Typically, the movies that dominate the summer box office are superhero sequels or CGI-heavy thrillers, not drama-heavy biopics, and especially not ones about rap music and violence. And yet in the first weekend of its release, Straight Outta Compton made nearly $60 million in theaters, easily beating the week's other big debut, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and winning the first place spot (not to mention the biggest August opening for an R-rated movie ever). Compton's success is a huge surprise to many, considering that the N.W.A biopic was expected to bring in about $20 million less than what it ended up making. But perhaps it shouldn't be such a shock — maybe, once again, the appeal of a movie starring non-white actors was grossly underestimated.
Because really, there's no reason that Compton shouldn't have been expected to do as well as it did. The film is no indie, having been released by Universal Studios. It's receiving fantastic reviews and currently holding at an impressive 88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It's a biopic of a music group known and loved by many, whose legacy and influence are still remarkably strong two decades after their break-up. Its marketing was heavy and smart — how many "Straight Outta" memes did you see these last few weeks? And, perhaps most significantly of all, Compton's themes surround race relations and police brutality, two subjects with enormous relevance today.
Everything about the film indicates that it'd be nothing less than a blockbuster, and yet its success still comes as a surprise. People seem to be shocked that a movie that, despite having all the qualifications of a hit, is, in fact, a hit. The likely explanation for this is, sadly, the fact that Compton is about the rise of a black hip-hop group, and pundits believed that that would limit its reach. Not many people would want to see a movie about black culture and rap music, and those who would wouldn't be enough to yield any substantial numbers. Of course, this is simply flat-out wrong; millions of people saw Compton this weekend, and one only has to look at the CinemaScore ratings or the reactions on Twitter to see that the movie's viewers don't fit into any "niche" audience; they are male, female, black, white, young, old. Even more, leading up to the film's release, anticipation was huge; everything from that recent N.W.A reunion to that rumored Tupac scene had people looking forward to Compton and buying early tickets in droves.
Clearly, any doubt people had about Compton's potential success was unfounded. It's certainly satisfying to see the film do so well regardless of its expectations, but it's frustrating that, for the umpteenth time, a movie not about white men was so underestimated. It seems like every time a film gets released that stars women or people of color (or, in far too rare circumstances, both), it's viewed as the underdog, and not treated with the same respect and anticipation as movies starring white men. Yet time and time again, this double standard has been deemed unnecessary; just look at the success of Bridesmaids, or The Hunger Games, or Spy, or any movie made by Ice Cube or Kevin Hart for proof. White males aren't the only people who can lead movies, and they also aren't the only ones who watch them. Yet every time a new film featuring female and/or non-white leads comes out, Hollywood acts like it's the dark horse, and treats it as such. And when a movie like that does well, it's viewed, every time, as an anomaly.
This is a troubling trend, and it needs to stop. There is no reason to doubt that a movie like Spy or Compton would do badly just because it doesn't star a white man. After all, movie audiences consist of people from every gender, race, and ethnicity. In 2014, according to the MPAA, non-white moviegoers made up 44 percent of all attendees; women made up 52 percent. Knowing numbers like these, it's simply naive to think that films featuring Caucasian male stars are the only ones that would resonate with audiences.
Yet with each success of a so-called "underdog," it's a step forward in the right direction. Seeing a film like Compton do so well and dominate its more "traditional" competitors will hopefully remind naysayers that it's time to reevaluate their beliefs and heighten their expectations when it comes to diversity at the box office. Audiences want to see films that represent them — which means white men aren't the only people who can lead a movie to massive success.
Images: Universal Studios (2)