Straight Outta Compton, the story of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, Andre “Dre” Young, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson, collectively known as N.W.A, is finally on the big screen. And unlike previous black music biopics, this one, because it digs deep and even creates a film that transports audiences back to the look and feel of the rise of N.W.A in Los Angeles, has the potential to be a definitive game changer. The Root spoke to director F. Gary Gray one-on-one about making Straight Outta Compton and its significance.
The Root: What were you going for in this film?
F. Gary Gray: I was going for a few things. One was just to serve a theme of brotherhood, and I think that makes the movie and the story relatable. I think anybody can relate to getting together with a bunch of friends and creating your second family, and also the pain of betrayal. These are all things that are universal and also history. This is a slash of not only hip-hop history but American history, and we kind of take all these controversial moments and dramatic moments and fun moments and fill it with great music, and I think it makes a great story. But I was going for brotherhood, and I think we achieve that.
TR: How much deviation was there from the script?
FGG: There’s a lot of deviation because that’s just my process. I like to have a creative process, and that includes allowing the actors to improvise and make contributions that feel natural to them. There was a lot of work done to the script, but at the same time, in order to make it feel real and authentic and natural, I let the actors come in and play and have a good time, and a lot of what you see is a combination of what the writers, Dr. Dre and Cube, [and] myself contributed, but also what the actors contributed.
TR: How was it working with three producers [Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright] who are directly involved in the storyline?
FGG: It’s different for me. I’m used to having a single source, but it was great in that there are a lot of details you can get from the people who are actually involved with the story. The details that you get from a Dr. Dre as he starts describing what happened in the studio when they recorded “Boyz-N-the-Hood,” and “Here is what I said,” “Here’s what he said,” “Here’s what was there,” “Here’s what we wore”—all these details really get you closer to raw truth. I think that’s what makes the movie really unique. It just feels real and authentic and cool. The benefit of having three producers who are involved is that you are not just living off of research and thirdhand, secondhand information; it’s straight from the people who experienced it.
TR: And talk about your personal connection to the film.
FGG: Well, I grew up in L.A. I was born the same year as Ice Cube. I grew up a couple of miles away from him and experienced a lot of the same things that he experienced and witnessed a lot of the same things that he witnessed, the same as Dre, although we’re slightly different in age. It was part my story. We all had to work our way out of an environment that could sometimes be destructive and violent and dangerous.
And when the guys created Straight Outta Compton, it spoke to me in a lot of ways. I was entertained. I was floored. I was shocked. It was close to my own personal experiences, so that was very cool. And when they left, I worked with both Cube and Dre directing their music videos once they became solo artists. So it’s very personal to me because I was there for the great majority of the story.
TR: Was there any discussion to include Dee Barnes’ assault [by Dr. Dre in 1991], or was it taken out?
FGG: You can’t put everything in a movie. The original length or actual assembly of the movie was, like, 3 hours and 30 minutes long. So there’s a lot we had to cut out in order to make it a reasonable length for theatrical release. There were conversations about a lot of those things, but everything just can’t make it in the movie. We picked what we thought would [tell] the story of N.W.A.
TR: Biopics don’t usually have this much movement.
FGG: Well, it was cracking in the ’80s. [Laughs.] There was a lot going on, and I wanted to capture that: the essence of what a lot of these young guys had to go through and what they felt, the pressures, all of the tension, a lot of suspense, and also how fun it was. It wasn’t just all drama. It was a lot of fun, too.
TR: Talk about “F—k tha Police” and racial profiling back then.
FGG: There wasn’t a voice and there were no cameras, and it was, in a lot of ways, just generally accepted. And these guys had the courage to stand up. This is what fueled the group as well. It wasn’t just all street stuff that they rapped about, and when you look at Compton[, Calif.], you look at the environment and the climate socially and also the relationship with law enforcement.
This is what motivated them to actually do what they did, and that’s what makes the movie special, because it is not just a movie about the making of the band. It’s the why. Why would a 16-year-old write these lyrics? Why? And I think what’s compelling about it is, you get a sense of it, and when you get a sense of what was going on in Compton and South Central L.A., you start to understand. While none of them claim to be Martin Luther King or anything close to it, they had the courage to stand up.
TR: Why is this film significant?
FGG: This is history. It’s extremely important. When people look at this film 100 years from now, they will know what was happening, at least in Los Angeles and, oh, I would say, around the country, in the ’80s and ’90s. It was a game changer, and they were a game-changing group.
Editor’s note: Straight Outta Compton hits theaters Aug. 14.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.