“If Hollywood injected bullshit into the film, if it wasn’t all the way correct, me and Dre had an agreement,” Ice Cube said, as he shifted his legs a little further apart on stage at the French Institute Alliance Française. “We’d nuke it. Blow it up. Walk out the door and blow it up." Moments earlier, this audience had seen him (well, his son O’Shea Jackson Jr. as “him”) smashing apart the Priority offices with a metal bat and LA Dodgers cap, during a private screening of the new bio-pic Straight Outta Compton. Has he softened?
The movie shows N.W.A.’s rise and fracture, from dope house to Black House and beyond. As a story, it’s enthralling, fluid and pointed; amazing how history can still manage to surprise. As a movie, it luckily, sadly, incredibly feels real. The images of police brutality and racism are as present as ever. Halfway through, the origin story of “Bye, Felicia!” is as funny as Eazy’s diagnosis is sad. (For anyone wondering whether to spend $13.50, be relieved: this isn’t Notorious.)
F. Gary Gray, the director of the film, sat to Cube’s right on stage, joined by the rest of the cast: Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins, who inhabit Eazy-E and Dr. Dre, respectively. The director said, “This was extremely personal for me. I’ve been knowing Cube for twenty years. He gave me my start with Friday, "Today Was a Good Day"…”
Cube picked up, “There are only a few people who could tell this story. Gary was there. I didn’t have to teach him anything.”
That didn’t work for everyone: Jackson Jr. went through two years of auditions just to get to a point where he was “reading against two other Ice Cubes and three Dr. Dres.” Surprisingly, winning the role of playing his father wasn't simple. He said, “Nepotism doesn’t get you too far, unfortunately.”
The New Orleans-born Mitchell spoke of having to drop his accent and “learn to be from Los Angeles” to play Eazy E. (Put on the spot, he Jheri-curled his lips: “It ain’t so hard now!” Applause, applause.) Hawkins waved off the friendly audience for being a local – “I’m from D.C. but I did go to Julliard.” In just weeks, he went from doing Shakespeare on Broadway to joining his castmates in re-recording the entirety of Straight Outta Compton for the movie. Every “fuck the police,” every “dopeman, dopeman.”
MC Lyte, moderating the panel, marveled at the courage of N.W.A. as a whole and as individuals, and wondered what Cube felt was missing from hip-hop today. The response: “Hip-hop is missing from hip-hop,” before shouting out a certain type of artist who could be political with cause: Poor Righteous Teachers, Boogie Down Productions, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, to name a few. “But it’s not for everybody. It has to be in your heart,” he said.
Fabolous sat a few rows down from Estelle; Jeff Staple walked near Stalley. Justine Skye, Mack Wilds and DJ D-Nice were all there, as were a bunch of Complex contest-winners. During the Q&A, moderated by MC Lyte, Michael Eric Dyson went to the microphone and said how, in 1991 while working at the Chicago Theological Seminary, he held a “Bible in one hand and N.W.A. album in the other.” (He then recited Ice Cube’s entire verse from “Straight Outta Compton,” a capella.) Bun B, pointing out his wife in the audience, noted the presence of strong women in the film, to which Gray said, “Any director could make money with this movie. Just put a couple of low-riders and a bunch of braids. I needed to tap into the humanity, not just the who and what but the why.”
Responding to a question about the “glaring omission” of Dee Barnes, a TV personality Dr. Dre assaulted in 1991, Gray said, “We didn’t omit anything. There are five movies that could have been made about N.W.A. We made the one we wanted to make.” (Shorter answer: Dr. Dre is an executive producer on the film. There is mention of an assault he has to deal with, so it’s not 100% brushed over.) It was the last question. Event coordinators scrambled, whispering to one another how they could end on such a negative note.
But no matter: people stood up to leave, but not before giving a standing ovation.