At some point in our lives, almost all of us feel like outsiders. That outsider status can be alienating enough on its own, but when it can also get you killed, life becomes a harrowing game of survival. That experience is what writer/director Rick Famuyiwa explores in his new film, Dope. What’s really surprising is how funny investigating that premise can be. The movie is a fresh, hilarious, and heartfelt take on growing up in the hood, and what that means for kids whose only familiarity with “dope” is using the word to describe their favorite obsession: early 90s hip hop culture. Famuyiwa uses comedy to explore a unique cultural experience, but he also employs a serious tone, and never lets the latter slip away into overblown melodrama. His talent has produced a coming-of-age story for a new generation.
Dope tells the story of Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), three high school seniors living in the most dangerous part of the toughest suburb in America – Inglewood, California, aka The Bottoms. The friends are identified by their peers as (and they will readily admit to being) geeks. Malcolm’s dream of one day attending Harvard can’t even distract him from his favorite pop culture obsessions, and, in fact, he incorporates his love of hip hop into his application essay to the school. His paper, an extended examination on Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” is mocked by his guidance counselor because good grades won’t be enough for a black kid from the hood to get into Harvard. A silly essay about rap music isn’t what the school is looking for, and he should write something more personal, the counselor tells him. Malcolm won’t let that advice bring him down, though, and he, Diggy, and Jib start their coming of age story the way most kids do – by just being kids.
Part of growing up is discovering sexuality, and Malcolm learns this while helping Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), a fellow resident of The Bottoms, study for the GED. Malcolm wants to see her again, so he convinces his friends to crash the birthday party of Nakia’s boyfriend, Dom (played by rapper A$AP Rocky). Dom, as it happens, is also the local drug dealer, so the three are quickly in over their heads. The DEA raids the party, and in a mix up worthy of Buster Keaton, Malcolm ends up with Dom’s stash – several kilos of MDMA, or Molly. The rest of the movie is concerned with Malcolm’s attempts to turn the drugs into cash at the behest of the drug lord at the top of the food chain. Along the way, Malcolm learns some things about himself, and what it will take to make his dreams come true. He sees Harvard as the gateway to a better life, and by the end of the film I desperately wanted him to have the chance to walk through it.
During the first act, I was afraid the black kids being presented onscreen were intentionally conceived as “safe” for white people to identify with. Malcolm even voices this fear as he describes to the audience his particular brand of geekdom: Manga, skateboarding, and the aforementioned early 90s hip hop culture. What he, Diggy, and Jib are into that have branded them as outcasts are “stuff white people like.” Malcolm sports a hair style that almost rises to Kid ‘n Play levels, and the three friends play together in a punk band called Awreeoh. My fears were misplaced, though, because being perceived as outsiders by your peer group is something with which almost everyone – regardless of race, class or creed – can identify. That makes the movie entertaining for all kinds of people.
When you add the strong performances from the cast, Dope is impossible to resist. Clemons (from the series Transparent) and Revolori (the Lobby Boy from Grand Budapest Hotel) make for an excellent support crew, but this is unmistakably Shameik Moore’s movie. As Malcolm, Moore turns in a magnificent leading performance. His acting has an honest quality that made me believe, and believe in, the character. By the end of the film, I felt so connected to Malcolm that I was emotionally invested in finding out if he got accepted into Harvard. Executive producer Pharrell Williams adds even more entertainment value by penning the songs sung by Awreeoh – the tunes Can’t Bring Me Down and Don’t Get Deleted are infectious. Dope is a superb example of a small, independent movie with a lot of heart and humor, which are substances I’ll gladly get hooked on. Here’s to hoping filmmakers, both inside and outside the Hollywood system, can keep that product coming.