Why you should care
Because the members of N.W.A. are the forefathers of modern hip-hop.
At this very moment, F. Gary Gray is nervous as hell. Yes, he’s got award-winning films like The Italian Job under his belt, but Straight Outta Compton, out yesterday, is another matter entirely: The hip-hop drama documents the wild, crazy, tragic and triumphant times of the ultimate gangsta rap act, N.W.A. “In fact, I’m still thinking at this very moment, ‘OK, let’s hurry up and put this thing on the screen before somebody wakes up and realizes what we are doing and shut it down,’” Gray says.
There are good reasons for this. Among them, N.W.A itself: Billed as the “World’s Most Dangerous Group,” it turned the Reagan-era pop chart on its head with its 1988 debut Straight Outta Compton. Suddenly, white suburban kids were able to experience the harrowing streets of Compton, California, where crack houses, police beatings, and Crips and Bloods were a reality. The subject matter has personal relevance too: Gray was a contemporary of N.W.A.’s members, growing up in South Central Los Angeles. And then there’s a separate matter of keeping faith. How do you do justice to all of the members of N.W.A., even though one of them (Eazy-E) has passed, and all of them had sometimes different versions of seminal events? OZY caught up with Gray to discuss the improbable making of the film, and what it means to be an N.W.A in the era of Black Lives Matter. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
OZY: The story of N.W.A. was always pretty cinematic. How maddening was it deciding which parts of the group’s rise, split and legacy to keep in the final cut?
F.G.G.: The facts surrounding the story of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella are so compelling, so crazy, so controversial and dramatic. There was such an embarrassment of riches, storywise, that we couldn’t put everything in the movie.
OZY: What was it like to work with Eazy’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright?
F.G.G.: Tomica made it clear from the beginning that she wanted to protect Eazy’s legacy and do right by his name. Eazy is a true icon. So she felt that it wouldn’t be worth doing the movie if it wasn’t respectful of what he did. Over time, she really understood that no one was out to do anything disrespectful to Eazy’s name. As a matter of fact, Dre and Cube dedicated this movie to Eazy. They had plans on making sure that this was something that respected the journey of the entire group.
OZY: Straight Outta Compton has been through developmental hell for over 10 years. Did you ever think it would come to fruition?
F.G.G.: It was definitely one of the biggest challenges of my entire career. The entire four years I’ve been involved: the ups and downs, moving from one studio to the next. Straight Outta Compton is such a controversial story. Plus, it has all newcomers in the starring roles.
OZY: You are referring to Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube) and Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E), who’s gotten a share of critical acclaim.
F.G.G.: Right. Everybody came through … Corey, Shea and Jason, who is Eazy-E.
OZY: Were you around when Suge Knight was arrested for allegedly running over two men who were providing security for the movie?
F.G.G.: We had already finished shooting when that happened. It was a tragedy, obviously. But there’s not a whole lot I can say about it because I wasn’t there. It was a promotional commercial for the movie. I was on the other side of the planet doing something else.
OZY: Speaking of Suge, there’s a pivotal moment in Straight Outta Compton when he and his crew viciously beat down Eazy to get him to hand over Dr. Dre’s contract. How much info were you able to get about such an infamous incident?
F.G.G.: You hear a number of different stories about what happened. You just have to decide … there are stories about that moment where there was a lot more that went on than we put into the movie. But myself, Dre, Cube and Tomica all seem to be satisfied with what ended up shooting.
OZY: A lot of people point to N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” as an anthem that is still vital 30 years later, given the recent string of shootings of unarmed African-Americans by cops. What does that song personally mean to you?
F.G.G.: Courage … [having] the courage to stand up and be yourself in a polite society, in a place where most people are shunned for being themselves. It’s about being true.