“Straight Outta Compton,” the biopic about iconic rap group N.W.A connected with older moviegoers as well as hip-hop fans, and it crossed racial lines this weekend at the box office, fueling a $60.2 million debut, the best ever for an R-rated film in August.
The extent to which the film directed by F. Gary Gray reached across ethnic and gender lines surprised industry analysts who projected an opening of $20 million less, based on other rap-themed movies that played almost exclusively to their fan base.
Instead, “Compton” posted debut numbers bigger than those of summer blockbusters like “Ant-Man,” “Mission:Impossible – Rogue Nation,” “San Andreas” and “Mad Max – Fury Road.”
The drama features newcomer Jason Mitchell in a powerful performance as Eazy-E. Corey Hawkins co-stars as Dr. Dre and O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays his real-life father, Ice Cube. Oscar-nominee Paul Giamatti has a smaller role as the group’s shady manager. But with no marquee stars headlining the film, there were several other reasons behind the electrifying debut of “Straight Outta Compton,” and here are a few:
The music: The mainly African-American and white young males that made the music of N.W.A hugely popular despite limited airplay, turned out in force for the film. They were mobilized by the concurrent release of the soundtrack, the first album in 15 years from Dr. Dre, whose appearance with Ice Cube on the Grammys in February raised awareness early.
The release date: There hasn’t been a movie specifically targeting African-American audiences since the independent comedy “Dope” in mid-June, but that wasn’t the key. “The release date, coming at a point in the summer when some fatigue sets in for many moviegoers, worked because we delivered a film that was something special, something that got audiences talking about it,” said Universal distribution chief Nic Carpou.
The film’s focus: What moviegoers were talking about, along with the performances, music and back story of the group’s origin, were the broader social themes addressed in “Straight Outta Compton.” Police brutality, overcoming socioeconomic obstacles and free speech rights all matter not only to African-Americans, who made up 46 percent of the audience, but to whites (23 percent) and Hispanics (21 percent) as well. Women also turned out and made up more than half (52 percent) of the crowd. Taking on those tough issues also helped with critics, who had the film at 88 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes.
Marketing and Social Media: Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and director Gray who co-produced the film, have significant social media followings and they reached out relentlessly to push the film and teamed with Universal’s red-hot marketing unit. Cube and fellow N.W.A members MC Ren and DJ Yella also reunited at the BET Experience in June. The team behind the film attended a series of special screenings including one with the mayor in Atlanta, and another at the YouTube Space L.A., where Cube spoke out about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
For the past week, a meme based on the film — Straight Outta (Fill-In Your Own City or Mood) — has had the Internet cracking up. Stars like Ava DuVernay, Serena Williams and LeBron James jumped on the bandwagon and it has been downloaded 5.4 million times going into the weekend, and had trended at No. 1 two days in a row on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The deadly hit-and-run involving Marion “Suge” Knight on January 29, also raised awareness about “Straight Outta Compton.” The crash occurred on the same day that Cube, Dre and fellow rapper The Game were in Compton shooting a promo for the film. Witnesses said Knight plowed his truck into two men after an argument on the set of the promo shoot. Knight says he was defending himself and is awaiting trial on a murder charge. But his presence looms large in the film. He’s played by R. Marcus Taylor who bears a striking resemblance to the bodyguard turned hip-hop mogul.
Ice Cube: He’s a bona fide movie star, with a resume that dates all the way back to “Boyz N the Hood,” which came out 24 years ago. More recently he’s been a familiar face in films like “Barbershop” and “Ride Along.” He also co-wrote the “Friday” films, and there were several lines in “Straight Outta Compton” from “Friday” including “Bye Felicia!”
Timing: The passage of time helped mainstream moviegoers — who might have been put off five or 10 years ago by the story of a group whose hits included “F-ck Tha Police.” Give Universal and chairman Donna Langley, who championed the project, kudos for rolling out the tale of “the most dangerous group in the world.” But Universal’s Carpou said “the filmmakers deserve the most credit, for deciding that now was the time to push for it.”