When it came to finding a director for "Straight Outta Compton," the biopic of pioneering hip-hop group N.W.A, it was kind of a no-brainer to go with F. Gary Gray, who got his start directing Ice Cube's video for "It Was a Good Day" and made his feature debut with "Friday." And with images of a militarized police force, frayed tensions between cops and citizens and protests erupting over police brutality going unpunished — in this case after the Rodney King trial — Gray's look back at life almost 30 years ago seems uncomfortably contemporary.
How does it feel to tell a story that takes place more 25 years ago but is so remarkably current and relevant?
We didn't set out to prove a point in that way. I just wanted to stay true to the N.W.A story. Some of it is just a coincidence, but some of it is what makes this movie special and takes it far beyond just being a music biopic. These guys had a huge impact on popular culture. It's American history. I don't think they knew that what they were creating at the time would have that type of impact.
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With so many recent instances of police brutality, the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement, how do you stay so optimistic?
It's one thing when it's in the shadows or happens every once in a while and then we move on to another story about Kim Kardashian, but it's happening so often that I think any human being who continues to witness this can't help but push for change. Now, maybe I'm just optimistic to a fault and maybe this country will continue to go down the road of criminally destroying people, but I just don't believe that is going to happen. What makes me less optimistic is how quickly people do move on from these stories. But the video lasts forever. If you're an officer and you know that you're going to be digitally ostracized and your kids are going to see what you did, time after time on CNN, choking someone out or using excessive force, I think that type of pressure could shift the thinking of any human being — unless you're evil, and I don't believe in inherent evil.
You can't fit everything into one movie. How did you choose what to leave out?
My job is just to serve the story and make sure all the choices serve the themes that we've set out to achieve. It was hard to sift through what we had and pick and choose. There was so much drama, so much controversy. Besides casting the movie, that was the hardest thing for me.
Were there any particular moments you were sad to see go?
There were some of the relationships with the women in their lives that I would've loved to see a little more of. But you never know when that might be coming. Maybe there's a director's cut.
Was there any thought of inserting yourself from back then in the story?
We would joke about that, like, "Hey, Gary Gray would probably be in the other room in this scene." But no, this movie's about them. I do have a quick cameo as an awful radio host that was thrown in at the last second, but that was about it.