Kristan Hoffman

writing dreams into reality

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Straight Outta Compton


On Saturday night, Andy and I went to see Straight Outta Compton, the biopic about (primarily) Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Easy-E, who together founded the one of the biggest, most influential, and most iconic rap groups in history. Upon returning home from the theater, I immediately jumped on Twitter to sing the movie’s praises. I had to. The movie energized me in a way that would not be contained. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Those are my thoughts in a nutshell, but I wanted to discuss a few things in more detail:

F-bombs and n-words. I suspect that a lot of people will be turned off by the “vulgar” facade of Straight Outta Compton. The movie showcases a side of American culture that many look down on, and it’s easy to use the profanity as an excuse to dismiss the film, the music, and the many artists who created it all.

But as a writer, as a lover of words, I think it’s important to recognize that profanity is just a mode of expression, as valid as any other. So is “street” speak. So is broken or accented English.

Things do not have to be comfortable or pleasant or polished to have merit. Furthermore, who gets to define comfortable and pleasant and polished anyway?

Hip hop as a voice for the marginalized. Eddie Huang, the celebrity chef whose memoir inspired the TV show Fresh Off the Boat, talks openly about his love for rap music. He has said that as a chubby Chinese kid growing up in the suburbs of Orlando, he stuck out in pretty much every way, and he connected to hip hop because it is all about the hardships of being in the minority. It is angry, empowering, unapologetic social commentary set to music that makes you move.

Growing up, I knew a lot of Asian guys who were into rap. Coincidence? Maybe.

Maybe not.

Not just for black people. “Conventional wisdom” says that only black people will read/watch/pay attention to black stories — and thus, that black stories are “niche” and can’t be blockbusters. But I have never been convinced of that. I certainly don’t want it to be true.

Personally, I have read and admired books like Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Beloved, Things Fall Apart, and Pointe. I have been a fan of shows like Sister Sister, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, black-ish, and Empire. I have watched and loved movies like Bad Boys, Dream Girls, Precious, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Beyond the Lights. And I have never once thought, “This story was not meant for me. I cannot relate. These are not my people.” Just the opposite, in fact.

I know I’m not alone in this.

Straight Outta Compton’s screenwriter was a middle-aged gay Jewish man. Clearly he connected with the story of these young, impoverished black musicians, because he did a fantastic job with their story.

Of course, he didn’t do it alone.

Oscar contention. As I said, I think Straight Outta Compton is worthy of a Best Picture nomination. Probably Best Director and Best Actor (for Jason Mitchell, who plays Easy-E) too. Every aspect of the film was top quality, and the subject matter was a perfect balance of personal and political, historical and timely.

Skepticism and hope keep battling inside me. Last year Selma got nominated, yes, but it lost out to a movie that I couldn’t even finish watching. Plus, Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo were horribly snubbed. A few years earlier, Ray was also nominated and lost, but at least Jamie Foxx won for his amazing performance.

That’s not a lot of precedence to go on, though. And those movies focus on black heroes who are actually accepted and embraced by the mainstream.

Regardless, I have more optimism for Straight Outta Compton right now than I did Saturday night when I was tweeting. I just read about the film’s screening for members of the Academy Awards, which apparently went quite well. Fingers crossed that they prove me wrong. Fingers crossed that we really are progressing. Fingers crossed that we can recognize and reward excellence even when it comes in a less familiar package.

Police brutality. OK, this one doesn’t really segue well, but I need to talk about it. Sunday morning, I woke up with swollen eyelids. I had cried that much during Straight Outta Compton.

Throughout the movie, we see Dre, Easy, and Cube experience multiple conflicts with law enforcement. Not once are they treated with respect, or even basic decency. It’s very hard to watch. Even harder when you remember that it’s real.

The film also includes brief but harrowing footage of the Rodney King beating. In 1991, I was only 5 years old, so I don’t remember much of anything about the incident myself. But 25 years later, I’m very aware of the world around me, and it’s disheartening to see the same thing happening now. So much has changed, and yet so much hasn’t.

