This past weekend, director F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton defied box office expectations and grossed $60.1 million, setting the record for the biggest biopic debut ever and the fifth largest August opening of all time. There will likely be lots of back-patting at Universal, which mounted an incredibly successful marketing campaign that transformed Compton from a “black film” into a “cultural event,” and at Legendary Pictures, which largely financed the $29 million budget.
You would also think that there will be lots of development execs busily calling all their contacts to see if they can find another Straight Outta Compton because that much money is not something you scoff at. And, because Hollywood is a business based on repeatable phenomena, someone oughta be out there looking to repeat it.
But I’d bet anything that isn’t what’s going on. I’d double-down on that bet and say that words like “outlier” and “unique” and “fluke” are being bandied out. Because those are the same things we hear when, say, a romantic comedy scores at the box office, or when a flick targeted at retirees does well, or what Hollywood used to use to explain Tyler Perry until, after his 97th film made $100 million, it was pointed out that you can’t be surprised by a thing that happens every time.
For a business that is so enamored by its past — walk through any studio lot and you’ll see reminders of distant (and in some cases, not so distant) glories; plaques on soundstages explaining what classics were shot there, banners celebrating Oscar past winners, murals of famous characters — it seems to forget that past when convenient. For example, there was a stretch from the late ‘80s to the mid-‘90s when “hood movies” were as popular as Westerns used to be, and for the same reason: They were cheap as hell to make and there and audience hungry for them. Do the Right Thing, New Jack City, Boyz n the Hood, Juice, South Central, CB4, Menace II Society, Poetic Justice, Fresh, Above the Rim, Friday — all different kinds of films, but all targeted at an under-served audience. The ‘90s were the blackest movies have ever been.
Earlier this year, Empire was a legitimate television phenomenon, with Blackish and Fresh Off the Boat on its heels. Were those shows “good”? Sure. But that’s not entirely why they were hits. They were hits because there are audiences hungry to see themselves on screen, thirsty for stories they recognize — even if those stories are either homogenized for American pop culture consumption or whipped into a preposterous lather. Will TV follow up on those successes by finding fresh voices to tell their stories? I don’t think so.
So what will we get out of Straight Outta Compton? Will its box office takedown lead to more stories like it, or will it lead to a battery of excuses? “We can’t find another rap group to sell us the rights.” “This is an audience that can’t be expected to turn out again and again.” “Compton is a special film, and special films come along once in a lifetime.” “Compton is unique.” “Compton is an outlier.”
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. Love & Basketball is one of his favorite movies. Honest.