‘Straight Outta Compton’ Film Plays a Role in Suge Knight Murder Case (Published 2015) (2023)



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‘Straight Outta Compton’ Film Plays a Role in Suge Knight Murder Case (Published 2015) (1)

By Michael Cieply

LOS ANGELES — In an editing room here, filmmakers are wrestling with a final cut of “Straight Outta Compton,” Universal Pictures’ new movie about the outlaw rap group N.W.A.

In a Century City office tower, a prominent lawyer for the music entrepreneur Marion Knight, known as Suge, is preparing to defend Mr. Knight on murder charges in connection with an incident during the shooting of a trailer for the film.

This intersection of the movie and real-life drama is sure to make “Straight Outta Compton” one of the most closely monitored films coming out of Hollywood as its release approaches on Aug. 14. This is happening as the film’s makers — Universal and its partner, Legendary Entertainment — are trying to tap, but not provoke, the current restlessness in the nation’s cities.

The trailer points to a connection between the Los Angeles street confrontations of N.W.A.’s era, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and recent conflicts between black youths and the police in Baltimore; Ferguson, Mo.; and elsewhere.

“It’s a good time for us to tell our story,” Andre Young, known professionally as Dr. Dre, says in a video attached to the age-restricted trailer.

“The same thing that we was going through in the ’80s with the police, people going through right now,” O’Shea Jackson, better known as Ice Cube, tells Dr. Dre.

Both Mr. Young and Mr. Jackson are part of the producing team for the film, which is directed by F. Gary Gray (“Be Cool”). The video they appear in together is also a focal point in a murder and attempted murder case against Mr. Knight. On Jan. 29, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, he injured a security consultant for the film, Cle Sloan, and killed another man, Terry Carter, when he ran over both with a pickup truck at a Compton, Calif., burger stand that served as a location for the video shoot.

Now, Mr. Gray, Mr. Young, Mr. Jackson and others involved with “Straight Outta Compton” may figure as witnesses in a trial that must sort out what brought Mr. Knight — once Mr. Young’s associate — to the video shoot. Jurors will determine whether he acted with murderous intent, or, as his lawyers have asserted in court papers, was defending himself against an ambush by film employees and associates who were supposed to keep him away from the director and producers.

Originally scheduled to start July 7, the trial has been postponed. Mr. Knight’s recently hired lawyer, Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., perhaps best known for successfully defending Michael Jackson in 2005, asked the judge for more time to prepare. Mr. Knight has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Prosecutors declined to comment, citing confidentiality restrictions. Universal Pictures executives through a spokesman declined to discuss the case, as did a representative for Mr. Jackson. A representative for Mr. Young referred queries to Universal.

In response to a wrongful-death suit filed last week by Mr. Carter’s wife — which named Universal, Mr. Knight, Mr. Jackson and others — Mr. Mesereau said in a statement: “Mr. Knight denies any wrongdoing. He was defending himself at all times.” Reached on Friday, Mr. Mesereau declined to elaborate.

Witness interviews and other material in a case file of more than 200 pages provide a preview of the trial. In all, they show that what might initially have seemed to be just a conflict between old rivals — “Let’s do it now,” Mr. Sloan recalled taunting Mr. Knight before punching him as the deadly incident unfolded, according to his interview with sheriff’s investigators — actually grew from a complicated, monthslong rivalry and financial dispute between Mr. Knight and the film’s makers.

Mr. Knight appeared at a base camp for the Compton video shoot at about 2 p.m. on Jan. 29. According to Mr. Knight’s account to sheriff’s investigators, he was told to leave by security agents for Mr. Young. Mr. Knight and Mr. Young were among the co-founders of Death Row Records, in 1991, but they have since been at odds. One big issue: Mr. Knight told investigators he expected a 10 percent share of the proceeds from last year’s $3 billion sale by Mr. Young of the Beats Electronics music brand to Apple.

“Knight believed he was owed $300 million from Dre,” according to a Sheriff’s Department summary of an interview with Mr. Knight on Jan. 30. The summary did not explain why Mr. Knight believed he was owed the money.

Shortly after appearing at the base camp, Mr. Knight showed up at nearby Tam’s Burgers No. 21, which served as a location during the two-day video shoot. The altercation with Mr. Sloan ensued, and that’s when Mr. Knight put the truck in gear, running over both Mr. Sloan and Mr. Carter.

Matthew Fletcher, a lawyer who represented Mr. Knight before he was replaced by Mr. Mesereau, contended that the encounter was somehow orchestrated. “It was what I believe to be an amateurish setup,” Mr. Fletcher said in an interview.

The trial may bring surprises. At a May 29 hearing, Judge Ronald S. Coen said the Sheriff’s Department had given him sealed evidence that had not been shared with either prosecutors or the defense team.

Precisely how Mr. Knight will be represented in the movie, in which he is portrayed by R. Marcus Taylor, remains unclear; Mr. Gray is still tinkering. But one draft of the script, which preceded a final version by Jonathan Herman, showed an armed Mr. Knight, backed by five pipe-toting thugs, recruiting Dr. Dre and other artists from Ruthless Records, then run by the N.W.A. founder Eric Wright (known as Eazy-E) and the music manager Jerry Heller. In that scene, Mr. Knight claims to have held Mr. Heller hostage in a van.


In life, Mr. Knight has served jail time for probation violation, has been convicted of armed robbery and assault with a gun, and received five years’ probation for assaulting two rappers in 1992.

As for cultural connections, Universal is clearly not shying away. The film’s trailers are laced with images of police abuse, government threats and the riots that followed the 1992 acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King.

“This movie chronicles the relationships between a group of talented young artists who overcame disadvantaged origins,” Universal said in a statement. The studio added that it is proud to be associated with “Straight Outta Compton,” which “portrays its characters, incidents and period in history responsibly.”

An issue not entirely decided, according to people briefed on the film’s progress, is how it will handle an N.W.A. concert at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena in August 1989. In wrapping up a national tour, during which members carried an arsenal of weapons in one tour bus — depicted in the film’s trailer — the group had agreed not to perform one of their most rebellious numbers, which urged an obscenity against the police.

In Detroit, they started the song anyway, but were stopped by a charging line of undercover police officers. In one draft of the script, the police preceded their charge by setting off M-80s, to panic the crowd with fake gunfire. Mr. Heller, in his 2006 book, “Ruthless: A Memoir,” also described the scene that way. Gary Ballen, who was the group’s stage manager at the time, said he clearly recalls “pops,” but could not say with certainty that the police were responsible. A spokeswoman for the Detroit Police Department had no comment.

Mr. Gray’s final edit — perhaps by balancing portrayals of brutal police behavior with calls for art, and not action — may tell whether the film hews to a crucial point in Universal’s marketing message: that N.W.A., even in its most inflammatory moments — and despite drawing criticism for explicit lyrics that some said glorified violence — represented nonviolent protest.

“Many label the N.W.A. as a peaceful protest group, rapping about what life is like in Compton,” Isabel Fields, a sophomore at Crossroads prep school in Santa Monica, Calif., wrote for her school paper on viewing a trailer in February.

Her reaction matched Mr. Jackson’s advisory in that promotional video.

“We put it all in the music, all our frustration and anger,” he said.

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