The Strength of Street Knowledge

The story of rap group N.W.A. begins with a pounding beat and a promise. “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge,” growls rapper Dr. Dre as the group’s debut 1988 album Straight Outta Compton roars into anarchic life. The group’s five members—Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella—knew all about such “street knowledge.” They were only a few years removed from their former lives as dropouts and drug dealers in one of L.A.’s poorest suburbs.
From the beginning, N.W.A.’s success has revolved around this appeal to authenticity. Within the genre of gangsta rap, which focuses on unsparing accounts of urban crime and violence, artists succeed or fail based upon background. Commonly regarded as the group that took gangsta rap mainstream, thus changing the course of hip-hop for over a decade, N.W.A. was unrivalled in its ability to narrate from experience. The group’s story was Hollywood-scale, from dealing drugs to dropping multiplatinum records in the span of two years.
It was only natural that such a cinema-ready story would make its way to theatres. This summer saw the release of Straight Outta Compton, whose name references the aforementioned album. The film is in many ways a straightforward rags-to-riches biopic, hitting all the standard beats as it charts the group’s journey to stardom. Most biopics, though, maintain a certain distance from their subjects. Straight Outta Compton makes no such claim—two of its protagonists, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, also served as its executive producers, and the fictional Ice Cube is played by his real-life son, O’Shea Jackson.
The film thus illustrates a curious trend: biopics that blur the line between fact and fiction through their proximity to their subjects. The Social Network, which openly dramatizes the events of Facebook’s founding only six years after these events occurred, is a relevant comparison. So is the flood of Steve Jobs biopics that have been released in the years following the Apple CEO’s death. If these films had been made a decade later, they might have been seen as more objective—but without such removal, they shape the narrative surrounding the people they portray in real time. Rather than commenting on, or even altering, their subjects’ legacies, these films play a role in creating them, trading point-for-point accuracy for narrative effect in the process. In the hands of the filmmakers, Mark Zuckerberg becomes an insecure, conniving nerd, and Jobs’ mythic qualities are taken to absurd extremes.
Yet even these films were not produced by their own subjects. Straight Outta Compton is singular: a work of self-created mythology by Dre and Ice Cube. And while they take pains not to depict their fictional selves as perfect—in one memorable scene, O’Shea as Ice Cube demolishes a music exec’s office with a baseball bat and his father’s signature scowl—they cannot help but emerge as heroes. Relying on their own credibility as witnesses, they continue to tell their own story just the way they want it to be told.
For many, however, that story remains inadequate. Jerry Heller, the group’s former manager, is presented in the film as manipulative, divisive, and ultimately responsible for N.W.A.’s eventual breakup. The real-life Heller, when interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, refused to comment on his role in the film other than state that “… I think sooner or later it may be part of an ongoing litigation.”
More serious are the film’s omissions of past misogyny, a frequent criticism in the wake of its release. In August, Gawker published an editorial by female rapper Dee Barnes, titled “Here’s What’s Missing From Straight Outta Compton: Me and the Other Women Dr. Dre Beat Up.” Barnes describes Dre violently assaulting her at a record release party in 1991. Dre allegedly grabbed her and slammed her head into a wall over and over, resulting in chronic migraines from which she claims to still suffer.
Straight Outta Compton gives no indication that this incident ever occurred. “Like many of the women that knew and worked with N.W.A.,” Barnes writes, “I found myself a casualty of Straight Outta Compton’s revisionist history.” Her account mirrors those of others, from Dre’s former girlfriend Michel’e to musician Tairrie B. All recall incidents of physical violence at Dre’s hands—violence that Straight Outta Compton references only in passing. In the film, the fictional Dre shrugs off a criticism about his assault charges, and the subject is never mentioned again. It’s hard not to see this as a knowing deflection on the filmmakers’ part, an act of lip service that preempts criticism.
Unfortunately for Dre, this omission has had precisely the opposite effect. Barnes’s article prompted an online frenzy, forcing him to publicly apologize in The New York Times: “I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives.” The film, in its attempt to sweep Dre’s mistakes under the rug, instead caused them to blow up in his face.
So emerges the double bind: Should Dre and Ice Cube have included the darker aspects of N.W.A.’s rise to fame, at the potential expense of their public images? Doing so would certainly have resulted in a more balanced film. Yet it also seems unrealistic to demand this degree of candor from them. Straight Outta Compton, after all, is the story of their own lives—and no one is the villain in their own narrative. The film cannot have it both ways. Some events are too ugly to be reconciled with heroism.
Given the producers’ self-promotional goals, we are left to wonder: Should they have been given this responsibility to begin with? The grand scale of the N.W.A. story makes its Hollywood adaptation inevitable—and just like its namesake album, Straight Outta Compton draws much of its appeal from Dre’s and Ice Cube’s “street knowledge.” After all, they were there as witnesses. Yet in this case, N.W.A.’s proximity has been as much a curse as a blessing. Had its producers recognized the dangers of this proximity, they might have adopted a more hands-off approach to the movie’s production, or even excused themselves all together.
For over twenty years, N.W.A’s members have leaned on the strength of their own “street knowledge.” Perhaps this time, they should have stepped back, recognizing that that their story deserved something more than just strength: the truth.
Image Credit: Flickr / Christiaan Triebert

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