Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s latest feature opens with onscreen definitions of its title, Dope, referencing 1. drugs; 2. a stupid person; or 3. cool and very good, respectively. A critical and audience favorite from this year’s Sundance Film Fest, Famuyiwa’s frenetic mashup of twisted cautionary tale-meets-comedy caper touches upon all three definitions. Despite jarring shifts in tone, the film deftly raises important issues about socioeconomics and race in America without sermonizing its audience.
At its core, Dope is a coming-of-age story told from the black geek perspective. Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a brainy high school student who’s trying to leave “The Bottoms” of Inglewood, California. He knows that education is a way out of the neighborhood, so he focuses on his SATs and college applications. Unfortunately, the school’s counselor isn’t supportive of his dream to attend Harvard, but he remains undeterred. Malcolm admirably marches to the beat of his own drum: The flat-top haircut, a colorful Kid ’n‘ Play-like wardrobe, a preference for hip-hop from the 1990s, and his own pop-punk trio set him apart from his peers. It also puts a big, fat target on his back with the school’s ruling gang.
Malcolm uncharacteristically attends a party hosted by local drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) because his longstanding crush Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) will be there. When a drug deal goes bad and gunfire erupts, Malcolm and his best friends and bandmates Diggy (Kiersey Clemons of Transparent) and Jib (Tony Revolori of The Grand Budapest Hotel) rush into the madness. Dom throws a wrench in an easy getaway when he stashes a boatload of MDMA (aka “Molly”) into Malcolm’s backpack. Drug lord Austin Jacoby (Roger Guenveur Smith) tasks Malcolm and his friends with selling the drugs and giving him cash. In a series of misadventures reminiscent of Tom Cruise’s turn as a pimp in Risky Business, the trio turn to their chemistry and computer skills to move the Molly on the dark web, under the guidance of their Miyagi/Yoda, a stoner-hacker played by Blake Anderson.
This isn’t a straight-up, feel-good comedy—drugs and gangs aren’t easy comic fodder—but Dope satirizes preconceived notions of race and culture. Famuyiwa keeps things entertaining while still posing hard-hitting questions to the characters and audience. There are discussions about the use of the n-word as well as the attainability of an Ivy League education for kids from places like The Bottoms. When Malcolm makes the choice to sell the drugs instead of turning himself into the authorities, it’s a tough, yet understandable decision for the character since his other option may be serious physical injury or death. The violence is ever-present and Malcolm and his friends do what they can to stay out of harm’s way.
Dope is at its best when it busts typical cinematic stereotypes. Our hero Malcolm, earnestly and endearingly played by Moore, wants an education and something better for himself. He’s also caught in a no-man’s-land: a straight-A student who loves BMX bikes, Game of Thrones, punk rock and old-school hip-hop. In other words, he’s into “white culture,” which is frowned upon in his neighborhood. His best friends are a tomboyish black lesbian in the wisecracking Diggy, and Jib, a Latino, both of whom also don’t assimilate easily in Inglewood. Both Clemons and Revolori are exceptional in their respective roles and a lot of fun to watch onscreen. Even the drug lord isn’t a thug per se; he’s a Harvard alum from the same neighborhood who chose to do something else with his degree.
While Malcolm and most of the supporting characters are well thought out and developed, Jacoby’s spoiled kids Lily (Chanel Iman) and Jaleel (Quincy Brown) exist only as comic fodder. She’s a sexy socialite who uses her assets to score party favors, and Jaleel is a trust fund baby who wants both street cred and the silver spoon. While the two characters help move the plot forward, we wish that equal attention had been paid to the burgeoning relationship between Malcolm and Nakia, who’s studying for the GED so she can get into a community college. Moore and Kravitz have great chemistry in their limited screen time together.
Famuyiwa, best known for The Wood and Brown Sugar, has crafted a brilliant homage to the ’90s aesthetic throughout the film. The vintage touches—from Air Jordans to a Sony Walkman and an awesome soundtrack with songs by Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Naughty by Nature, Gil Scott-Heron and more—are balanced by the modern internet savviness of the young entrepreneurs. Also keeping things timely is the music of Pharrell Williams, an executive producer, who contributed the tracks for Malcolm’s band.
While the plot veers off course at times, moving from a heist film to teen romance to serious drama peppered with moments of merriment, just as distracting is the shift in voice toward the end of the film. Forest Whitaker, one of the film’s producers, opens Dope as an omniscient narrator, but two-thirds of the way through Malcolm takes over and breaks the fourth wall. The distraction is short-lived, however. Dope’s infectious energy, and Famuyiwa’s tendency to throw genre and stereotypes to the wind, is refreshing. Dope is dope—and we mean that in the third definition kind of way.
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Writer: Rick Famuyiwa
Starring: Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons, Tony Revolori, A$AP Rocky, Blake Anderson, Chanel Iman, Tyga, Zoë Kravitz
Release Date: June 19, 2015
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.