Dope (2015)

Directed by Rick Famuyiwa

Contains spoilers.

Nine times out of a ten, if a movie stars a rapper (let alone multiple rappers) or tackles hip hop issues, you're going to be disappointed. This movie is that one that'll satisfy you. And satisfy you. And satisfy you again. This movie breaks the mold in a way I haven't encountered in feature films before, presenting struggles and social stigmas in a colorful, comedic package that cleverly disguises the social messages that it really wants to convey.

The movie stars relative newcomers Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, and Kiersey Clemons along with support from stars like A$AP Rocky, Tyga, Blake Anderson, Zoë Kravitz, Chanel Iman, and even a cameo by Rick Fox. Moore plays Malcolm, a self-proclaimed geek who, along with his friends Diggy and Jib, played by Clemons and Revolori respectively, is obsessed with 90s, hip-hop culture and getting out of Inglewood, hopefully to a great college; Malcolm has his eyes on Harvard.

From the start, Dope presents itself as your average coming-of-age story for a high school senior: college applications, lacking confidence, nervous around girls. It presents as normal; a quirky, standout, main character navigating his everyday struggles with sometimes comedic results. For anyone over 20 years old its all too familiar. But the movie quickly takes a deep, dark turn and suddenly it feels like the movie's become something more dramatic, a life or death struggle involving gangs, drugs, and girls.

Dope takes place in Los Angeles, specifically in Inglewood. The story takes us around familiar neighborhoods and landmarks like Randy's donuts, and, of course, features heavy inspirational tones with hip-hop culture. Famuyiwa slathers Dope in rich undertones of class struggles in poorer neighborhoods, giving Malcolm the twist in his high school career: drug dealing. Amid the gang violence and peer pressure rests a saving grace of sorts: A$AP Rocky's character, Dominique. Dom takes an interest in Malcolm and wonders why he so willingly stands out from the crowd in their neighborhood. They chat and Malcolm manages to get into Dom's good graces, securing an invite to Dom's birthday party, coincidentally happening that night.

 

Malcolm is convinced to go to the party by his hormonal friends, but they have some trouble with the bouncers. They manage to sneak in but get caught Dom and the bouncer. Dom gives the okay for them, but the bouncer won't back down. Dom takes pride in respect, so after an explanation about having to defend street cred and being on a slippery slope he punches the bouncer out, the signal to his entourage to teach him a lesson; they jump on him. Malcolm is visibly upset by this; he doesn't know how to react so he freezes. And this is where we really understand who Malcolm is.

 

Previously, Malcolm's just appeared to be a high schooler trying to survive high school. True, he mentioned having to avoid gangs and knows that his neighborhood isn't great and understands the stereotypes that comes with his skin color, but he doesn't have a real connection to street life. He has a home with his mother, gets good grades, and knows what and who to stay away from. Although Malcolm is aware of his situation and the stereotypes associated with it, he doesn't give in to any influences like gangs or even a dissuasive guidance counselor. He has literally no relation to violence and, for lack of a better phrase, is a good kid.

But that's all basically shattered by his encounter with Dom. He's still a good student, still a good son, but over the course of his college applications things go slightly... to shit. And with the help of his friends he has to set things right.

...the best that I can hope for is that this signal the beginning of a new form of socially conscious and message-riddled coming-of-age movie.

 

After their experience at Dom's party, Malcolm and his friends decide to learn about drugs and how to deal them, setting up a darkweb website to sell the titular dope that they've found in their possession with the help of a drug-addled genius from bandcamp. Over the course of the movie they run from gun-wielding, camaro-driving, Blood gang members, mix it up with a sister and brother who end up sex/drug-crazy and shooting himself in the leg, respectively, become pseudo-internet stars with their punky band, and, of course, sell lots of drugs.

In the end, Famuyiwa whisks us into thought with a fourth-wall-breaking spoken word piece, told [or written] from Malcolm's perspective, playing on the newly realized writing of his experience-altered personal essay for his college applications. While Malcolm's situation and experience may not apply to every single person in poor neighborhoods it certainly touches on many truisms. It would seem that Famuyiwa took the average high school comedy and melted it into a drug story, then stirred race and class issues into the mix. Whereas Tyler Perry has made a career with black comedy, Famuyiwa is going a different route: he tells stories that have a deeper core of race issues. With Dope, he's expanded, not just his audience, but the meaning he provides.

Although the story itself isn't completely original or spectacular, its structure, social messages, and the fantastic performances sell the movie as a millennial masterpiece. It carries so much relatability that it touches on as many as 4 decades of music and pop culture; Dope references things like music, fashion, celebritydom, and even makes political snipes like, "I'm George Bush, I don't care what the vote says." Its as close to a timeless and relatable tale of racism and racially biased social stigmas as younger people have had for a while, but also carries weight for older generations with references to 80s and 90s music and fashion scenes. And that's not even mentioning the massive nostalgia for Angelenos.

Although Revolori had his breakout role in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moore and Clemons will be joining him in star territory. All three provide stellar performances, along with the entire cast. Even the rappers, like A$AP Rocky, play fun, dramatic, realistic characters. In the beginning, the movie floundered a tiny bit, almost as if it couldn't decide what kind of movie to be... comedic tale of an awkward high schooler or dramatic story of a smart teen... it slowly settles into its stride about halfway through, coming to bear on a new kind of teen movie. 

The fearless teen comedy will always have a place but, with Dope, Famuyiwa has turned the genre on it's head, very successfully weaving thoroughly adult drama into the high schooler's life. He may have even perfected a new form; whereas most movies taking on racial tension are bold and dramatic, Famuyiwa's very skillfully turned out a comedy, showing us that although the issue is serious, we can present it in such a way that it's relatable to everyone. If this movie doesn't start some conversations about the public school systems in America, the state of social stigmas and how we approach them in poor neighborhoods, and race relations overall, then the best that I can hope for is that this signal the beginning of a new form of socially conscious and message-riddled coming-of-age movie.

 

TL;DR: Dope is the coming-of-age, teen comedy of a new generation featuring very adult drama and situations. It realistically tackles technologic advances and high school for the younger audience (with some fun thrown in) and race and class issues for the older audience. Its a fantastic mix of comedy and drama that keep the mind working as it plays out.

  • Acting – 18 / 20
  • Story – 14 / 20
  • Cinematography – 16 / 20
  • Soundtrack – 8 / 10
  • Entertainment Factor – 8 / 10
  • Comedy/Drama – 8 / 10
  • Other – 10 / 10
 

Grade B = 82 / 100