In ‘The Defiant Ones,’ the HBO doc on Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, finds journalist Dee Barnes’ voice
Director Allen Hughes kept the revealing interview under wraps for years
Allen Hughes is, perhaps, one of Hollywood’s best secret-keepers.
For years, he’s been quietly working on a documentary about the creative partnership of legendary music producer and label executive Jimmy Iovine and music producer and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Dr. Dre. At its best, the doc illustrates how two kids — one white Italian kid from Brooklyn, New York, one black kid from Compton, California — rose, joined forces and ultimately inked a multibillion–dollar deal with Apple. The work to get there was tremendous. But it’s the little intricacies that sell it.
Hughes — who co-directed with his twin brother, Albert, classics such as Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and The Book of Eli — kept it unusually quiet, away from in-the-know Hollywood trade publications and even from the very people he targeted for revealing sit-down interviews.
Keeping a lid on the production was especially challenging in 2015, when Straight Outta Compton, a hugely successful and well-reviewed feature about the origin story of N.W.A., came under fire because of the film’s omission of Denise “Dee” Barnes. Barnes, a hip-hop journalist, was physically assaulted by Dr. Dre in 1991. At the time of the assault, she was the host of Fox’s popular hip-hop show Pump It Up! The heinous and infamous incident was all over the much-watched MTV News and was in the Los Angeles Times. Dr. Dre eventually pleaded no contest and was sentenced to probation; Barnes settled out of court with him for an undisclosed amount. Dr. Dre issued a statement at the height of the film’s success.
“Dre, Jimmy and I are going into this,” Hughes said via phone from Los Angeles, “we all had to agree what we were going to touch on. And Dre was, that was the first thing he brought up. And this is before Straight Outta Compton got greenlit.”
The thing is, Dr. Dre had revisited the incident in great detail with Barnes for the four-part documentary, scheduled to debut Sunday. With Allen Hughes leading the discussion, Barnes (who is working on a memoir) and Dr. Dre talked about the moments that led up to the assault, the incident and its aftermath. The statement that Dr. Dre released — “I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives …” — is a moment in the documentary.
“I’m not just going to call it an apology,” said Hughes. “I think it’s more of an atonement than an apology. And then cut to a year later, we were editing the film, we have it, and then this thing breaks out … the Straight Outta Compton controversy.” That section in The Defiant Ones, which premieres its first of four parts at 9 p.m. EST Sunday on HBO, is an important one. Very unlike the Straight Outta Compton feature film, this documentary is a 360-degree look at specifically Dr. Dre and Iovine’s twin rise and features organic-feeling sit-downs with the likes of Bono, Gwen Stefani, Sean (Diddy) Combs, Eminem, Will.i.am, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, MC Ren and more.
Hughes said he filmed Dre and Barnes talking about the physical assault well in advance of the blowback from the feature film. But for many reasons, he kept his work under wraps. He wanted to protect the integrity of his documentary. He also knew that if folks were aware he was working on a documentary about two of the most influential men in popular culture, the price of all of the rich archival music and film footage would go way up. And, more importantly, Hughes didn’t want his interview subjects to get contaminated by gossip about what someone else might be saying. The Dee Barnes situation kept him up at night.
“That caused a depression,” he said. “These are real people. These are human beings. I was raised by a feminist, activist woman. I was more into, as a child, women’s issues than black issues. So this hit home for me.”
Barnes’ voice is an important one to hear in the documentary — more so, even, than the apology Dr. Dre offers her. In Hughes’ documentary, Barnes is a voice of authority and puts the rise of N.W.A. and the departure of Ice Cube into proper context. She also talks about what happened after she filed a civil suit against Dr. Dre for assaulting her: She all but lost her career.
“I had an intense, great relationship with Tupac,” said Hughes, “and then there was this moment of violence that happened that was really bad. Him against me at one point, with a bunch of people. … It lasted about five minutes. Everyone knows our relationship based off of that one moment.” He said he relates to Barnes because she is not a victim. “She’s an activist. Quite the activist,” he said. “I didn’t know whether she would agree to the interview or not. She goes back to the World Class Wreckin’ Cru days. She was like their little sister.” Hers was a story that people needed to hear.
“She [was] her own artist. A voice in the culture. She was there, and it was great. It was fun, it was glorious, until that moment. And, you know, everyone’s got to do what they’ve got to do to move past that moment or whatever, but … she really inspired me. She taught me. She had moved so far past that s—, and she wasn’t in that place anymore. She just hadn’t been heard.”
There are so many nuggets in this documentary, such as the Iovine-hosted weekly football games. Former Death Row executive Suge Knight and former first son John F. Kennedy Jr. play with and against one another. “Every single thing [I’ve] ever made,” said Hughes, “the protagonist either died or went to jail at the end of the movie. This is the first one where it’s a happy ending.”
Hughes wants people to be inspired. “These are human beings,” he said. “They f—ed up, they f— up just like all of us. They go through the same s— we all go through, and they’re … opening up and revealing how they did it. They said, ‘Here’s how we did it. Here’s what happened.’ You don’t have to be a hyperintellectual or sophisticated to understand it. Here’s how I got past that tragedy. All of it. I think people [will] walk away and go, ‘OK. I’m going to go get my hustle on.’ And have some fun.”