Grossing an estimated $60 million this weekend, the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton has already been established as one of summer’s most unlikely non-franchise blockbusters and bona fide box-office smashes, dwarfing the openings of higher-profile offerings such as Fantastic Four and Terminator Genisys. (And, if that number holds, it will have had a better first weekend than even Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the crowned king of this season’s name-brand entries which debuted with a domestic haul of $55.5 million according to Box Office Mojo.) But in hindsight, Compton‘s sleeper-success story isn’t that surprising at all. The signs were there all along that this epic biopic would be a hit straight outta the gate.
1. It’s a superhero story of a different kind.
Although SOC is a biopic, its structure isn’t that far removed from the comic-book movies that have dominated the box office in recent years. Director F. Gary Gray chronicles the formation of the Los Angeles gangsta-rap collective as if it’s an origin story, showing how Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E and the rest of the band first hooked up. Even more so than in the misbegotten Fantastic Four reboot, this supergroup tale is really about an unlikely bunch of ordinary people who team up to do something extraordinary. And don’t think that Gray, a one-time hip-hop video director who previously partnered with Cube on the 1995 hit Friday, doesn’t see the parallels between the band and its costumed counterparts: In one telling scene, he even has the group members stride down the street in mythmaking slow-motion, each clad in their uniforms of windbreakers, black jeans and black baseball caps.
2. Nostalgia rules.
Hollywood has been in the midst of a 1980s revival for a few years now, remaking many of its iconic films from the Reagan-to-Rubik’s Cube age. What’s funny, though, is that they’ve been busts across the board, with new versions of Robocop, Poltergeist, Red Dawn and Nightmare on Elm Street all underperforming. Maybe that’s why Compton didn’t: It told a new nostalgic story rather than simply recycling an old one. And it’s also important to remember that hip-hop itself has been looking back of late: Whether it’s Eminem’s 2013 single “Berzerk,” which heavily sampled Licensed to Ill-era Beastie Boys, or the Bush I-era kids of the Sundance hit Dope, the past is very much present. “Nineties hip-hop in particular really shaped what became the common pop cultural language that we all speak,” Dope director Rick Famuyiwa told Rolling Stone earlier this summer. And that language was very much shaped by N.W.A.
3. The uncomfortable parallels to current racial tension were unmistakable.
All credit to Universal, which released the film, for not exploiting the obvious connections between the movie’s late-Eighties/early-Nineties racial tensions and our own in its marketing. Nonetheless, it was impossible to miss how the climate that provoked a song like “Fuck tha Police” remains distressingly alive and well in the Ferguson era. Nostalgic rap fans may have been drawn to the time period, but N.W.A’s lyrics about police brutality, poverty and racism couldn’t be more relevant in 2015. Watching scenes of the band being victimized by thuggish police officers, it felt queasily reminiscent of recent videos of Walter Scott and Eric Garner dying at the hands of law enforcement.