Treatment of women. Given the role women tend to play in hip hop culture, I had low expectations for what I would see in Straight Outta Compton. But I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a story about the men, yes, but the women who figure prominently are portrayed with a fair amount of respect. The mothers, the wives, even Dre’s baby momma. We see them as strong, savvy individuals, who play significant roles in the lives of these men.

The background women may not get as much respect, but I felt that they weren’t used gratuitously. There were plenty of bare body parts, but without the unnecessary lingering that I see in so many music videos and cable TV shows. It was more like set dressing, for authenticity.

Note: In real life, a few of these guys have reputations when it comes to misogyny, and even violence against women. I am in no way condoning that. But I do understand the decision to leave that out of the movie given that (A) these guys were producers on the film, and (B) it’s not relevant to arc of their music careers or friendships, which is the heart of this story.

Update: Dre addressed his past mistakes. Ice Cube made new ones.

Last but not least, here’s a link to the original Straight Outta Compton album, free to stream on Spotify. Several of these songs were familiar to me already, but I definitely have a greater appreciation for them now.

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Poor deer

poor deer

I can’t stop thinking about this deer.

It came up to my window yesterday just before noon. I really think if the sliding door had been open, it would have walked right into the house. It seemed startled but unafraid of Riley, who was going berserk at it. It simply stood there and watched him with large, soulful eyes.

At first I thought the deer was just cute, and the situation kind of cool. I noted the deer’s freckled fur, its adorable alert ears, its dark and delicate hooves. I marveled at how close and how calm it was. I wondered why it had chosen my door.

Then, as I walked over to grab Riley and carry him to his pen, I saw that the deer was injured. One of its back legs was mangled at the ankle, with flesh and muscle exposed. A few flies were buzzing around, trying to take advantage. When I approached, the deer moved away, surprisingly quick in spite of its wound.

Ignoring Riley’s growls and yelps of protest, I grabbed some vegetables from my fridge and went outside to see if I could offer them to the poor deer. It paused at the edge of the woods and turned to look at me. I spoke to it, wishing it could understand me, knowing it would not. After another few moments of eye contact, the deer disappeared into the trees.

I went back inside feeling sad and helpless. I made a few calls that I’m sure will amount to nothing. Nature is left to take its course.

It was a humbling, sobering experience. It was a reminder of my place, and of my limits.

I keep hoping to see that deer, when I’m walking or driving through my neighborhood. I probably won’t. This is a story that I will never know the ending to. As ever, my imagination stews on the possibilities.

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Sisterhood of summer

3 years old. Shallow waters, and big orange floaties encircling each arm. Our mothers sit pool-side while we splash and play. You’re a mermaid queen and I’m your daughter, your best friend, your handmaiden, your loyal subject. The sun burns bright above our dark-haired heads, and we squint as the sunscreen melts into our eyes.

12 years old. Dive-bombing into the deep end, and shrieking with laughter when the lifeguards whistle at us. Our mothers sit at home across the street, but they check in on us through the windows, as if their watchful gazes can save us from drowning. You’re Marco, and I’m Polo. We hunt for each other, eyes closed against the sting of chlorine.

29 years old. Seeking quiet and relaxation, but instead encountering neighbors I’ve never met before and don’t really care to know. The mothers complain loudly about kids who aren’t present. The red-faced men are drunk and showing off. You’re hundreds of miles away, probably sound asleep, while here I’m remembering the silky slither of aqua water around our young legs. My eyes gloss over, and the memories settle around me like the vast evening sky. 

Someday, I imagine, we will go swimming together again.

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“How to Be a Writer” by M. Molly Backes

This is kind of an old post, but it’s new to me (via Rose).

Let her have secrets. Let her have her own folder on the family computer. Avoid the temptation to read through her notebooks. Writing should be her safe haven, her place to experiment, her place to work through her confusion and feelings and thoughts. If she does share her writing with you, be supportive of her hard work and the journey she’s on. Ask her questions about her craft and her process. Ask her what was hardest about this piece and what she’s most proud of. Don’t mention publication unless she mentions it first. Remember that writing itself is the reward.

