Editor’s Notes: Dope opens in limited release today, June 19th.
Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa may be a relative unknown, but he’s written and directed four films since his debut sixteen years ago with The Wood, an African-American-centered film about the ties that bind and sometimes threaten to undermine a group of friends. A chronicler of the middle-class African-American experience, Famuyiwa’s latest film, Dope, a high school set coming-of-age tale, goes into an entirely new, welcome direction. It’s far more ambitious, far more risky, and far more unconventional than his previous work. Dope mixes and mashes genres and genre influences, from Cooley High, a Motown-heavy, 1960s’-set exploration of the African-American experience and a template for the urban-centered dramas of the ‘90s like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society, to wish-fulfillment fantasies like Risky Business, the epitome of early ‘80s, white male privilege and entitlement ((whose central, pants-deficient character ultimately gets everything but the girl), and thus a surprising influence on Famuyiwa and Dope.
It’s far more ambitious, far more risky, and far more unconventional than his previous work.
Dope centers on Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a high-school senior and self-professed geek whose interests, everything from ‘90s hip-hop music and culture (a “Golden Age” apparently), to his own, non-hip-hop band with best friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), an out lesbian, and Jib (Tony Revolori), a cultural appropriator extraordinaire, mark him as an outsider at his inner city high school. That high school, located in the poor, crime-ridden neighborhood of the Bottoms in Inglewood, California, doesn’t make it easy for Malcolm to blend in or fade into the background. Then again, Malcolm’s high-top fade and penchant for ‘90s-inspired clothing make him standout, not blend in. Picked on by gang members for his sweet, sweet Air Jordans, and discouraged by a bitter guidance counselor from applying to Harvard, Malcolm’s dream school, Malcolm simply wants to survive to live another day (and another day after that, etc., until he can make a well-timed escape to a better, safer environment).
Malcolm’s chance encounter with a drug dealer, Dom (A$ap Rocky/Rakim Mayers), a flesh-and-blood representation of another, easier path for Malcolm (Dom may have traded in the possibility of a better, if hard-earned, future out of Inglewood for the easy money and status of drug dealing, but he’s also a smart, shrewd, and perceptive young man, using the symbols and language of the streets to obtain what he wants and when he wants it). Dom strong-arms Malcolm into running a seemingly simple errand: Act as a go-between between Dom and his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz). Malcolm’s libido gets the better of him – as it would any teen – and he agrees to attend Dom’s upcoming birthday for the chance to spend time with Nakia. Where another, lesser film might go down a predictable path (Malcolm risking life and limb for Nakia), Dope goes down another: Malcolm inadvertently ends up with a backpack crammed with bricks of MDMA (Molly) and, at least at first, no way to get rid of it and move on with his life.
Famuyiwa’s deftness also extends to his smooth, almost invisible direction. Famuyiwa has evolved beyond the point-and-shoot style typical of writer-directors, using the full range of the tools and techniques available to him to create a fully realized world.
Malcolm ultimately turns into a reluctant entrepreneur – the clearest nod to Risky Business – to extricate himself from an increasingly precarious predicament, in turn risking his future. Famuyiwa shows impressive control over tone, mood, and pacing, guides Dope from parody/comedy to urban drama (and back again) without resorting to clichés, stereotypes, or binary thinking (minus strictly comic relief characters). Malcolm emerges as more than the sum of his experiences or background, a point Famuyiwa makes, maybe too forcefully and unsubtlety, in Dope’s closing moments as Malcolm reads his essay for his Harvard application aloud. Never a victim of circumstances outside of his control, Malcolm uses his smarts to navigate through and around obstacles that could lead to a long prison sentence or worse, a premature demise at the hand – or rather at the end of a gun – of any number of gangbangers. Dope’s final third turns on wish-fulfillment fantasy (another unsurprising correlation with Risky Business), but it never feels cheap or unearned (the opposite, actually).
Famuyiwa’s deftness also extends to his smooth, almost invisible direction. Famuyiwa has evolved beyond the point-and-shoot style typical of writer-directors, using the full range of the tools and techniques available to him (e.g., cinematography, editing, music) to create a fully realized world. It might be a stylized world, even a hyper-real one, but it’s still a recognizable, identifiable one. Famuyiwa’s skills extend to the performances he draws out of a young, relatively inexperienced cast, no more so than Moore’s compelling, charismatic turn as the conflicted, resourceful Malcolm, Clemons and Revolori as his best friends and later, his partners-in-actual-crime, and A$ap Rocky’s Dom representing the future Malcolm desperately wants to avoid. Famuyiwa’s helped immeasurably, of course, by a ‘90s-heavy, hip-hop soundtrack, both to underline Malcolm’s preoccupations and obsessions and a reminder that the ‘90s was indeed a “Golden Age” for hip-hop.
Famuyiwa shows impressive control over tone, mood, and pacing, guides Dope from parody/comedy to urban drama (and back again) without resorting to clichés, stereotypes, or binary thinking