I'm currently on a road trip around the U.S.; in fact, I just finished watching the latest episode of ESPN's 30 For 30 in a tiny hotel room in a town in far northern California so remote that I don't know its name. I packed light for the tour, and only brought along one hat: a fitted baseball cap emblazoned, in Gothic script, with the slogan "I miss that old Los Angeles". (Look, I know you don't care, but I was raised on Lester Bangs and Hunter Thompson. You'll take my rambling personal anecdotes and you'll like them.)
Frequently, since leaving Texas, I've gotten what are probably best described as stink-eyes from a lot of people for wearing this hat. If you like L.A. so much, their bitch-lights seem to say, why don't you go back there? But the thing is, that slogan, which appeals so powerfully to the part of me that remembers living in Los Angeles in 1987, doesn't refer to a place. It refers to a time, a mood, a sensation that is forever gone even in Compton and Long Beach. It doesn't celebrate the senseless gang violence or drug addiction of the day, but the defiant culture that grew out of them, and which once again proved that no matter how the mainstream tries to hold down expressions of street culture and the art of the underclass, they always end up making themselves heard. It refers, in short, to the period discussed in this very episode of 30 For 30: "Straight Outta L.A.", directed by Ice Cube. And Cube's a guy who should know.
For a dozen years, from 1982 to 1994, the Oakland Raiders relocated, largely due to the unflappable bastardry of owner Al Davis, from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. It was one of the first, and one of the ugliest, of what would become a wave of showdowns between owners who demanded that new, modern stadiums be built for them while having to spend as little of their own money as possible and organizations, municipalities and fans who started to feel like the owners had them in a choke-hold. And no one applied that grip with deadlier force than Davis. While he was briefly happy with the move — and a happy Al Davis is in essence a happy Satan — he didn't stay that way for long. A few losing seasons and his usual inexplicable feuds with players and he was considering bailing out again, first to a rock quarry in a nowhere suburb called Irwindale and then, ultimately and unsatisfyingly, back to Oaktown. After accusations of intransigence from both sides, Davis took his ball and went home.
But while this story gets told, competently if not professionally (Cube is way too fond of putting himself in front of the camera, and aside from some out-of-place-looking animation at the end, he doesn't do much to alleviate the parade of talking heads that constitute way too many of these documentaries), it's not the real story. The story is one that no one could have predicted: the Raiders' arrival in L.A. mirrored the growth of hip-hop culture to mainstream America. Even in their Oakland days, blacks were early adopters of Raider fandom, but it was the move to L.A. that gave birth to Raider Nation, a collection of blacks, Latinos, white trash, and other assorted misfits that gave the team its reputation as the most bad-ass of football teams — a reputation that both helped them and hurt them.
The National Football League, it's clear from the film, never knew exactly what to do with the fact that the Raiders, with their thuggish rep (remember, Lisa Simpson picked them to win because they always cheat) and their silver and black colors, resonated so deeply with the creators and fans of gangsta rap. There are the usual tongue-cluckings from educators, public scolds and even a few white Raider players, but Ice-T makes it clear in an interview: the Raider players and owners didn't know who was supporting their team, and couldn't have done anything about it if they did. And Frank Vuono, the NFL's properties boss, makes it even clearer: in the years the Raiders were in L.A., merchandise revenues jumped from $300 million to over $3 billion. (The same phenomenon would eventually hit every other team sport, especially basketball, but the Raiders blazed the trail.) For those who don't remember, the film easily makes the point visually: hundreds, thousands of Angelinos sporting Raiders caps, jackets, even tattoos.
Cube keeps pushing the whole Raiders-as-gang analogy to help explain the phenomenon, but he doesn't have to push very hard: the argument makes itself. The Raiders had a reputation, even pre-L.A., as a team of outlaws, toughs, and thugs; one reason they did so poorly in L.A. is that Mike Shanahan, who's accused of trying to "destroy the Raiders organization", tried to turn a team of brutes into a bunch finesse players. The fans began to suffer from hostile attention from the police and were looked down on as gangstas and thugs by a largely ignorant public. Davis, too, is a magnificent son of a bitch, a heroic monster; some of the best scenes in the documentary involve him sitting face to face with Ice Cube in one of the weirdest visual juxtapositions ever. At one point, Cube asks Davis why he seemingly benched the great Marcus Allen (who comes across as the film's class act) for no apparent reason than spite. Davis raises a toxic eyeball and simply says, in the most Al Davis of ways, "I'm not gonna tell you." You keep hoping that Cube will shoot him. But then you remember that Al did one of the most amazing things ever in football history, telling Pete Rozelle and the other greedy NFL owners to go fuck themselves, which, even if he did it for selfish reasons, shows why his rep wasn't entirely unlike Suge Knight's. Al mentions that in all of his lawsuits against the NFL, he never initiated them; he only counter-sued. He might as well be saying "Don't start none, won't be none."
"Straight Outta L.A." isn't a great documentary, largely because Ice Cube, charismatic as he is, isn't a great director. (It was better than The Players' Club, but that's a pretty low bar.) But the story behind it is compelling as hell, and almost impossible to mess up. Its narrative of a team embraced by minorities, the working class, bikers, slackers, and other assorted scumbags really strikes at the heart of why Raider Nation so appeals to insiders and so repulses outsiders (a quality the team shares with the Chicago White Sox, who also share second-class status in their home city, though Chicago's still lucky to have its two teams while L.A. now languishes with none). And if nothing else, Cube deserves kudos for ending the film with the hilariously bad "Silver and Black Attack" rap video the team made in 1986.
- Kid (from Kid 'n' Play) looks alarmingly like Gilbert Gottfried these days.