Why Hollywood's hip-hop stories are fatally flawed

The film industry is rushing to tell hip-hop’s greatest tales, but the music’s true voice has been muted as its icons simply burnish their own legacies
Defiant ones: Dr Dre and Jimmy IovineDefiant ones: Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine. Photograph: Allocca/StarPi/Rex/Shuttersto As hip-hop approaches middle age, it is becoming more attractive to Hollywood, which is making a miniature industry out of telling its stories. Last month saw the release of All Eyez On Me, a thin retelling of Tupac Shakur’s life and death, and this weekend in the US, HBO premiered The Defiant Ones, a look at the financially fruitful relationship between the record producers Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine. These efforts, along with 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, seek to reaffirm the glory days of their subjects rather than examine the real people behind the myths.

The loud, predominantly black, voice of hip-hop that shocked the American mainstream in the 70s and 80s is muted in these attempts at canonical retelling. These big screen and documentary projects, often pushed by their lead characters – Dr Dre and Ice Cube both produced Straight Outta Compton – act less as artistic statements than as ways to preserve those characters’ legacies. These aren’t films where tough questions can be asked; instead, historical accuracy is often sidelined so characters can compete with their oversized legends.
Jada Pinkett Smith, who was portrayed by Kat Graham in All Eyez On Me, sent a series of tweets that pointed out a number of factual inaccuracies about the way her relationship with Tupac was depicted in the film. Dispute over the historical record is bound to occur – director John Singleton also expressed misgivings about the film and left the project because of them – but the misrepresentation of women in these hip-hop films is a shameful through-line. The omission of Dr Dre’s assault on the hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes from Straight Outta Compton is possibly the most egregious example.
Before the release of the movie, Barnes wrote about it for Gawker, explaining that even if she didn’t want to see her abuse captured on film, the decision to skip over that moment left her “a casualty of Straight Outta Compton’s revisionist history”. The financial success of these films showed a demand for these stories, but that is undercut by the stories that are that are carefully sidestepped.
“[Snoop Dogg and Dre] reminded me of the [Rolling] Stones – they had that whole energy that the Stones had in the late 60s and early 70s, and I related to it like that,” said Iovine while promoting The Defiant Ones. The legacy these films strive to preserve isn’t of the struggle of black kids in the hoods that America ignored; they (the films) promote the machinery that gave these artists platforms to speak to millions of people and transform into demi-gods.
Outside of Hollywood, within hip-hop’s own community, there is no need for the deification of true icons. Last month, when Prodigy of the duo Mobb Deep died, there was a outpouring from all walks of the hip-hop world. Even if Mobb Deep weren’t crossover superstars, the grit and and range of their music spoke to generations of rappers and fans. Even Jay-Z, a rapper who has always stressed about his place in the rap canon, opened up a different side on his latest album, 4:44. The power of Beyoncé’s Lemonade could be heard on the album as Jay-Z dealt with issues of cheating and marital strife. The chance to put across his side of the story, and in doing so, secure his legacy, seems a prime motivator behind the album.
“The best thing [hip-hop story retellings] can do is give context,” says Julian Kimble, who has written about rap culture for Complex and the Washington Post. “People like to look at things in retrospect and we forget what it was like in the moment if you weren’t there to see it.”
Over time, legacies shift, but people should question the historical record when related by people who profited at hip-hop’s beginning and continue to reap the rewards 20 years later. That self-serving work undermines the truth of their lives and the lives of those who aren’t given the same platform.
Now Rap’s major scenes will continue to be retold; hopefully, those stories can be produced without the input of those who have already gone platinum.