Making a movie like Dope should be easy. The premise is so simple as to be obvious, and it’s the type of concept that quickly will garner praise and accolades, ith the much-wanted descriptions like “uplifting” and “inspiring”. It’s a bulletproof idea, one that in the hands of even the most mediocre film maker, could generate some buzz and fill suburban multiplexes everywhere with people looking for another triumph-of-the-human-spirit project. A young black man, trapped in a low-income, crime-ridden environment, conquers the demons of his neighborhood and upbringing to get out of the ghetto and achieve his dream of going to college. Boom. Instant success.
Except that Dope isn’t that movie, not by a long shot. It’s so much more, and so much better for it.
Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, Dope focuses on high school student Malcolm (Shameik Moore Jr) and his two friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori). Malcolm is a young hood kid struggling to get out, and the film is — in a roundabout fashion — about his ongoing efforts to get into Harvard and out of his hometown of Inglewood, CA. But Malcolm is also a kid obsessed with 90’s hip hop, in both music and style, and he and his friend are in a pop-punk band struggling to be heard. He’s got a crush on neighborhood girl Nakia, (Zoe Kravitz), but she has her own personal baggage and drama, not the least of which is a complicated relationship with Dom (rapper A$AP Rocky), a local gang leader. After a brief interaction with the intimidating, yet surprisingly intelligent Dom, Malcolm and friends are invited a to a party that erupts into violence. Long story short, Malcolm ends up holding a mess of drugs that he has to find a way to get rid of without angering either of a pair of opposing drug dealers, while also making his way to a college interview, trying to make time with Nakia, and just generally staying alive.
Like I said, Dope isn’t that movie. Instead, it’s a smart, funny, inventive look at a coming-of-age tale, framed within a caper flick. It’s wild and weird and goofy, led by Malcolm in an unusually quiet, nuanced, steady tone regardless of the hijinks on the screen (though he does have his moments of craziness). It’s clearly a labor of love, and the project is backed by a variety of big names — producers and executive producers include Forrest Whitaker, Pharrell Williams, and Sean Combs. It’s got heart poured into it, and if Famuyiwa is guilty of anything, it’s having a little too much to say. The film’s tone is often frenetic and breathless, but there are so many ideas crammed into it that some often get lost in its hectic shuffle — elements of Malcolm’s relationship with Nakia are muddled at times, his rather charming rapport with his mother could have been fleshed out more, and the film has so many statements that it wants to make, that sometimes some of the voices are drowned out by the general din of the story.
Yet if the film’s greatest sin is a reach that exceeds its grasp, its greatest strength is its determination to say the hell with it, and reach for the stars anyway. Dope isn’t just a hilarious, madcap, oddly John-Hughesian take on inner city life. It’s also smart and wickedly sharp, a biting critique of the way we look at black youth, at education, at music and life in general. It’s often an excoriating examination of what larger society thinks “black culture” is, and it breaks open that shell of mislabeling and misunderstanding and dumps its truths onto the floor for all to see. The characters are so much more than the basic archetypes they would be in any other film, and it’s helped by the fact that the casting is absolutely fantastic. The three young leads are engaging, witty, smart and fun — of particular note is Malcolm’s friend Diggy, who in addition to dealing with the problems of upbringing and background, is also a lesbian in a Southern Baptist family. She’s often the highlight — her ongoing rage-war with their white stoner friend over his casual use of “ni**er” does a brilliant, succinct job of putting that particular debate to bed. More importantly, they’re written as fully-fleshed people, each with a personal story tied into their circumstances that affects their decisions throughout the film, making them each unique in their own right.
There’s so much more in there — a great performance by Rocky as Dom, played with equal parts quiet intelligence and merciless viciousness, a fascinating examination of what we expect of black youth versus what they are and want, and a subtle, non-glamorized (but also not exploitive) look at the daily perils that young inner city kids face (a line about someone needing to develop an update for the Waze navigation app that includes “hood traps” is a bittersweet joke). There’s even a discourse on modern technology (those of you that don’t understand bitcoins might finally get the gist). It’s backed by an absolutely killer soundtrack, with each track matched perfectly to its scene. It’s an ambitious, rambunctious, wildly inconsistent and often messy film that needs some parts trimmed and others expanded. But it doesn’t matter. Dope has enough wonder and brilliance, ambition and humor, and perhaps most of all love in it to easily outweigh its flaws.