Let her fail. Let her write pages and pages of painful poetry and terrible prose. Let her write dreadful fan fiction. Don’t freak out when she shows you stories about Bella Swan making out with Draco Malfoy. Never take her writing personally or assume it has anything to do with you, even if she only writes stories about dead mothers and orphans.

Let her go without writing if she wants to. Never nag her about writing, even if she’s cheerful when writing and completely unbearable when she’s not. Let her quit writing altogether if she wants to.

Let her publish embarrassingly personal stories in the school literary magazine. Let her spill the family’s secrets. Let her tell the truth, even if you’d rather not hear it.

Let her sit outside at night under the stars. Give her a flashlight to write by.

Let her find her own voice, even if she has to try on the voices of a hundred others first to do so. Let her find her own truth, even if she has to spin outrageous lies in search of it.

Let her write thinly-veiled memoirs disguised as fiction.

Keep her safe but not too safe, comfortable but not too comfortable, happy but not too happy.

Link again here at the end, because it really is worth reading in full.

Some of this is just good parenting. Some of it was 100% spot-on to my own childhood. I don’t think my parents were intentionally raising a writer, but they did a good job of it anyway.

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Recently viewed

Beyond the Lights


My friend Elissa recommended Beyond the Lights several times on Twitter, so when this striking image popped up on Netflix, I immediately took note. (I didn’t realize that the love interest is reflected in her glasses until I was putting the picture into this post, though. Hah!) Beyond the Lights is the story of Noni Jean, a pop starlet who has lost her true self in the swirl of fame. Her depression is dragging her under, and no one sees it — until one night, police officer Kaz Nicol somehow does.

Noni and Kaz not exactly star-crossed, but they do come from very different worlds. Will loving each other help or hurt their respective goals? What happens when what you want isn’t actually good or right for you?

Ambition and over-sexualization, performance and creativity, romance and self-discovery. The movie explores a lot of themes that I have a strong interest in. Also, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is mesmerizingly beautiful, which is eclipsed only by her immense talent. Her eyes could almost tell the story all on their own.

It’s a quiet, sexy, serious but uplifting film.

Baggage Claim


Baggage Claim is not a great movie… But it’s fun, and it features a wonderful cast that really drew me in. I mostly know Paula Patton from Mission: Impossible 4 and from her former marriage to Robin Thicke, so seeing her in this kind of a light-hearted role was a change of pace. She really embraced the goofiness and the physical comedy, and she’s just a delight to watch. (Random observation: At times she bears a strong resemblance to Jennifer Lopez.)

Adam Brody is a scene-stealer, and Taye Diggs performs with an unexpected and understated hilarity. They are also two of the many, many, many extremely handsome men in this movie.

Then there’s the airline support staff — curbside luggage guy, check-in counter lady, and security checkpoint guy — who subtly ratcheted up the humor of their performances throughout the film until they had me laughing out loud (for real) by the end. They reminded me that even small characters can have a big impact on the success and enjoyment of a story.

The Good Lie


To be honest, I bawled my eyes out the first time I saw a trailer for The Good Lie. But I was hesitant to actually go see it, because I thought Hollywood would do their usual thing and turn this into a story about Reese Witherspoon’s character. I mean, just look at the poster, right?

But I’m happy to report that Reese is barely in this movie. (Just to be clear, I do like her!) Instead, the story rightfully centers on 3 young men and 1 young woman who survive a terrible war in their home country of Sudan, and eventually find themselves trying to recover and make new lives in America. It’s about children robbed of innocence, families torn apart, sacrifices and choices and powerlessness, and the things we can never forget.

Another thing I loved about this movie is that the main characters are portrayed by Sudanese actors. In fact, several of them lived through the horrors depicted in the film. I cannot imagine how difficult it was — and hopefully empowering too — to tell a story so near to one’s trauma and to one’s heart.

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