Today’s guest post was written by Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at University of California, Irvine. A twentieth-century U.S. historian, she specializes in gender, sexuality, and the politics of patient advocacy, especially around HIV/AIDS. For more information about Andrea, visit her website or follow her on Twitter at @MyPenHistorical.
It’s certainly not your average summer blockbuster.
N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” had the fifth largest August opening in history, and is expected to cross the $100 million mark this weekend. Unlike the average summer offerings, this is a film that’s got people thinking—and the hot takes are coming in fast.
There are two kinds of articles that are circulating widely right now, as is often the case for biographical films: (1) articles covering the reactions of those who were there at the making of the history the film retells, and (2) articles decrying the topics and people that the film didn’t cover. Up to this point, the hottest of the hot takes have decried “Straight Outta Compton” as a revisionist history, primarily because it omits Dr. Dre’s disturbing history of violence against women including TV personality Dee Barnes, rapper Tairrie B, and one-time girlfriend Michel’le . This is an incredibly important conversation to have, and one that will surely continue into awards season. However, that’s not the only omission that the film’s critics need to address.
This post will examine the hip-hop community’s cultural memory of Eazy E’s AIDS diagnosis and death, and the unexpected impact that that narrative’s partial representation in “Straight Outta Compton” is having on contemporary viewers.
Eazy E’s AIDS diagnosis and sudden death at age thirty one was a major watershed in the history of AIDS in the black community. With the notable exception of Freddie Mercury, few high-profile musicians (white or black) had died of the disease to that point—certainly none with Eazy E’s cultural significance. The famous faces of AIDS in black America were the faces of athletes, specifically Magic Johnson and tennis-star Arthur Ashe.
Eazy E (a.k.a. Eric Wright) died of AIDS a full four years after Magic Johnson revealed his HIV-positive status, but the black community received his death as a wakeup call nevertheless. Though he represents an unparalleled consciousness-raiser in the history of the virus, Magic Johnson’s message didn’t penetrate nearly as deeply as E’s did. This isn’t surprising: Johnson was—and remains—a giant. An elite college graduate, an NBA star, and a business magnate, there still aren’t very many people in the world who see themselves in reflected in the man.
Eazy E, on the other hand, was a high-school dropout, a gang member, and a drug dealer, a man who traded in relatability, who rose to fame by holding a mirror up to and empowering a community in extremis. When the godfather of gangsta rap announced that he had AIDS, he effectively held that same mirror up again, forcing an awareness that the black community’s denial of the highly-stigmatized disease was as lethal as the virus itself.
As he was dying, E told the world, through a statement read by his lawyer, that he wanted his death to mean something, writing that “I’ve got thousands and thousands of young fans that have to learn about what’s real when it comes to AIDS. I’ve learned in the last week that this thing is real and it doesn’t discriminate. It affects everyone.”  In numerous interviews, Ice Cube suggested that the diagnosis and death scenes in “Straight Outta Compton” were designed to give the late rapper a chance to spread that simple truth about AIDS again, to a new—but equally afflicted—generation.
Unfortunately, in failing to mention the rash of misinformation and conspiracy theories that spread around the country following Eazy E’s death, “Straight Outta Compton” unintentionally laid the groundwork for that cultural memory to grow. In a film that highlights many a terrible continuity (i.e. urban poverty, institutional racism, and police brutality), our collective understanding of AIDS was one of the few places where the filmmakers assumed a tectonic cultural change. Sadly, that assumption was incorrect.
In the twenty years since his death, several individuals who worked with Eazy E have publicly stated that they either (1) believe E was deliberately given AIDS, murdered as a result of a beef gone biological, or (2) don’t believe he ever had AIDS, that AIDS is a cover-up for what really happened. These claims are coming from big names in hip-hop: Ruthless Records co-founder Jerry Heller, Death Row Records Executive Suge Knight, and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony member Layzie Bone have all advanced their own half-baked theories regarding the manner of E’s death . Their suspicions center around, (1) the rapidity of E’s decline, and (2) his wife and children’s HIV-negative status, both concerns that communicate a serious misunderstanding of latency periods, transmission, and the virus’ epidemiological history… and nothing more. The speed and circumstances of Eazy E’s death, though undeniably tragic, were nothing out of the ordinary in 1995.
Sidestepping the conspiracy theories bandied about after E’s death, on face, seems like the most responsible possible choice the filmmakers could have made… the choice their fallen friend probably would have wanted them to make. In this case, however, silence has only empowered the false—and dangerous—murder-mystery narrative.
Within three days of the film’s release The International Business Times offered up a hugely irresponsible article titled “Did Suge Knight Kill ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Rapper Eazy-E? Jimmy Kimmel Clip Shows Sinister Joke About AIDS Death.” The 2003 TV clip shows rap-label executive and “Straight Outta Compton” bogeyman Suge Knight talking about how to murder somebody without arousing suspicion.
“If you shoot somebody, you go to jail forever,” he says. “You don’t want to go to jail forever. … They have a new thing out. They have this stuff they called… they get blood from somebody with AIDS and they [inject] you with it. That’s slow death. The Eazy-E thing, you know what I mean?”
Glorified viral-video trend pieces like these are popping up everywhere now, no doubt fueled by the fact that the Death Row Records co-founder is already headed to court to face (unrelated) murder charges .
If “Straight Outta Compton’s” portrayal of Suge Knight wasn’t enough to provoke a renewed public interest in the circumstances of E’s death (he is portrayed as the quintessential mustache-twirling villain) the choice to omit Eazy E’s deathbed marriage to Tomika Woods adds still more fuel to the conspiracy-theory fire. Tomika Woods (now Tomika Woods-Wright) inherited Ruthless Records, but not before a lengthy a legal battle, during which it was claimed that Eazy E was not of sound mind at the time he married Woods . Tomika Woods-Wright served alongside Dr. Dre as an Executive Producer on “Straight Outta Compton”; while it’s unsurprising that the specious accusations leveled against her went unmentioned, the smell of a cover up is proving irresistible to unscrupulous content producers.
But why is this story sticking? Why, after twenty years and millions of preventable deaths, are there so many people who continue to believe that Eazy E was murdered?
The short answer: it would be easier on everybody if he had died that way.
If Eazy E went the way of Biggie and Tupac, if he was murdered for money or power or respect, his narrative would fit in with the narrative that he himself so artfully represented to the world over the course of his career. A “Real Muthaphukkin’ G” is supposed to die in prison, or in a hail of gunfire, not in the grips of a sexually-transmitted infection, and especially not in the grips of a sexually-transmitted infection that, at the time, was popularly understood as an affliction of gay white men. The theory that Eazy E was cut down in his prime by an act of violence, not a virus, perpetuates AIDSphobia, homophobia, and denial of a disease that’s been decimating the black community for over thirty years.
The care Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Director F. Gary Gray took in filming the end of Eazy’s life is almost palpable. Without question, the scenes in which Eazy E learns he’s dying and says goodbye to his N.W.A. comrades are among the strongest in “Straight Outta Compton.” They succeed in no small part due to an Oscar-worthy performance by relative unknown Jason Mitchell. Mitchell was the ideal vessel for Eric Wright’s message, and he delivered that message remarkably.
In an ideal world, that would have been enough. That “Straight Outta Compton” has given decades-old conspiracy theories new life is a testament first and foremost to how much work still needs to be done to educate our country’s underserved communities about “what’s real when it comes to AIDS.” It’s also a sad reminder that denial dies hard.