What I Learned from Straight Outta Compton

On Friday night, after Val and the boys went to bed, I rented Straight Outta Compton, the biopic of the rap group N.W.A.

There’s a scene where Ice Cube’s character, played by his son in real life, is doing an interview for a television show.  He looks at the guy and says, “I’m a journalist, just like you.” The line itself captures the spirit of the movie and what it can teach us as writers.


As the group starts in the music scene, critics emerge.  They tell them they will never get radio play, that music isn’t about anger and all people want to do is dance and feel good.  The guys stick to their roots and write what they live.  There’s power in honesty.  I know I struggle at times with editing my thoughts or scenes.  Honesty comes down to a choice of what voices you hear.  Will it be the critics or your own?

Do you believe enough in your story to say it no matter what the cost?


A dynamic shifts around the idea of Compton itself.  It was home, the reason to get out and find success.  Later in the film, as Dr. Dre’s character is in a new recording studio trying to work, he hears noises in the next room and opens the door to find a party.  In his anger, he tells the crowd that this isn’t Compton, this is the fight to survive and succeed.  The path of the story takes the characters away from their discontent and, when it comes back in the drugs and crime Dre finds at the studio, it is a stark reminder that the shadows of the past will always be there.

We must know our history and decide how we’ll use it.  It can be a platform, a gas pedal, or an anchor.


In the movie, Dre’s younger brother dies.  Reading some behind-the-scenes facts, I found that the real Dr. Dre was watching filming when they shot the scene where his character discovers his brother had died. He lasted through two takes of the scene before having to leave the set overwhelmed with emotion.

N.W.A. itself split and dealt with some questionable financial moves by their manager, played by Paul Giamatti in the movie. Each member found themselves down their own path of success or destruction, from Eazy-E dying of AIDS to Ice Cube acting in movies and television. Dr. Dre continued in music as an artist and producer, developing Beats headphones (eventually selling to Apple for $3.2 billion in their largest acquisition ever).

As the credits rolled, they played interviews with rap artists impacted by the group. One of the clips was from Tupac Shakur, himself sadly losing his life to violence, saying that he would never have succeeded without the encouragement of Dr. Dre on the other side of the glass in the recording studio.

We have responsibilities to share our craft with others and spread our wings of influence.  Who, from your life, could be interviewed and say the same about you?

Final Thoughts

The movie isn’t for everyone.  These guys partied and lived the excess of music stars. There’s a ton of language and that reflects the environment of the time.  If you can watch it for story and meaning, it is a great experience.

For what is rap, but poetry? What is writing, but honesty and reflecting what we see and know?

It takes courage to overcome the past and keep moving forward, to know our voices matter.

We must speak up.

For there is always power in voices rising at the right time. If you are hearing the call, stay strong.  Your time may be now.



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