How Accurate Is 'Straight Outta Compton' Compared To Other Music Biopics? Here's How The N.W.A Film Stacks Up
There's no question that the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton is a cinematic success. The movie, which explores the lives and career of the most influential hip-hop group in history, has run the box office for two weeks in a row and holds a 90 percent Fresh rating on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. Still, biopics don't necessarily have to be totally true in order to be successful films. Even information considered fact can't always be reliable; stories change depending on who is telling them. (Director F. Gary Gray, at a screening of the film: “I don’t think you can ever say there’s a definitive point of view. Cube always said, there’s five different versions of this movie.”) With that caveat in mind, how accurate is Straight Outta Compton compared to music biopics that came before?
Inaccuracies and omissions often court blowback from the individuals depicted in these "biographical" films of their families and friends. Johnny Cash's daughter Roseanne claimed to The Observer that Walk The Line was far from truthful to the character of her father, her mother Vivian, and her step-mother June Carter Cash; they were "unrecognizable" to her. "I have no impulse to set the record straight," she continued. "Why should I? Eighty percent of what people believe about my dad is just a projection of what they want to believe." Yet in a 2005 interview, director James Mangold told Emanuellevy.com that he and screenwriter Gill Dennis relied heavily on Johnny Cash's autobiographies to inform the script, saying that they delved even "deeper" into the singer's life by using his music, which helped "illuminate his life story."
The depiction of John Lennon's aunt, Mimi Smith, in Nowhere Boy, a 2009 biopic of the singer, prompted Paul McCartney to speak with the film's director, according to The Daily Mail, and he didn't end up seeing the film. "‘I said “Sam, this isn’t true.” Aunt Mimi was not cruel. She was mock strict. But she was a good heart who loved John madly,'" McCartney said. Then there's Ray. Ray Charles' biographer David Ritz wrote a piece for Slate listing the alleged errors in the Jamie Foxx vehicle Ray, with an emphasis on the filmmakers' choice to wrap the movie up in a satisfying conclusion rather than tell the truth about the musician's continued philandering and alcohol abuse. Asked about Ritz's piece, director Taylor Hackford revealed that he actually did film some scenes showing the harder side of Charles' life, but they didn't make it to theaters. "The additional scenes are darker, more complex explorations of the character of Ray Charles," Hackford told The Guardian .
But biopics are not documentaries. (And even documentaries have points of view.) The drummer for The Doors, John Densmore, recalled to Forbes after seeing a screening of The Doors with Oliver Stone back in 1991:
Amy Madigan, the actress, said, "John, they’re going to take a six-year career and cram it into two hours, then blow it up to the size of two-story building. It’s not going to be the truth!" So I said, sitting next to Oliver, "It’s a beautiful impressionistic painting of the times."
And maybe "impressionistic" is the handiest word to describe how far true stories are fragmented when they hit the page and even further, when they hit the lens. Like most biopics in history, Straight Outta Compton is a mix of truth, fiction, and glossing over. Original N.W.A. members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre served as executive producers on the film, and so did Tomica Woods-Wright, the widow of Eazy-E; and fellow original member DJ Yella has been complimentary of the movie. These endorsements can support a certain level of accuracy, however, dissenting opinions are many. Another member of the group, MC Ren, has been vocal about his beef with his portrayal in the film, and what he regards as his role in N.W.A. being unfairly minimized.
And he's not the only one complaining. N.W.A. producer Jerry Heller claimed to Grantland that he was never approached during the development of Straight Outta Compton, and that it was a conflict between Dr. Dre and Eazy-E that brought the group down, not his own shady dealings. (He tells a similar version of events in his 2006 memoir, Ruthless.) Eazy-E's daughter E.B. Wright told Essence she is co-producing a documentary about her father's life, which will include more about the women in his life who she claims Woods-Wright did not want included in Compton .
And music journalist Dee Barnes wrote an essay for Gawker describing her experience of sitting through Straight Outta Compton and not seeing her own assault by Dr. Dre addressed on screen. Dre pleaded no contest to the charges to misdemeanor battery in connection with Barnes' assault.
When I was sitting there in the theater, and the movie’s timeline skipped by my attack without a glance, I was like, “Uhhh, what happened?” Like many of the women that knew and worked with N.W.A., I found myself a casualty of Straight Outta Compton’s revisionist history.
Barnes's outcry prompted a public apology by Dr. Dre to "the women I've hurt" that recently ran in The New York Times. She responded with hope that he really is the changed man he claims to be, saying in the essay for Gawker that she was appreciative that "Dre stepped up and performed his social responsibility by finally taking accountability for his actions." Whatever conversation has happened since the movie's release, though, the assault and its aftermath are still not a part of the film.
At the premiere of the film, director F. Gary Gray spoke out about the film's truthfulness, telling audiences, "Obviously you can only do so much when you have two hours and 10 years and five guys in one movie, but I’m very happy with the accuracy, especially given that I got it from the members of N.W.A."
“If it was something that I just Googled or got it from Wikipedia then it would maybe be a little bit questionable," he continued. "But Ice Cube was there every day. Dr. Dre was there every day. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Images: Universal Pictures (2); Giphy