Ta-Nehisi On Kendrick Lamar, Shootouts In ‘The Wire,’ And Gun Violence In Hip-Hop and Hollywood

I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ column about Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city in the New York Times yesterday, and was struck by his description of the way that much of the hip-hop canon that’s concerned with violence (which, of course, not all of it is) situates its speaker in relationship to that violence:

Hip-hop originates in communities where such hazards are taken as given. Rappers generally depict themselves as masters, not victims, of the attending violence. Their music is not so much interested in exalting to our preferred values as constructing a fantasy wherein the author has total control and is utterly invulnerable.

When your life is besieged, the music is therapy, vicarious mastery in a world where you control virtually nothing, least of all the fate of your body. I had a friend in middle school who would play Rakim every morning because he knew there was a good chance that he would be jumped en route to or from school by the various crews that roamed the area. But, in his mind, the mask of rap machismo made him too many for them.

I think that passage hit me in particular because of some of the thinking I’ve been doing lately about the way violence operates in film and television. I’ve been showing my boyfriend The Wire, and I think both of us were hit pretty hard, him for the first time, me in new context, by the opening of the ninth episode, “Stray Rounds.” To my mind, the sequence, in which Bodie’s crew’s beef with another set of dealers spirals out of control, is one of the most effective critiques of Hollywood treatment of guns ever filmed:

No one on either side of the gunfight gets hit. No balance of power changes in the slightest. And even more to the point, no one is any good at using the guns they’re brandishing so casually. Much of the time, they’re not looking when they pull the triggers on their handguns, much less aiming at actual targets. Even if they were taking aim, it’s not at all clear to me that any of the participants would be decent shots. Part of the reason they’re not aiming, though, is because they’re terrified, and hiding behind cars. This is a world where bullets don’t miraculously breeze pass our heroes, or where our heroes have the uncanny ability to know when to dodge and are fast enough to actually do it. When Bodie needs a new clip in the middle of the fight, he fumbles awkwardly for it in his sock. Nothing about this is sophisticated, much less effective.

While this scene is a particularly striking sequence, this attitude is relatively common in The Wire as a whole. Even Omar, the character in the show who possesses the most virtuosic ability with a gun, fails a lot. He misses when he tries to assassinate Avon and gets shot himself, though mostly through his assailant’s good luck. As Maurice Levy points out during his testimony against Bird, most of Omar’s assaults are “by pointing,” rather than involving Omar actually pulling the trigger. When Omar shoots Brother Mouzone, it isn’t a single, accurate killing shot: it’s painful and non-fatal and Mouzone survives. Later, when Omar and Mouzone team up to kill Stringer Bell, the same is true: there’s a chase, and fear, and it takes more than one shot to bring their collective enemy down.

In other words, The Wire makes a series of points that Hollywood almost always ignores. Guns are hard to use. Firing them accurately takes a significant amount of skill, and even then, is extremely difficult to do in moments of stress, or fear, or when a gun is being fired at you. Even given all of those things, guns are extremely lethal, and getting shot with one, even if you don’t die, is extremely painful and frightening. At a moment when we’re hearing a lot of talk about the magical abilities conferred by simple possession of a gun, those are things worth remembering.