F. Gary Gray was only 23 when he directed the fantastically literal video for Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" in 1993. Its sun-kissed, deadpan style transferred beautifully to his debut feature Friday (1995), which Cube cowrote and starred in as the straight(er) foil to Chris Tucker's more animated pot dealer. Friday quickly achieved cult-classic status, and Gray spent the next two decades racking up an impressive body of action cinema, from bank-heist thriller Set It Off (1996) to the surprisingly fun remake of The Italian Job (2003), and the brutal vigilante flick Law Abiding Citizen (2009).
Gray's latest project is Straight Outta Compton, a biopic of N.W.A, the controversial LA rap outfit comprising Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella. It traces the group's origins in the late 80s, their early successes—which became turbulent and fraught with drama thanks to the financial duplicity of manager Jerry Heller—and concludes with the premature death of Eazy-E in 1995.
The movie is mostly a delight. It's a sweeping, incident-packed drama that traffics in humor, emotional force, and sociopolitical insight, even if its charms sadly don't extend to portraying women—save for Dre's mother and Eazy-E's wife—as anything other than barely-clothed eye candy.
The film's bona fides are clear. It was produced in part by Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E's widow Tomica Woods-Wright; and features Cube's son O'Shea Jackson Jr. as his father. Gray's affinity with his subjects is evident, as well—he also shot the videos for Cube and Dre's "Natural Born Killas" (1994) and Dre's "Keep Their Heads Ringin".
I recently spoke to the LA-based Gray over the phone to get the inside track on the film.
VICE: This must be a genuine passion project for you. Could you talk about how excited you must be to seeing it come out now?
F. Gary Gray: I've known Cube since the beginning of my career as a director, and it's all come full circle. For me, to be able to tell the story of N.W.A. and their lives—their rise, their fall, and then their rise again—it's the film of a lifetime for me. I grew up in Los Angeles in that era, so a lot of things that they rapped about I witnessed and experienced firsthand. A lot of the elements of the story intersect in ways that have never intersected for me in other films I've directed.
I was struck by the film's scale. When I saw the running time (150 minutes) I was like, "Wow, OK." We've seen running times like this for films like Goodfellas and Boogie Nights, but this is the first rap biopic in that vein. That's significant.
You know, I never thought about it like that. But since you put it that way, I guess it is the first. [That scale] is so important. You could make three movies out of the N.W.A. story. The runtime is something I don't really think too much about because everything in the movie, I believe, is intriguing and compelling. You learn a lot, you laugh, you cry. We've gotten a lot of great feedback from people from all walks of life. They say, "I want more, I wanted more."
You can't just google "N.W.A." and get these details. You can't experience the brotherhood that you experience in the movie by going on to Wikipedia. –F. Gary Gray
The length is totally justified. It was great to see something that had sufficient space for the story to unfold in.
There may be a director's cut that's even longer [laughs]. We'll see, but I'm very happy with epic nature of the film. It's an epic story. It goes far beyond the group and the music created. It's relevant creatively and artistically. It's just a… [pauses] major story. I'm sorry I'm just choked up because it's just so many things for me on a lot of levels. But it's a major story.
What you're doing is quite radical. The film reverses the stock media narrative of the guys being thugs and agitators. It's complicated because they were serious men, whose work was informed by serious events, but they also had an aggressive persona that they deliberately projected. Your film takes us beyond that persona and into their lives.
Absolutely. There's a humanity to the story that you wouldn't normally associate with this genre of music. That was important to me. I want you to get to know the guys behind the tracks, behind the lyrics and beats, and get a sense of them as human beings. That's what makes this special, because you can't just google "N.W.A." and get these details. You can't experience the brotherhood that you experience in the movie by going on to Wikipedia. It's very easy to dismiss these guys as edgy street rappers who talk about controversial things. But when you experience the brotherhood and the family ties that bind them and the motivation behind the music, you can't help but have a different relationship with N.W.A.
It's also very light in places—I think that element might surprise people. There was a lot of laughter in the screening I attended. How important was it for you to include humor?
Well, I grew up in an environment where there were dangerous times, but there were a lot of funny moments too, you know? My first movie was Friday, and it was a very funny movie about weed-dealing. So you will always get that, I believe, in my movies—some sort of humor, it helps the drama. This is a bunch of kids who came together, who spoke their mind about things that they were passionate about, about things that affected their lives. Even from their perspective, when you listen to their albums, a lot of their shit is funny. The movie takes the same track and you get a sense of the rawness, the authenticity, the humor, [and] pain. These are all the things you experience when you listen to Straight Outta Compton.
I wanted to make it feel raw, real, and authentic as opposed to comedic. –F. Gary Gray
The film pulls no punches in depicting police aggression and violence. In particular you use the backdrop of the police beating of Rodney King in 1991, the acquittal of the officers, and the subsequent uprisings in LA. It's sadly very topical today. I watched the film on the same day I heard about the Sam DuBose case in Cincinnati, and it was just a few days after the madness with Sandra Bland and that cop in Texas. In this way your film doesn't feel like a period piece at all…
We didn't know that this would coincide with all the headlines regarding police brutality. I've been involved with this movie for four years, and those weren't the headlines back then. When we finally finished the movie and these headlines started to creep up… You feel sad about it. You wish you could say, "Hey listen, remember back in time where these things used to happen and they no longer happen?"
It's unfortunate that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I've been saying this lately, and I'm optimistic that these headlines will put pressure on the people who make changes—our lawmakers, our leaders. Law enforcement that has a tendency to go that way, or workers within a culture that forgives these types of things, I think they will feel the pressure. Because now every time that kind of thing happens, it's not going to be slipped under the rug in the way that it was in the past.
Tone-wise, you play it pretty straight—it's very respectful of the guys, and despite the humor, it's dramatic and even quite stately. Straight Outta Compton could be the first of a potential second cycle of films about this era, because there were spoofs like CB4 (1993) and Fear of a Black Hat (1994), which parodied gangsta rap and made it all look pretty silly. How do you feel about those films?
I don't remember them, but I remember when they came out. I remember that they were parodies, which puts you on alert to a certain extent. If you make a movie like this, there are so many ways to get it wrong. It's very easy for people not to take this story seriously and view it as a parody of the 80s, and of the group. I wanted to make it feel raw, real, and authentic as opposed to comedic.
I'm glad I had Dre, Cube, and Yella, and Ren around to help with the details. Eazy's widow, Tomica, also helped with the details. The group involved—the technicians, my team—we pulled this movie together and you feel the weight and the importance of the story and the group.
The costumes are amazing, too. Can you talk a little about them?
Our costume designer, Kelli Jones, worked on Sons of Anarchy, so she's used to working in these subcultures with rough guys. She had to individualize each character and convey their progression as they started to make money. When you have five guys that live in Los Angeles who weren't any slaves to fashion… to find ways to individualize them and help tell the story with their costumes was really a challenge. She stepped up in a major way—I think she deserves an Oscar nomination for this.
It seems there's something happening in the culture now with West Coast rap. I noticed it in Dope, which is set in Inglewood, and the main character writes his thesis on the lyrics to Cube's "It Was a Good Day," the video that you directed. Do you see your film as part of a West Coast revival?
You know, I really don't think in those terms. I heard Dope was dope… [But] I've been so immersed in the N.W.A. world that I haven't had a chance to see that movie. I just focus on what's going to make this story great. I know that sounds really cliché, but for me it's the universal story. I think that whether you live in LA, you live in New York, or if you live in Sweden, you can identify with some of the universal things that we touch on.
Straight Outta Compton opens in theaters nationwide Saturday, August 18.
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