Iconic Hip Hop act N.W.A is finally being immortalized in the feature film Straight Outta Compton. The world will get to experience the compelling tale of how five young Black men from the city of Compton, California emerged as one of the most influential music groups of the last quarter century.
Seasoned filmmaker F. Gary Gray took on the task of bringing the lives of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella to the big screen. After initially collaborating with Cube in the classic 1995 comedy Friday, Gray’s turn at the helm for Straight Outta Compton is a return to working with the West Coast rapper/actor.
While his twenty year career includes guiding the creation of hit flicks such as Set It Off and The Italian Job as well as music videos by Cube, Dre, OutKast, Jay Z, and TLC, Straight Outta Compton is Gray's first time directing a biographical motion picture. Many of the key players in the rise of N.W.A are depicted in the critically acclaimed cinematic presentation.
Newcomer O'Shea Jackson, Jr is playing his father Ice Cube, Corey Hawkins (The Walking Dead) performs as Dr. Dre, and Jason Mitchell (Major Crimes) tackles Eazy-E. The rest of the cast includes Aldis Hodge as MC Ren, Neil Brown as DJ Yella, Keith Stanfield as Snoop Dogg, R. Marcus Taylor as Suge Knight, Marlon Yates Jr. as The D.O.C., and Paul Giamatti as former N.W.A manager Jerry Heller.
AllHipHop.com recently spoke with F. Gary Gray about directing Straight Outta Compton. The 46-year-old artisan also touches on some controversies surrounding the movie, the film's connection to the fight against police brutality, the legacy of N.W.A, and more.
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Friday was your first feature film, and you worked with Ice Cube on that. Twenty years later you’re working with him again on Straight Outta Compton. Can you talk about your working relationship with Cube over that last two decades?
I think we have great creative chemistry. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we grew up in the same environment. I didn’t live too far from him, and we experienced a lot of the same things. We just had that drive to do something different from what we saw around us. Between that, our creative chemistry, the fact that we love humor, and also knowing the streets just made for a good team.
Now you’ve made a second generation of O’Shea Jackson relationships by working with his son on Straight Outta Compton. Was it a conscious decision for you and the team around the movie to use new or lesser known actors for the key roles?
Yes. Frankly, I demanded it. It was really important for us to focus on the story, focus on the narrative, focus on what made N.W.A special, and not be distracted by a star that we’re familiar with potentially mimicking another star. It puts you in a situation where you're kind of once removed, and it can be distracting. The studio was real supportive of the idea. Cube, Dre, and the group were supportive of the idea. The movie turned out the way it did because of it.
With a biopic you’re dealing with the stories of real people. Was the filmmaking process different for you this time since you’re telling stories of characters the public may feel like they already know well?
Of course, when you’re dealing in fiction, in some cases the sky’s the limit. You can dream up the world, you can dream up the drama, you can dream up all the details, and just create what you want. But when you’re doing a biopic, you want to stay as close to the truth as possible. Especially if the principal characters are still in the social consciousness. It’s really important to get it right.
So I had to change my approach for sure. There’s a lot of research, a lot of homework. That’s one of the reasons I did the movie as well. It was a big challenge for me. I tend to pick things that I really like that are a challenge.
There’s a lot of ways to get this movie wrong, and I was a little afraid of that at first. Then I looked at the challenge and said, “But if you get it right, it makes history.” So I took on the challenge, and I’m glad I did.
You talked about the principal characters still being around. I’m sure having Cube, Dre, and all of these guys that are still active there with you affected the filmmaking process. But I also noticed that some of the others that are connected to people portrayed in the film had questions about certain aspects.Ren said he was kind of disappointed he wasn’t featured more in the trailer. Eazy-E’s son said he felt he should have been in the movie. How did you deal with those parts of making a biopic knowing that family members or the actual people have opinions about the way the film should be presented?
It’s my understanding that Eazy’s son is good with Jason. I believe they met and talked. I think he’s good with what we did with the movie.
Then I just really focus on the movie. The marketing part of it, that’s not my territory. I believe that MC Ren really enjoys the movie. I think he likes the movie a lot. Maybe it’s a different conversation if it’s about the movie, but as far as the marketing goes that's not my territory.
I saw an interview with Dre where he said he felt like the movie shines a light on police brutality happening now. In your view, do you feel like Straight Outta Compton does connect to modern-day issues like the Black Lives Matter movement or what’s going on in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities around the country?
Sadly, it does, but I also feel optimistic because it does. I feel optimistic about a lot of this stuff in the headlines. We haven’t always had camera phones or the technology to record these things. Now that we do and we're making movies about it, I think change is coming because of that. I’m optimistic.
How do you think this film will affect N.W.A’s legacy?
Hopefully, people get a sense of the history behind them, and it enriches Hip Hop and American history. It’s tied to a lot of things. One or two hundred years from now people will ask, “What was going on in popular culture in the 80’s and 90’s?” Hopefully, this is one of the films they turn to.
As far as N.W.A’s legacy, I think just having the courage to stand up. Especially, when it’s uncomfortable. And being unapologetically yourself. You don’t have to always agree with the content of their music, but it’s admirable to see someone stand up and just be themselves and not serve polite society and not serve this politically correct era that we live in. Just be you, and you can succeed.
I think that part of what they brought to the culture is probably not recognized as much. They did a lot for artistry - like you said - to be able to stand up and say what you want, even against positions of power.
I think it takes a level of sophistication to really look at it from a lot of different perspectives, a lot of different angles. Look at it in the context of the time. Look at what was going on at the time. The art of preservation is to do what you have to do to win. Sometimes that means not being yourself - going with the flow.
Now-a-days it’s expected to talk about the streets and talk about the realities of your life. But that wasn’t the norm in Hip Hop back then. Not really. While [N.W.A] didn’t start it, they definitely helped create the climate where you can say, “Listen, I don’t have to put on a wig, wear shiny shoes, or pretend like I’m something that I’m not in order to express myself.”
Like I said, you don’t have to agree with everything, but as artists, everyone should have the right to express themselves - especially if it’s different - and not be penalized or persecuted for that.
Straight Outta Compton is scheduled for release nationwide on August 14. For more information about the movie visit www.straightouttacompton.com.