With its unflinching look at race relations in America, box office smash “Straight Outta Compton” is a cinematic jolt that incinerates old prejudices about what kind of movies are commercially viable.
Yes, the biopic about the early days of rap group N.W.A is an “origin story,” that most hackneyed of terms, but that’s about the only common link it holds with the glut of glossy superhero films, reboots and remakes that have a stranglehold on multiplexes. The picture is an unvarnished, honest and often depressing look at inner-city drug abuse, violence and privation. The only superpower anyone on screen demonstrates is the ability to craft lyrical poetry from urban desperation.
Yet “Straight Outta Compton” kicked off its theatrical run with a scorching $56.1 million despite opening in the heart of summer blockbuster season.
“It’s an example of counterprogramming,” said producer Bill Straus. “Summer movies have become so monolithic over the last decade that releasing the film at this time of year was brazen, and I think youth culture responds to brazen.”
That was what Universal, the studio that co-financed the rap drama with Legendary Pictures, was hoping for when it greenlit the picture. It had scored a similar success with 2002’s “8 Mile,” a slightly fictionalized version of Eminem’s rise from the wastelands of Detroit, that made $242.9 million globally. By opening “Straight Outta Compton” in August, the studio was banking on providing a palate cleanser to a summer that has been dominated by special effects-driven adventures.
“All good forms of art do more than just flatter you,” said Nick Carpou, Universal’s domestic distribution chief. “The more successful they are, the more they make you think about where you are in the world.”
That may be true when it comes to forging art that endures, but a willingness to illuminate the issues of the day is not readily apparent in most hit movies. Summer movies like “Jurassic World” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” are escapist, slipping the bonds of reality to offer pure fantasy. But “Straight Outta Compton” is rooted firmly in our present, and seems to speak to racial tensions that are erupting in America’s cities and towns. It may have been set in the late 1980s and ’90s, but its depiction of police brutality is instantly recognizable to a country still grappling with the fallout from the violent deaths of African-American men like Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner.
Those men were killed by police officers, and the questions that have surrounded their deaths, and the riots and demonstrations they have provoked, have caused U.S. confidence in law enforcement officers to plunge to their lowest levels in 22 years, according to Gallup. Against that backdrop, “Straight Outta Compton,” which looks at a group that set off a firestorm of controversy with its protest song “F–k tha Police,” takes on an added resonance. Scenes of police clashes with the rap stars and the 1992 Los Angeles riots featured prominently in trailers for the film — a sure sign that Universal wasn’t skittish about the incendiary nature of the material.
“There are tons of moments in this movie that are very topical,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “Even though it takes place in the ’90s, it’s still relevant today. It proves a powerful point that nothing has really changed.”
It also helps differentiate “Straight Outta Compton” from its competition. “Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” the weekend’s other major new release, had all the grit of a Gucci ad and, despite being an entertaining novelty, flopped.
Analysts are hopeful that “Straight Outta Compton’s” success will embolden Hollywood to take more risks during the warmer months. In the short term, however, very little will change about the kinds of movies studios deem to be palatable for summer crowds. After all, a sequel, reboot or superhero movie will hit theaters every single weekend during the summer of 2016.
“It’s not a good time for original content,” said Jeff Bock, box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “If you look at the top ten films of any year, 70% are sequels and reboots. So studios are going to throw out whatever they can in the hopes of having a ‘Fast and the Furious.'”
In the case of “Straight Outta Compton,” its big test will come over the ensuing weeks as Universal begins to debut the film in foreign markets. In the past, a deeply rooted belief that films that appeal to African-American audiences won’t play overseas has made studios skittish about greenlighting certain projects.
“It’s been the cross that African-American filmmakers have had to bear for years in terms of getting their stories out,” notes Straus.
That may change. With millions of records sold around the world, Universal believes that the story of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E will transcend borders.
“Music is a universal language,” said Carpou.