Dope (dir. Rick Famuyiwa)

Posted: June 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Dope” is a welcome throwback to a certain type of film that used to come out quite often in the 80s and 90s: a teenager gets in over his head during a day-long series of adventures. Granted, “Dope” doesn’t technically take place within the confines of a single day, but the film otherwise fits this trope.  I’m thinking of films that are both remembered well, like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, but also ones not-so-well-remembered, like “License to Drive” starring the Coreys and “How I Got Into College”.  These were the kinds of movie HBO played at 10 AM in the 80s and early 90s when I was growing up, and they were usually a very edgy PG-13 or mild R, and I got a thrill wondering what I would do if I were so in-over-my-head.  Knowing that the film would eventually end with the protagonists more-or-less okay helped.

What makes “Dope” different and, in some ways, starkly original, is in giving us a character that’s not exactly like anything film has bothered to show us before: a black geek who is not meant to be the source of ridicule.  Think about it: is there another character in film or TV who is truly an African-American geek that isn’t Urkel from “Family Matters”?  And of course, Urkel was meant to be the butt of the joke.  While our geek character here, named Malcolm (Shameik Moore) sometimes has his geekiness be the source of the humor here, he’s not an Urkel or Napoleon Dynamite who exists solely for us to laugh in ridicule and feel superior towards.  He’s like many geeks, both real and fictitious.  He’s a virgin, he’s into things that aren’t considered cool (such as what the film calls “White Shit”, like reading Manga and watching “Game of Thrones”), and his passion for things that aren’t popular makes him stand out from his peers.  The big passion, which dominates the film visually, his Malcolm’s love of early 90s hip hop.  We’re not just talking about the music, of which some is still popular and some, like “The Humpty Dance” is seen today as kitsch, but also the loud fashions and the Kid N’ Play flat top.  Let’s face it, 90s nostalgia is IN right now, in a big way.  However, despite how multi-racial the entertainment of the early 90s were (take a look at Nickelodeon’s programming from the early 90s and you see a progressive and admirable diversity that, oddly enough, you don’t see as much of on TV today), it’s really only the WHITE-identified pop culture of the 90s that are back.  However, when we acknowledge that what has some back is old school Nintendo and Nick, we’re seemingly forgetting that, you know what, it wasn’t just white kids that are into “The Legend of Zelda”.  In one scene of “Dope” we see a kid get gunned down just as he’s about to beat Gannon on a vintage Gameboy.

“Dope” is not just nostalgic to 90s kids, but for people who were adults in the 90s they may remember that the early 90s was full of films about black gang life in cinema.  “Boyz in the Hood”, “New Jack City”, “Menace 2 Society” and others flooded the indie market, and filmmakers like Spike Lee, who started making films in the late 80s, rose to stardom with films like “Do the Right Thing”.  So what we have here is a film that is a nostalgia-palooza of early 90s hip hop, early 90s black cinema, and early 90s geekdom.  But then, we also have a film that is very much of the moment, talking about things that geeks today would be familiar with but have not received much mention in mainstream cinema today, such as bitcoins, Tor and the deep and dark webs, the online black market (a stand-in for Silk Road appears in the film)  and more. Also, though drugs make an appearance in the film, the main drugs are not the crack and heroin of most dryg films, but instead we get weed, which is legal in some parts of the U.S. now, and MDMA, a drug that’s probably past it’s pop cultural prime but was popular in the 90s and early 2000s rave and club scenes.

