December 19, 2018

Writers shrug off bad rap over ‘Straight Outta Compton’

In the fall of 2013, as production was gearing up for the Universal Studios biopic about the 1980s rap group N.W.A, the producers needed a screenwriter to help pare down an existing script. The work also needed to be done quickly for the film, “Straight Outta Compton,” to get the tax credit to actually be filmed in Compton and the Los Angeles area, instead of in New Orleans.

The producers included N.W.A members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, and they turned to an as-yet-unproduced screenwriter, Jonathan Herman, who was both hungry to take on the project and could write fast. 

“I think this was a situation where it helped that I was Jewish,” said Herman, who grew up in Connecticut. “I heard from the studio that they had asked a lot of other people before me who couldn’t deliver the script in a month. I don’t celebrate Christmas, so I was able to work straight through Christmas and New Year and really put my nose to the grindstone.”

Herman’s version built on years of work already put in by Andrea Berloff, the film’s other credited screenwriter, who had been with the project since 2009 when it was first developed by New Line Cinema. In preparation for her first draft, Berloff had spent more than 10 months interviewing rap star Ice Cube, Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, and as many people associated with N.W.A and Death Row Records as possible. As the project moved from studio to studio, Berloff’s script eventually ended up at Universal, which brought it to Herman. 

Herman and Berloff never worked together on the “Compton” script in the conventional sense, but the finished product has proven to be a fruitful collaboration. Released last August, “Straight Outta Compton” has earned extensive critical praise and taken in more than $200 million at the box office. The screenplay also earned the film its sole Oscar nomination, in the best original screenplay category. 

Both writers are aware of the irony. Given that the 2016 Oscar season has seen the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences receive considerable backlash for a lack of diversity, particularly in the acting categories, many have questioned how a critical favorite like “Straight Outta Compton” could be shut out … except for its white screenwriters? 

Herman and Berloff have heard the mutterings about race, both when they first signed on and all through the awards season publicity mill.

“We’re glad that we can represent the movie and be having these conversations and answer these questions, because the movie was snubbed, and a lot of people can’t,” Herman said. “I happen to disagree that this is all the fault of the academy. It’s more of a studio casting problem, since the academy doesn’t make the movies. I don’t think either of us is going to accept any kind of blame. We actually are examples of storytellers who are telling diverse stories. We aren’t the problem.”

Berloff encountered blogosphere backlash when news first circulated that a white woman had been hired to tell the story of celebrated black male rap artists. She notes that, in addition to being qualified, she is also something of a rarity, as only 11 percent of the films produced in 2015 were written by women.  

“By and large, studios don’t make films with a female voice. They do not make female-centered movies,” said Berloff, whose past credits include the 2010 Oliver Stone-directed film “World Trade Center.” “So I’m not sure what movie everybody would be comfortable with me writing.”

“Compton” is set in the mid-1980s and charts the friendship and musical rise of Compton natives Ice Cube (played by O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), as well as the formation — and eventual breakup — of the rap group N.W.A. The film depicts a rift between the three friends, which was spurred, in some measure, by the influence of former N.W.A manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). When Ice Cube leaves the group, he calls out Heller in the song “Vaseline”: “It’s a case of divide and conquer / Cuz you let a Jew break up my crew … ” 

An enraged Heller calls the Anti-Defamation League, and Cube is eventually interviewed and taken to task by a reporter for his music’s anti-Semitic views. 

From left: Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff

In the film, Cube replies that his gripe is specifically with Heller, not with the Jews. Berloff and Herman, both of whom were raised in observant Jewish households, said they discussed the subject of attitudes toward Jews with the filmmakers and ultimately were pleased with the film’s treatment of the subject.

“We talked about it quite a bit, and I would not have been comfortable had we not addressed it in the movie. I felt like it had to be in there,” said Berloff, whose grandmother was a Hebrew school teacher. “Cube said the first time someone called him anti-Semitic, he had no idea what that even meant.” 

“We apply our own anti-Semitism filter when we hear something like that. These are guys who have been prejudiced against their whole life because of the color of their skin,” Herman added. “It seemed like the Jews they knew were living a pretty good life compared to them.”  

Through the years they spent on “Compton,” both writers said they developed relationships with the subjects of their film. Ice Cube had heavy input both into the hiring of the writers and the content of the script.

Berloff said she developed a level of trust with Ice Cube over the months she spent doing her research. Herman said that, to this day, he’s not sure he reached it. 

“I got pretty close, but I don’t think I ever felt that they were completely in my corner,” Herman said. “Look, I get it. For very obvious reasons, who am I to be telling their story?”

Because of the color of his skin?

“Yeah. White, gay, Jewish, [I’m] different in every possible way,” Herman said. “But that’s fine. I think maybe that level of tension helped create some real magic that maybe wouldn’t have happened if they had had writers who came from a place just like them.”