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.
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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.
4. Good reviews made a difference.
The conventional wisdom is that reviews don’t matter when it comes to summer blockbusters. (Critics savaged the Transformers movies, and they still all made beaucoup bank.) But a high rating on Rotten Tomatoes can convince viewers on the fence to give a film a shot. Compton clearly benefited, earning some of the strongest reviews of the season for a wide studio release. The movie’s 88% fresh rating is far higher than this summer’s biggest hits Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Minions. (Only critical sensations like Inside Out, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and Spy scored better.) And if good reviews translate into strong word-of-mouth from audiences, SOC could have serious commercial legs, with the hardcore N.W.A fans that came out opening weekend being replaced in subsequent weeks by the uninitiated who just want to see a good movie.
5. N.W.A never really went away.
Although N.W.A haven’t released an album of new material in 24 years, its influence is everywhere, and not just in music. Yes, Dre and Cube have enjoyed massive solo careers, with the former — now known as “hip-hop’s first billionaire” — releasing Compton: A Soundtrack, his first new album since 1999’s 2001, to commemorate the movie’s opening. (And Dre’s 1992 classic The Chronic remains one of the most important blueprints in contemporary hip-hop.) And the latter’s film career may have been just as important to the biopic’s success: From Boyz n the Hood to his family comedies (Are We There Yet?, Ride Along) to his pokerfaced portrayal of the gruff police captain in the smash Jump Street comedies, he’s been a legit movie star for so long that some of his youngest fans weren’t even born when he first started rapping.
And then there’s the musical acts Dre has mentored over the years: Even if movie audiences didn’t grow up on N.W.A, they know Snoop Dogg, Eminem, The Game, 50 Cent or Kendrick Lamar, to name just a few of the producer’s biggest protégés. In this way, Straight Outta Compton is another kind of origin story, flashing back to the beginnings of a West Coast sound that remains ubiquitous in popular music.
6. Hashtags and retweets, 140 characters in these streets.
In the music business, labels will employ street teams to help spread the word about its up-and-coming groups on a grassroots, city-by-city level. In the social media era, Compton‘s backers essentially did the same with a brilliant hashtag. #Straightoutta and the StraightOuttaSomewhere website, run by Beats by Dre, allowed fans to “rep your city” by personalizing N.W.A’s underdog/outlaw ethos, filling in the “Straight Outta ______” tag with their own burg. It soon became a meme that took on a life of its own: #straightoutta was adopted by everyone from comedy writers to the Obama administration, which promoted its contentious nuclear deal with Iran by tweeting a picture of a nuclear facility with the title “Straight Outta Uranium.” It’s entirely possible that a lot of people who got in on the #straightoutta craze haven’t even gotten around to seeing the film yet.
7. Compton opened at just the right time on the calendar.
While August is part of the industry’s summer movie season, the month lacks the commercial heat of May, June and July, when the biggest potential blockbusters dominate mulitplexes. With Labor Day and the start of school looming, August releases don’t have as great a chance of being huge moneymakers, and so studios tend to put out films in which they have a little less confidence — or that they’re willing to roll the dice on. (Sometimes, the studios come up big; see Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy.) Without any major box-office competition, Straight Outta Compton had the benefit of being the one broadly appealing movie out there at the moment — and also the only one that didn’t feature superheroes, superspies or animated minions talking gibberish.
8. Controversy sells.
“I’m the motherfucking villain,” N.W.A’s MC Ren rapped on “Straight Outta Compton,” setting the tone for the band’s bad-boy image. And although the biopic is a mostly positive look at the group’s rise from poverty, SOC hasn’t entirely been free of controversy. Some criticized the film for sidestepping Dre’s violent 1991 altercation with journalist Dee Barnes — “I made some fucking horrible mistakes in my life,” Dre recently told Rolling Stone about the incident — and, in the wake of deadly shootings at screenings for The Dark Knight Rises and Trainwreck, some theaters beefed up security for the film. (Happily, there were no reports of altercations this weekend.) Eerily, these events echo the moment in Compton in which the band discovers that the FBI are protesting their music: What might have seemed like a detriment may, in fact, have become other ways to spread the word about the film.
9. Even Marco Rubio loves N.W.A.
For all of N.W.A’s rep for violent lyrics and incurring the wrath of the FBI back in the day, the truth is that time has a way of sanding off the rough edges of even the most controversial artists. For proof, look no further than recent comments by Florida senator and GOP presidential hopeful Marco Rubio. A staunch conservative he may be, but Rubio has long waved the flag for West Coast hip-hop, called rappers “modern-day poets” and even tweeted his enthusiasm for seeing Straight Outta Compton on opening night. (No word if the senator actually made it to a theater this weekend.) Even if it’s merely a craven ploy to appeal to younger and African-American voters, Rubio’s strategy suggests that even a once-seemingly dangerous group like N.W.A, at long last, has been embraced into the soothing normalcy of mainstream American culture.
This story has been updated to reflect the change in reported opening-weekend grosses from $56 million to $60.2 million.