What do you get when you cross House Party with City Of God? An instant coming-of-age classic for the post-millennial era and one of the best films of the year.
Dope stars newcomer Shameik Moore as Malcom, a young, black, straight-A student and Harvard University hopeful from the notorious ghetto of Inglewood. Malcolm is ridiculed and tormented by bullies, hoods and even teachers for being obsessed with '90s hip-hop culture, "white people shit" like skateboarding and Manga and getting good grades, and for being an all-around geek when he's not the thug that the whole world expects him to be. At his side are his two fellow geek friends Diggy and Jib, played by Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori, who together also form the AfroPunk band Awreeoh (as in "Oreo," the slang term for people who are black on the outside but white on the inside).
Malcolm crosses paths with the local dope dealer Dom (played with confidence by rap star A$AP Rocky), who convinces him to approach the neighborhood princess Nakia, the always lovely Zoe Kravitz. Malcolm shows up to Dom's birthday party in the hopes of hooking up with Nakia, but when a drug deal sparks a bloody shootout, Malcolm and his friends wind up with a stash of high-grade MDMA and must find a way to get rid of the weight without getting killed or locked up.
Some minor spoilers will follow, contained in this paragraph: Normally, movies like these would involve some cheesy moralizing about avoiding the evils of crime and drugs, with kids on the run as they try to stay the straight and narrow. At the midway point of the film, Malcolm comes under tremendous pressure to sell the dope by someone who was supposed to be an ally and help him escape from the hood life. But rather than surrender to the cops in the name of honor and integrity, Malcolm and his crew decide to dive head-first into the dope game, but with a unique and brilliant twist that revs up the second half of the movie. With his genius wit and some capable connections, Malcolm and the gang transcend the simple dope-boy slinging on the corner mentality, using the power of modern technology and social media to get themselves out of their predicament.
A recurring element in both the narrative and technical construction of the movie is the reverence for old school culture and the celebration of new school attitudes. Dope is written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, who has been in the game for a minute and achieved varying success with other movies, including 1999's The Wood, another coming-of-age tale starring a black cast set in Inglewood. Famuyiwa weaves in elements of established urban cinema from the likes of John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers, as well as '80s teen comedies like John Hughes' works, and filters them through the modern high-velocity lens of newer directors like Phil Lord and Edgar Wright. Dope has a sense of gravitas found in someone with firm roots in history, but captures the feeling of explosive energy found in Kids These Days.
Shameik Moore's performance is key to what sells Malcolm's journey. Though he may be stuttering and soft-spoken, Malcolm is not an indecisive pushover; he may be a nerd, but he is not a dweeb. Whether it's working up the will to ask a girl out, formulating a plan for how to move several kilos of drugs or proving his worth to a crazy money launderer, when it's time to make a decision and/or take action, Malcolm is 'bout it. The theme of old and new is also present in other parts of the casting. Forest Whitaker provides narration (and serves as executive producer), and other black acting stalwarts such as Kimberly Elise, Rick Fox and Roger Guenveur Smith deliver in supporting and key roles. On the new school tip, there are several cameos from rappers like the aforementioned A$AP Rocky, Tyga, Casey Veggies and newcomer Mexican-American emcee Kap G. Though none of the rappers gives a particularly groundbreaking performance, their inclusion adds a good dash of modern flavor to the pot. I do want to make special recognition of another young actor, one Keith Stanfield, who plays the schoolyard bully Bug. You may remember him from his astonishing performance in Short Term 12, and in Dope he gets another understated but powerful dramatic moment, and I hope to see a lot more from him and all the other young cast members in the future.
The music which serves as the beating heart of this film also reflects the old school/new school fusion aesthetic. The score and soundtrack are peppered with classic old school hip-hop joints from the likes of Nas, Naughty By Nature, Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest. There's even a touch of '70s soul in one poignant scene that uses Gil Scott-Heron's classic "Home is Where the Hatred is" to great effect. New tracks come via artists such as dubstep/trap band Watch The Duck, the R&B collective Lolawolf (fronted by Zoe Kravitz herself) and Kap G. However, the highlight of it all are the original tracks by the movie's fictional band Awreeoh, composed by none other than the hip-hop crossover dynamo producer and artist Pharrell Williams. Pharrell perfectly encapsulates the essence of the soul, funk, hip-hop, punk and rock & roll influences at the fingertips of the internet generation that are smashed together to create a strikingly cohesive and original sound.
It would be too easy for me to gush over this movie because of all the nostalgic and personal chords it strikes. I grew up in the '90s as a black geek in the hood, immersed in hip-hop and heavy metal, spending my afternoons watching American animation and bootleg anime VHS tapes, drawing pictures of robots and titties in my black and white notebook in school as I ignored the teacher's lessons since I had already memorized the textbook and could pass any standardized test with ease. There will undoubtedly be a legion of fans just like me with whom this movie will resonate strongly. And to be fair, that is absolutely warranted, since we virtually never see this type of black culture promoted on screen. Between Dough Boy and Steve Urkel, there is a real world full of countless black kids like Malcolm, Diggy and Jib who never get represented in the media. But for me, more than just seeing myself, I am seeing a glimpse into the now of the new black youth and the future of black culture, and it is a phenomenally positive experience that is vital, now more than ever.
Over the weekend, I made some snarky comments on Twitter and in conversation, balking at how so many grown adults are bawling like children over some sad little girl who is mad that she has to move from boring Minnesota to the bustling metropolis that is San Francisco because of her well-meaning father's high-paying job, or regarding how critics are hyping some indie award-bait movie about a dorky film nerd, his magical negro and their dying plot device. Knowing that both of these films have the concept of empathy at the core of their narrative, I am fully cognizant of how mean-spirited and selfish my complaints sound, and I fully own up to the repercussions of how others will take my sentiments. On the same token, also in the interest of empathy, I hope you understand why I don't feel no type of way about some cryin-ass white people when we are still reeling from the murder of a black church full of patrons, slaughtered like cattle the way ISIS butchers dissenters in their homes and in the public square. The real fucked up thing about it, though, is that this sense of dreaded mortality is nothing new. Forget a psycho white supremacist and fuck my Iraq and Afghanistan deployments, I'm just as close to meeting a bloody end waiting in line for a hot pastrami sandwich at the corner Arab store on Guy Brewer Boulevard than any of that other shit (there's actually a darkly comic joke about this early in the film as well, when a fellow geek named White Tony gets popped waiting in line for a burger, mere moments from beating the Legend of Zelda on his retro GameBoy).
Having said all that, I can't be too mad that two other mainstream summer blockbusters banked upwards of $100 million while this move gets no play. Still, Inside Out was nice and all, but I left Dope feeling fucking galvanized, lifted up with an unshakable optimism in the face of desperate madness. It hurts to see my communities beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Even more painful are the shackles we put upon ourselves and each other, dragging ourselves down like crabs in a bucket. I believe that movies like Dope can spread the message that there is another way, far beyond what is expected of us in our containment projects. Like Outkast said: Hello, ghetto, let your brain breathe, Believe there's always more. I believe that from the bottom of my heart: Dope is the perfect manifestation of that belief.
Can't Bring Me Down.