could from any black fans,” he was ready to welcome a team already celebrated in his neighborhood: “It was one of the greatest days of my life; my team was now in my city and everything was about to change.”
Indeed, hip-hop has always been about a sort of civic pride, or at least a civic consciousness, and the film implicitly links the violence that increasingly surrounded Raiders games, and the popular association of Raiders gear with street crime, to the violence that, in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, took over the city itself.
As the team began to lose many more games than it won, the bloom left the silver-and-black rose, so that by 1991, Ice Cube was rapping, “Stop givin’ juice to the Raiders / ‘Cause Al Davis / Never paid us.” After some ill-fated, or self-scuttled, approaches to Irwindale and Hollywood Park in search of the fancy new stadium that continues to elude him, Davis took the Raiders back to Oakland in 1995, and Los Angeles became, as it remains, a town without a football team.
“I don’t know if anybody in L.A. cared at the time,” says the director. “I did.” And he has done a pretty good job of telling us why.
’30 for 30: Straight Outta L.A.’
When: 8 tonight
Rating: Not rated