On Wednesday night (July 22), Straight Outta Compton was screened in metro Detroit, about 15 miles away from the site of one of N.W.A.’s biggest career moments.
Hundreds of moviegoers crowded into the Emagine Theater in Royal Oak—a short drive outside of Detroit—for an early screening of Straight Outta Compton and a chance to hear from the cast and crew.
The film showed the story of N.W.A.’s formation, their journey to breaking musical and cultural barriers amid scrutiny from the police and the government, their eventual breakup, and how the members went their separate ways prior to the death of founding member Eazy-E.
Following thunderous applause from the crowd during the film’s closing credits, Detroit native Big Sean moderated a Q&A session with cast and crew members: director F. Gary Gray, producer Ice Cube, Jason Mitchell ("Eazy-E"), and O’Shea Jackson Jr. ("Ice Cube"). Sean asked questions for about 30 minutes, and audience members were allowed to ask questions for 15 minutes.
Gray, who has been working with Cube since the 1991 video for “True to the Game,” said the film has been in the making for four years. He worked extensively with the living N.W.A. members (and with Eazy-E’s widow and son) to nail the characters' personalities perfectly. He said he had to “scour the planet Earth to find N.W.A.,” opting for little-known actors despite the studio initially wanting popular names.
“Dre and Cube are still big in the culture, and still in the forefront of everyone’s mind. People have an expectation of what they want to see,” Gray said. “We went through thousands and thousands of people on different continents to find these guys, and they more than delivered.”
O’Shea Jackson Jr. was put through the ringer, despite having the family connection of being Ice Cube's son. He told the audience that he auditioned for two years, worked with three different acting coaches, and did a screen test with two other potential actors to play Ice Cube. But Cube was impressed with his son’s dead-on performance—from the Jheri curl Cube who wrote many of N.W.A.’s rhymes, to the close-cut Cube who built a successful solo career.
“Every parent can attest to the moment their kid stepped up. No matter what it is, the moment you see them step up and do what you taught them, do what you they know they have inside of them, and use their talent,” Cube said of his seed. “I told him, 'We’re not going to give you this. It’s not free. This ain’t charity. I could’ve put you in a movie a long time ago. But you’re right for this—only if you want it, only if you go for it, only if you become a great actor.' ”
“My father’s my hero, and I’d say I was about 18 years old when I started to see the impact he had on others’ lives,” Jackson Jr. stated. “Seeing this movie being made without me was something I couldn’t do. I couldn’t see my family’s legacy in anybody else’s hands.”
Jason Mitchell was also a dead ringer for Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, and he successfully conveyed the range of situations that the film required: as a drug dealer in a botched transaction, as the magical persona on stage, and as a person diagnosed with HIV and later dying of AIDS.
“I believe one of the reasons that Gary even chose me to do this—correct me if I’m wrong—but I’m from the streets. I did a few acting things here and there, but this changed my life,” Mitchell explained. “…I wanted to be able to pull all my guns out, whether I was Eazy-E or another character. I just wanted to have such a huge role that lets me show everything. But when you talk about going from the crack house, to the White House, to AIDS, it doesn’t get no better than that.”
Big Sean and the audience were particularly impressed with the film’s scene from Detroit in 1989, where N.W.A. performed “F**k the Police” at Joe Louis Arena despite officers’ warnings before the show to not play the song. The police ended up crashing the stage and arresting the group members.
“But that show at Joe Louis, we were excited. It was sold out; it was actually part of a tour with LL and Slick Rick. It was a lot of big-time artists on the bill," Cube recalls. "We wanted to show Detroit what we were all about. Our record was hotter than everybody’s at the time, and people were ready to see us.
“They put us second, and we were mad about that,” he continued. “…We said we were sick of people telling us what to do. Before, police were telling us obscenity laws, telling us what they would do to us if we performed ‘F**k the Police.’ We just did it that night, and the police rushed us. They messed up a great show.”
Sean also highlighted the film’s intense focus on the police brutality in Compton and around the country that inspired the groundbreaking single. Their environment is still relevant, with the issue making national headlines on a regular basis over the past two years, he said.
“It’s so crazy, from the Rodney King [beating], to all the police brutality, these things going on today in a major way. Only thing that was missing was the cell phones, and people still managed to have cameras creep in,” the rapper expressed. “Obviously you guys addressed it because it’s part of your story, but it gives us the perspective of why this message is still affecting us and how it’s still a part of today’s society.”
But along with that, Gray said he wanted the film to tell a universal story that everyone could relate to. He focused on themes of people sticking up for their beliefs, the power of friendship, and resolving issues before it’s too late.
“You don’t have to be a rapper, and you don’t have to be Black to understand brotherhood. You don’t have to be from these environments to understand love and courage,"
Gray said. "These guys stood up. Cube stood up and said, ‘I’m not going to be taken advantage of.’ Dre stood up and said, ‘Enough of this bulls**t. I’m going to better myself, and do it on my own.’ Anybody can identify with that. We know what it feels like to have courage.
“They tried to get back with their loved ones, and it was too late,” he continued. “If you have someone in your life that you love, love them today, because it might be too late tomorrow.”
Sean said N.W.A. were “superheroes in the hood,” and that he went back to catch up with Straight Outta Compton even though the album came out in 1989: the year after he was born. He repeatedly thanked Cube for the groundwork he paved for him as an artist, and for making people feel empowered during such a stressful time.
“It’s impossible to not be a fan of N.W.A.,” Big Sean said. “The spectrum is too wide. It’s too much history, and it’s too much good music. It’s impossible to walk away from this film and not be inspired to get off your ass, do what you got to do and follow your dreams.”
(Photos from left: Theo Wargo/NBC/Getty Images for "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Universal Pictures)