The plot of writer/director Rick Famuyiwa‘s Dope is best described as the story of an Inglewood teen’s chances at getting into Harvard boiled down to whether or not he can sell a backpack full of MDMA without getting caught or killed before it’s gone. This is the best capsule description of the film, but it doesn’t give you nearly the entire story. In fact, it likely places in your head a conflict of stereotypes and preconceptions of just who this teen is. Inglewood? Harvard? Drugs?
What if I add to the description of this young man that he’s a ’90s hip hop geek that gets straight As and can often be seen riding to and from school with his two friends on their bicycles? Does this adjust the mental picture any? This is the brilliance of what Famuyiwa has crafted, a film that’s at once an absurdist comedy as much as it is a social commentary. Only thing is, it’s not that absurd and it’s social commentary is so carefully limited it hits home with a powerful punch come the film’s final moments that had my screening audience cheering.
Shameik Moore is Dope‘s heart and soul, playing the Inglewood teen at the heart of this narrative. The straight-A, ’90s hip hop-obsessed, self-proclaimed geek and leader of his trio of friends — Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel star Tony Revolori) and Diggy (“Extant” and “Transparent” co-star Kiersey Clemons) — is hoping to get into Harvard and do more than what is expected of him having grown up in “The Bottoms” of Inglewood, CA.
Through a series of occurrences Malcolm and his friends find themselves in the service of a local drug dealer, Dom (rapper A$AP Rocky), ultimately finding a way to sell drugs on the Internet to avoid what he believes would be a death sentence. It also just might happen to help him find his way into Harvard.
One of the more interesting aspects of this narrative is how you could initially perceive it as a mixed message movie. “What, the only way a black kid can get out of the ghetto and into a prestigious college is to sell drugs?” When, in fact it’s that mixed message that makes the film so great. Society offers this mixed message, doubting a kid from Inglewood could ever be smart enough (even if they are) to attend Harvard and yet judging them when they don’t even try. Preconceptions and stereotypes rule the day. In fact, Famuyiwa plays it rather simply for the audience by making Malcolm so well-adjusted when in fact the more interesting character is Dom.
Malcolm’s meeting with Dom comes as he and his friends must decide whether they’re going to ride their bikes down an alleyway where a gang of Bloods are recording their latest YouTube video, or take a right and brave the local drug dealers and junkies that always attempt to steal their bikes. Opting to go right, Malcolm is asked over by Dom in a scene of convenience, but you go with it. After a bit of chit chat Dom convinces Malcolm to go talk to Nakia (ZoÃ« Kravitz) for him and invite her to his birthday party. Wait! What is this, high school?
“Tell her I’m throwing a birthday party and I would really enjoy the pleasure of her company,” Dom says. Malcolm relays the message and even Nakia says, “He did not say that.” It’s a throwaway moment that could be interpreted as just a bit of comedy, but it means so much more. This comes after Malcolm and Dom discuss ’90s hip hop and a scene shortly thereafter we’re witness to Dom’s frustration with his friends as none of them can grasp the concept of a “slippery slope”. Malcolm does and we laugh as one of Dom’s boys asks, “Do it got anything to do with skiing?” So, what exactly is the difference between Dom and Malcolm? One is an actual drug dealer, the other is about to become one… Dom is about to go to jail for selling drugs, Malcolm is about to go to Harvard for selling drugs. Dom grew up made to believe he could be no better than he ended up being, Malcolm believes otherwise against everything people are telling him. Jib offers up a great line that speaks to the heart of the narrative, “I don’t want to go to jail, I want to go to college.”
The question that persists throughout Dope is “Who are you Malcolm?” He’s either asked this flat out or told who/what he is, most notably by an ignorant advisor, but who really are any of these people? Are they who we perceive them to be? Do they know who they are or what they could be? Has society painted them into stereotypes they simply can’t claw their way out of?
The fact we never learn the fate of Dom after last seeing him in prison is incredibly telling whether it was Famuyiwa’s intention or not. We become concerned with Malcolm, his friends and their future, but we don’t really stop to think about Dom. He was a drug dealer, yes, but don’t for a second lie to yourself and pretend Famuyiwa and A$AP Rocky didn’t create a character that had potential to be something more.
That said, Shameik Moore is excellent in the lead role and a talent we need to be on the lookout for in the future. A scene between him and Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12) late in the film solidifies that fact. Revolori and Clemons are wonderful comedic counterparts and Famuyiwa injects every scene with a beat and pulse that keeps things moving at a rapid pace.
While Malcolm and his friends are obsessed with ’90s hip hop, something that’s going to play very well with audiences of the generation (present company included), Dope is every bit a film of today. Less attentive audiences may pass it off as just another high school coming-of-age story with an atypical lead, confusing its mixed message as a misstep, but you can believe this is a film that’s going to speak to a certain audience and really hit home, both from a comedic and dramatic perspective.