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How Straight Outta Compton became the season's surprise hit

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Jaimie Trueblood

Over its Aug. 14 opening weekend, Straight Outta Compton hauled in more than $60 million to snag the top spot at the box office and crush every industry expectation. Last week, the hip-hop biopic — which dramatizes the rise and demise of late-’80s/early-’90s gangsta-rap firebrands N.W.A — again claimed No. 1, crossing the $100 million mark in ticket sales and besting such new movies in wide release as Sinister 2 and Hitman: Agent 47. And according to box-office forecasting, Compton is on track to outpace all the competition for a third consecutive weekend.

It’s hardly a no-brainer that a $29 million R-rated film free of costumed heroes, boasting no marquee stars, and centered on the hard-swearing backstory of America’s most controversial hip-hop group would break through during popcorn-movie season — but here’s why (and how) Straight Outta Compton shot straight to the top.

1. Producers with pull

Former N.W.A mates Dr. Dre and Ice Cube took the unusual step (by Hollywood standards, anyway) of producing their own biopic. To compensate for the film’s cast of unknowns — including Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr. — Dre and Cube became focal points for a promo blitz, appearing in teaser trailers and doing press alongside fellow members MC Ren and DJ Yella. “This one was his baby,” Jackson says of his father’s commitment. “If he couldn’t be on set, he would Skype in. Him and Dre were there every day.”

2. Street cred gone social

The film’s marketers took to the air, skywriting Compton above Los Angeles, an image that saturated Instagram. Then they wisely rode the publicity slipstream of Dre’s Compton (Aug. 7), his first solo album in 16 years, which hit No. 1 on the charts. And the “Straight Outta Somewhere” meme allowed users to plug their hometown into the movie’s signature logo, becoming a bona fide viral sensation on social media with more than 6 million labels shared by Aug. 14. Call it a team effort: “Donna Langley from Universal is the sixth member of N.W.A,” Cube said at the premiere.

3. (Finally) breaking the silence

In Compton‘s second week, a din of controversy shifted the focus from the film to Dre’s real-life past transgressions. Hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes, R&B singer Michel’le (who has a son with Dre), and rapper-singer Tairrie B spoke publicly of having been physically assaulted by Dre during the period depicted in the film — events conspicuously left out of the final cut. Last week Dre issued an unexpected statement: “I apologize to the women I’ve hurt,” he wrote. “I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives.”

4. Continuing the conversation

Unlike Notorious, 2009’s biodrama about Notorious B.I.G., one of Compton’s principal talking points is how the film is not just reverent but also relevant to modern audiences. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” says director F. Gary Gray. “This movie is more than just a period piece.” Dealing with issues of racial profiling, police brutality, and African-American anger (as crystalized by N.W.A’s infamous 1988 song “F—tha Police”), it pushes emotional hot buttons in an era when #BlackLivesMatter has become a national rallying cry.