The impish comedy and refreshingly realistic perspective of Dope questions easy answers to pressing racial problems.
Dope, written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa. Screening at AMC Loews Boston Common 19 and select theaters around New England.
By Tim Jackson
I am not exactly the demographic for Rick Famuyiwa’s new inner city coming-of-age film, Dope, but I loved the challenge of dealing with its brazen humor. Like director Spike Lee’s once controversial Do The Right Thing, the movie questions easy answers to pressing racial problems. Like Melvin Van Peebles groundbreaking Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, it meets its viewers head-on by tackling clichéd notions of black representation. Seeing the raunchy behavior of Superbad lampooned might have surprised me once, but nearly a decade later its blunt language and uninhibited behavior is fair game. As director Lee Daniels did with Precious and The Paperboy, Famuyiwa refuses to tidy up his social narrative. In much the same way John Hughes appealed to Generation X white kids, Famuyiwa goes for the reality of what his target audience understands and lives.
So the appeal of this fable about achieving maturity might be much broader than what would be presumed to attact a traditional “black” audience. African American musicians, actors, and sports figures are major heroes. Black urban slang, fashion, gestures and attitudes are a rich part of popular culture. Dope also pulls from an array of artists of color, from models and to actors to its mega-star producers Pharrell Williams and Forest Whitaker and the music of rap phenomenon A$AP Rocky. Along with his partner Nina Yang Bongiovi, Whitaker also brought the innovative film Fruitvale Station to theaters in 2013. Theirs is a significant collaboration.
Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is trying to survive in the worst part of L.A. His father is gone (he returned to Africa years before); the boy is being raised by a single mother. He’s surrounded by bullies, drug dealers, and thugs. Life is dangerous. Drug dealing is part of the acknowledged underground economy. High School security guards man metal detectors at the entrance to the high school. The teachers don’t want to teach and the kids don’t want to learn. But Malcolm and his two best friends, all self-proclaimed geeks, are the exception. Jib (Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a gay and beautiful black girl, like the “white stuff” — not the powder, but the things that white people like. These friends endure the rigors of tough city life clinging to an outsider’s love of BMX bikes and ’90s hip hop culture. Malcolm is determined to get into Harvard University despite the presumption of his principal that this goal is arrogant and unrealistic.
Life in the inner city gets more complicated when, at a drug-infused party, a drug gang goes on a shooting spree. Malcolm accidently ends up with a backpack full of Molly (MDMA, the active ingredient in Ecstasy). After plenty of plot convolutions and a fast-food-joint shootout, the three find themselves owners of a slew of plastic bags stuffed with Molly. They decide to unload the drug by selling it on the Web, hiding these transactions through the use of bitcoins and sticking to the ‘dark web.’ They even rename the drug Lily after a girl named Lily (Victoria Secret model Chanel Iman), who, while trying to seduce Malcolm, overdoses on the drug. With arms flailing, she bolts half-naked from Malcolm’s car toward a restaurant garden to take a pee. Her antics are blasted all over social media and her wacky gestures go viral; this spectacle serves as a hook for marketing the drug online. The three friends eventually use the high school science lab to package the goods and sales take off. This is not your parent’s Breakfast Club.
This is only the beginning of a fast-moving plot filled with plenty of street slang, knowing cultural references, and music. The sexual frankness, drug language, and surprising bursts of violence are mitigated by interludes of comedy. Thankfully, the story doesn’t bother to preach; neither does it become yet another “gansta” drug fable. It takes the omnipresent threats in an urban environment for granted; it acknowledges, rather than condemns, recreational drug use. The details of Dope‘s storyline are less important than the film’s admirable intention to represent life in the inner city without lecture or judgment.
Think of Easy Rider 50 years ago. That was an unabashed look at a mostly white counterculture on the rise. Unlike the social drop-outs in that film, the three characters at the center of Dope are strong, smart, reasonably self-assured and black. They are trying to become part of the system, not to oppose it. They reject the hypocrisy, compromise, fear, violence, and lowered expectations that have distorted our understanding of adolescents today, especially urban black youth. Honest and pertinent conversations about race and gender are delivered through amusingly rambling exchanges.
Malcolm doesn’t want to be considered as a black example of anything. He wants what is best for him and will peacefully do what he needs to do secure his future. The film’s frank and explicit comedy delivers a simple message: it’s OK to be you. If can’t beat them, you don’t have to join them. You are smarter than what’s expected of you. Your life matters. Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy are unapologetically themselves. They confess to being geeks, possibly cowardly, and that they are all still virgins — but their eyes are on the prize. At my screening, the audience applauded when Malcolm turned and asked: “Why do I want get into Harvard? Would you ask that if I were white?” After decades of mindless violence and sexual clichés in music and film, Dope’s satire of our culure’s diminished expectations is bracing and liberating.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.