“Dope” is a coming of age story set in the Inglewood neighborhood in Los Angeles. There is a linear plot of sorts but the picture often gets sidetracked and goes off on wild tangents. Pretty quickly we realize Famuyiwa is more interested in atmosphere than story. He captures the day-to-day lives of a black teen and his friends living in a tough neighborhood (the violence, the slang, the tender moments, etc.) with a combination of realism and a heightened comedic sensibility. The movie can be messy and unfocused at times but it has a pulse. And beneath its freewheeling exterior, important ideas are being addressed—mainly pertaining to identity, stereotypes and the tendency our society has to unfairly categorize people--making the antics of movie more impactful in the long run.
“Dope” is about Malcolm (Shameik Moore) an eighteen-year-old nerd. He gets straight A’s, has his hopes set on attending Harvard and plays in a punk band with his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori). He’s a 90’s Hip Hop geek, complete with a “Fresh Prince of Bellaire” style t-shirt and a flat top haircut. Except for the occasional beating by a group of bullies at school, Malcolm appears to be content with his nerd outcast self, not wanting to have anything to do with the illegal activities happening around him. However, whether he likes it or not, crime finds him. Through a series of unfortunate and comedic circumstances, Malcolm and his friends are thrust into an adventure involving drugs, Bitcoins and a large cast of colorful characters.
Throughout the movie, Malcolm is constantly being forced into strict categories of identity; being viewed by some as “different” and others as “normal.” To practically everyone in his neighborhood he’s a geek who wears tacky clothing and is into “white people things “(getting good grades, wanting to go to college, etc.). His ambition to go beyond his tough circumstances and disinterest in crime and gangs make him stick out in Inglewood. Meanwhile, to the rest of the world--including the admissions people at Harvard-- he’s simply a black teenager from a tough neighborhood with a single mom and a father he’s never met like so many others from his area. And like so many others, he does eventually go down the path of crime, further encouraging the unfair stereotypical view of black males in south Central LA. In both cases he’s viewed as a stereotype, but which is his true self? In Malcolm’s own words: “am I a geek or a menace?” In actuality though Malcolm isn’t simply a geek or a menace. We’re all complicated, multi faceted individuals. We’re not defined by one trait--our clothing or our behavior and we’re not defined by our circumstances.
Relative newcomer Moore is a sensation, giving Malcolm the perfect blend of arrogance and awkwardness. He exudes such natural charm and earnestness (you never get the impression he’s acting) and has near perfect comedic timing. And it’s amazing to watch Malcolm’s journey, from an outcast stuck in the 90’s to a well-rounded adult aware of the sometimes cruel and unfair world around him. Clemons and Jib are also strong as Malcolm’s loving best friends, who stick by his side even when things get iffy.
The movie is primarily comedic in tone, the trio’s situation getting worse and their adventure getting increasingly nutty as the movie goes on. Even after a more intense scene has taken place, (a club getting shot up during a party) a comedic one usually follows. It’s as if Famuyiwa is suggesting that crime and violence have become such a normal part of life in this neighborhood that it’s not shocking anymore. Yet, through these wacky rambling escapades Famuyiwa also takes our expectations about how people from this particular kind of environment are “supposed” to act and turns them upside down. For example, low level drug dealers having a conversation about drone strikes and politics. At one point a menacing gangster uses an iPad to track an iPhone. When Famuyiwa isn’t shattering stereotypes and misconceptions, he turns them up to a ridiculous level, making them absurd.
There’s plenty more I could talk about in “Dope,” but I’d rather leave it for you to discover. As mentioned before it can feel unfocused and could definitely benefit from being trimmed in a few areas. Also the climax is a little too didactic and heavy-handed. It’s powerful, for sure, hammering home the points about identity and stereotypes I discussed earlier on but it isn’t in keeping with the movie’s tone. Still, I can’t deny how good I felt while watching “Dope.” It manages to take on important, heavy themes--leaving much to discuss--while also being energetic, funny and accessible in presentation. From this point on, Nick Famuyiwa you have my full attention.