We caught up with “Straight Outta Compton” Director F. Gary Gray about his latest film.
Directed by F. Gary Gray and co-produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, by “Straight Outta Compton” is a beautifully telling film that chronicles the journey of rap group N.W.A. The film stars O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge, and Neil Brown Jr. as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy E, Mc Ren and DJ Yella, respectively. In an unstable time in American history, N.W.A. seemed to defy all odds and reach commercial success, with a few bumps along the way. Check out our exclusive interview with director F. Gary Gray to get his retrospective insight on N.W.A.’s success, his relationship with Dre and Cube and his thoughts on current social justice issues.
You’ve worked with a long list of rappers and artists in your career, you’ve known Ice Cube since he began his solo career and directed “Friday.” Did you ever imagine one day you’d be directing the NWA bio-pic?
No, it was never in the cards. I never thought that there would be a movie about N.W.A. There were similar rap groups that were extremely important and had made a major impact, but when you’re young and you’re in the middle of it, you just don’t know how things will play out, but I’m definitely glad I’m involved.
When you were growing up, were you riding the N.W.A. wave? Did you get to experience the hysteria first-hand?
Definitely, because I lived in Los Angeles, a few miles away from Ice Cube. A lot of what they wrote, I either experienced or witnessed first-hand and so I felt — I guess my experience with N.W.A. was a little different. I’m definitely a huge fan. I loved that they were honest. I loved that they were unfiltered, unapologetically themselves. I also loved the fact that it almost felt like they were writing from around the corner, like they were writing about my block and they were just right up the street, describing all the things that we experienced and shedding light on a lot of things that we experienced, so it was very close to me in a lot of ways.
How did your relationship with Cube and Dre help inform your decisions as a director?
It made it a lot easier to go deep and ask the hard questions and push when it was time to push and pull when it was time to pull. Dre’s a very private guy; he doesn’t necessarily let everyone in and especially to his private life and so I think because I have a relationship with him, it was easier for me to get a lot of the first-hand accounts that you see and experience in the movie and that’s not to say that another filmmaker couldn’t do that, but it’s probably just a bit easier for me because I know him, the same with Cube.
What was it like working with the actors portraying N.W.A.? Did you feel like one had more responsibility than the others?
No, I think that everybody really had to step up and really respect the artist that they were playing, like the saying there’s no small roles, just small actors and so it doesn’t matter the screen time or the emotion or whatever it is that you’re involved with, as long as you’re serving the truth in the moment in the scene then you’re serving the movie. That’s what I push for and there was a lot of responsibility, obviously, for Jason because he goes through the most, having to kind of start off as a street hustler who goes through building a company, building this brotherhood with a group that he started and then managing the relationships once they broke up and then obviously dealing with the illness at the end of the movie. Jason goes through the most, but I wouldn’t say one’s more important than the other because it’s just more about, are you living in that truth? Whatever it is you’re doing.
It’s uncanny how the timing of this film is so relevant to current social justice issues, did you as a director feel an obligation to not only accurately portray N.W.A., but to also show how we, as a nation continue to deal with the same racial issues?
I have a responsibility to tell the story as accurately as possible. I didn’t want to teeter one way or the other. I think it’s pretty sad that it’s still relevant in its relationship to law enforcement, but I’m optimistic that a lot of the headlines we’re experiencing will put pressure on the leaders and law enforcement to really change. We can’t keep going down this path, in the way that we’ve been going without changing. My responsibility is to the film first and it’s just pretty much a coincidence that it’s all happening at the same time.
What did you envision for the film, what was the main thing you wanted audiences to pull from the experience?
A couple things. I want you to be inspired. I want you to have fun and get a sense of the humanity behind the group. You don’t normally associate humanity with this genre of music and there was a tight bond and brotherhood that the guys had with each other when they were together, so when you experience the movie, hopefully, you say, ‘that was worth it, I loved going on this journey with this group of guys’ and maybe walk away feeling inspired and charged up. Theres a lot to be said about a group of guys who come from, arguably, one of the most dangerous places and dangerous times in American history and really taking nothing and turning it around and building what they built, even with all the antagonistic forces working against them. So hopefully you’re inspired and entertained and see that there was so much more to a group than what you’d expect.
Going off that do you think this film might change anyone’s perspective of the genre of gangster rap?
I’m not really sure what it’ll do in terms of perspective. It’s really just about making sure they understood how important the group was and what they went through. I don’t think anybody’s trying to whitewash or make you feel anything about gangster rap or anyone’s choice on how they express themselves. I’m a firm believer of freedom of speech and how you respond to someone’s art is really subjective and it’s not really my concern more so than this was an important story in hip-hop history, in American History and I just wanna tell this story and if after this you have a different perspective on N.W.A. and the music they make then great, but I didn’t set out to do that and it wasn’t my goal.
Did you enjoy doing a cameo in the film, or was it difficult directing yourself?
No, not at all. It thought it was just OK, but it was a last minute decision because we tried to cast and went through the auditioning process and we couldn’t find someone who fit so, last minute, someone asked me to do it and I just did it and I thought it was cool; it was alright, but it wasn’t- I’m no Denzel Washington that’s for sure.
What’s your favorite N.W.A. song?
“Gangsta Gangsta” and “Boyz n the Hood.”
Attendees gathered at the Florence Gould Hall in NYC to preview the film starring new comers Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. After the film, the cast, Executive Producer Ice Cube and Director F. Gary Gray participated in a Q&A moderated by none other than MC Lyte.