Some people are complaining that we have a film that sets up an original look at black youths in poverty (the film takes place in Inglewood, California) and yet still ends up about selling drugs.  Those people are missing that this film, like much of the best African-American cinema, is about as political as films get.  Sometimes “Dope” is obvious with its politics (there’s a funny but on-the-nose joke about the public school system being a leg up to poor kids, as well as a shot of Malcolm in a hoodie at night which is a very on-the-nose Trayvon Martin visual cue), but the drug storyline is essential to this film’s point.  The pessimistic message of this film is that, no matter how smart you may be, or how different you may be from your peers and your environment, that environment still informs you and corrupts you, so that escaping it untouched is impossible.  Malcolm is an incredibly smart and creative kid who wants to escape his situation and go to Harvard, but thanks to circumstances largely out of his control, he is forced into illicit activities simply out of self-preservation.  To society at large, Malcolm would merely be a drug dealer, but when we get beyond the labels and see the material conditions in which he exists, we see that he is more than that, and that the poverty, the neighborhood, and the people he exists in and along side of make it nearly impossible to escape unscathed.  While personal responsibility plays a role here, the environment severely limits the choices one can actually make.

The plot is pretty straightforward, Malcolm and his friends (Kiersey Clemons as lesbian Diggy and Tony Revolori as Jib) attend a party thrown by a local drug dealer (A$ap Rocky) because Malcolm has a crush on the dealer’s ex-girlfriend (Zoe Kravitz) who will be there.  The dealer is ambushed at the party while a deal for pure MDMA is going down, and in panic he stashes the drugs in Malcolm’s backpack.  Malcolm now has product that other drug dealers want, and it’s up to him to get the drugs out of his possession in a way that won’t get him killed.  Oh, and he also has to worry about the college admissions process to get into Harvard at the same time.

It’s odd that the film makes political points that are very in-your-face, and yet you never feel like you’re hammered over the head with a message.  We get a crash course in the inner workings of the internet drug dealing business, and what we see is not much different from the unethical behaviors of more legal businesses, making one see that there isn’t much of a difference between business that the government considers illegal and ones it endorses.  In fact, we get one character who is involved in both the illegal drug trade as well as the legal payday loan business.  Both of these businesses do great harm to the poor, yet the latter is legal, under-regulated, and considered an appropriate business for a person to be in.  The film asks why that isn’t shameful, and yet it would be if that person’s hands in the drug trade would be, even if, as the film implies, the drug money is used to fund a charity to help young men out of poverty.  Odd.  The film doesn’t try to pretend that drugs cannot be harmful (we see a few people under the effects of MDMA go pretty damn crazy), but it does argue that selling drugs is no more or no less immoral than any other business enterprise, and in showing how successful Malcolm becomes and the innovative way in which he goes about it, it also shows that perhaps we underestimate the intellect of people who are involved in criminal activity.  After all, stupid people probably can’t manage to make a ton of money in an illegal business without ending up dead or in jail, so some smarts, both of the book and street varieties, are required.  Hell, the film even shows us drug dealers debating the ethics of drone warfare in an intelligent and yet street-vernacular-filled manner.  The film is arguing that criminals are not dumb, and in fact could probably be successful if they were brought up in a different environment (and probably if they had a different skin color).

All of this sounds like the film is a political polemic, but honestly the film is an often funny, extremely clever comedy-drama.  Many people who see the film probably won’t even realize the political implications the story bring sup, and will merely be entertained by the anachronistic world of an early 90s hip hop aficionado geek dropped into 21st century drug dealing.  The film is extremely entertaining/  I myself am not a fan of most rap music, and I have no particular warm feelings about early 90s hip hop (though I do like Humpty and did enjoy the “House Party” films back then, which the USA network played A LOT when I was a kid), but 90s nostalgia extends beyond that.  The “Pop Up Video” closing credit sequence is fun, and non-hip hop songs like Korn’s “Freak on a Leash” also pepper the soundtrack.

The writer/director of the film is Rick Famuyiwa.  I’ve only seen one other film of his, “Brown Sugar” but I remember liking it a surprising amount.  He seems to be very good at telling low-budget stories with largely African-American casts who play interesting, rich characters.  Whatever he has done before, “Dope” rockets him into an entirely different league.  This film feels like early Spike Lee or John Singleton, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his films after this become even more daring and original.

”Dope” was a great surprise.  It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s clever, and its surface simplicity masks a pretty rich cultural critique. I thoroughly enjoyed it. B+

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