Reviewer: Philip Price
Directors: Rick Famuyiwa
Stars: A$ap Rocky, Amin Joseph, Blake Anderson, Chanel Iman, Forest Whitaker, Keith Stanfield, Kiersey Clemons, Kimberly Elise, Rick Fox, Roger Guenveur Smith, Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Zoe Kravitz
Released: 4th September 2015 (UK)
Dope is something of an exquisitely stated thesis with the outer shell of a “drug deal gone bad” movie understated by the culture within where this rather typical (for the area and in the movies) excursion occurs. There is an angle that feels like the drug plot in Dope is necessary to make the movie feel more exciting, but that it actually makes this unique take on black culture all the more generic. Director and writer Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood) smartly uses both of these preconceptions to his advantage by allowing the regularity of a drug deal and the race and culture typically related to such going-ons to highlight the point he is intending to make. The main ideas here are simple: to not sell yourself short and to not settle for what’s expected of you; seemingly talking as much about one’s predestination due to their inherent preferences as he is the color of their skin. That Famuyiwa is able to somewhat blur this line of not simply defining people by their baseball stats, but for the character they display is what he really wants to explore which he does magnificently by cultivating the affinity we all have for nostalgia to display how we tend to believe it was somehow better in someone else’s time despite us really knowing the reality was never as pleasant as the high points in pictures paint. There is a whole treasure trove of ideas and concepts within Dope and some are more highlighted than necessarily explored, but Famuyiwa does a solid job of capturing the essence of what is necessary to get his point across here. This essence is as present in the musical stylings chosen to power the movie along as it is the slang verbiage and dated styles that Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his co-horts rock throughout. Dope is certainly nothing short of an independent-minded take on a subculture that is more than under served, but as a movie it somewhat lacks that definitive spark that actually sets it apart as something exceptional. There is something muddled and incoherent about the way it chooses to lay out its ideas which is odd because I rather enjoyed the freewheeling editing choices, but walking out and considering what I’d taken away from the film it came down more to the broad strokes than the brass tacks when it would seem Malcolm’s genius is in the details.
Every generation has a coming of age tale where we go through the same experiences in different ways and with Dope we are experiencing this phase in life through the lens of the the post hip hop generation. The birth of hip-hop in the mid to late eighties gave way to the exploration of the genre and it’s definitive artists that would influence all that came after them in the nineties. Malcolm was born as the decade came to an end and raised in the new millenium where an affection for the culture of the time he’d just missed grew from a collection of VHS tapes with recordings of Yo! MTV Raps episodes on them. Malcolm is a self-proclaimed geek, navigating between bad and worse choices every day in a community called The Bottoms in Inglewood, CA. Filled with gangsters and drug dealers the threat of being in the wrong place at the wrong time is ever looming and Famuyiwa is sure to let audiences know that the threats are real.Within the first twenty minutes of the film a narrator (Forest Whitaker) introduces us to our trio of lead characters who, outside of Malcolm, include Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). The three of them admit they’re into what classmates would classify as “white shit” including skateboards and punk rock making them the butt of jokes and the easy targets for jocks and punks like Bug (Keith Stanfield) who picks off Malcolm’s shoes because they wear the same size. While dealing with working to defy the odds presented him at birth that includes an interview with Harvard alumni and acing the SAT Malcolm also comes into possession of a large amount of dope that, through a convoluted sequence of events, he must get rid of himself. Through this journey in what he has no prior experience with Malcolm flirts with the possibility of becoming what others expect from him, but rather takes away the lesson that how he’s perceived will never define who he really is.
What is most appealing about Dope is the way in which it mixes in all it is trying to encompass. It does it with a certain ease while never really reaching the top of the mountain it aspires to climb, but the venture is nevertheless admirable. There is no denying the film has something to say and knows how to say it intelligently. Whether it be in the broad topic of Malcolm’s inner struggle to realize his own self and his own swag without having to rely on the past as he’s already dismissed everything his peers might deem cool or the smaller ideals about playing off your own persona-Malcolm and his friends are considered nothing more than lowly geeks and so why would anyone expect anything from them akin to running a drug business out of their high school? They wouldn’t and Malcolm, Jib and Diggy use this to their advantage. There are the small caveats that talk about impressions and the difference in what different minds will do with such impressions. The big time drug dealer in the community is a guy named Dom (A$ap Rocky) who prescribes to an idea of never falling into a slippery slope. It is something of a code for him as we are shown early on, but only later is it revealed that someone of an impressionable status implemented this idea on the young man who has carried it with him ever since and continues to live by it. In relation to Dom, Malcolm is a broader, higher-functioning thinker that considers all angles of an idea and not just the immediate ramifications of what a slippery slope could mean. He applies it to different situations and thinks it through before deciding whether or not to embrace the actions it would require to uphold such a proposal. Because of this kind of characterization we understand the internal struggle that is the true arc of the film and within this set of ideas and perceptions that Malcolm carries around he comes to create who he is out of his own time. In being able to embrace this idea that while he may love nineties hip-hop, that love doesn’t define him he no longer relies on this nostalgia to make him feel more in line with who he might want to be, someone easily classified, and instead allows his true, complicated self to flourish.
It is somewhat platitudinous, the idea of encouraging individuals to be themselves because they are indeed unique, but it ultimately works here because of how Famuyiwa and his cast convey it with such style. There is no lack of social commentary with how often stereotypes and preconceptions are thrown around here and batted down with a pointed line of dialogue (a brief appearance by Rick Fox is especially pointed and funny), but the soul of the film comes through in the tweaks made to the cliched story of a black kid from Inglewood ultimately having to sell drugs in order to get into Harvard. This soul would be non-existent without the performance of Moore who is something of a revelation. He is not at all what one might expect (which is the point) and yet he brings this perfectly balanced facade to the role of a teenager who is just far enough outside the realm of normal to be interesting yet still logical enough to take advantage of the opportunities presented in ways the audience can get behind. It isn’t often we get a protagonist who seems to do what a typical person would do rather than their actions being dictated by where the plot needs to go, but Malcolm is a fully-formed human who Moore plays with a perfectly humble and endearing demeanor that inherently makes us root for him. There is something of an underdeveloped love story with the Zoë Kravitz character and the film really derails itself for a bit at the beginning of the second act when Chanel Iman’s character comes into play and disrupts the energy between Moore, Revolori and Clemons. Luckily, things pick back up and never slow down once the lead trio is reunited and pull in their long lost band camp pal, Will Sherwood (Workaholics Blake Anderson), who adds a nice deviation from the core group to present a new dynamic between the three. There are a few classic lines tossed out here and there that I’ll no doubt use in future conversations including, “How am I supposed to eat my pound cake while witnessing something like that?” plus, the film goes out on Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance,” so despite the film not living up to its Sundance hype it’s more than worthy of your attention as it not only reflects appropriately on the past, but gives an adequate glimpse into our future.