by Nathan Sacks
The best compliment one can give Dope is that it has the energy, playfulness, and visual invention of a young filmmaker’s first feature, but it is not. Writer-Director Rick Famuyima made his film debut with The Wood in 1999 and followed that with the romantic comedies Brown Sugar in 2002 and Our Family Wedding in 2010. Hopefully, Dope will rebrand Famuyima as more than a passable helmer of rom-coms aimed at African-American audiences, but as a unique filmmaker with vision—even if that vision is indebted a great deal to previous Hollywoodized depictions of young, sexually frustrated nerds in high school.
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Producers: Nina Yang Bongiovi, Forest Whitaker
Writer: Rick Famuyiwa
Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison
Editor: Lee Haugen
Music: Germaine Franco
Cast: A$ap Rocky, Blake Anderson, Shameik Moore, Zoë Kravitz, Blake Anderson, Bruce Beatty, Quincy Brown, Kiersey Clemons, Kimberly Elise, Rick Fox, Chanel Iman
Premiere: January 24, 2015 – Sundance
US Theatrical Release: June 19, 2015
US Distributor: Open Road Films
The plot of Dope centers on Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a Nigerian-American high school senior in Inglewood, California. Malcolm is a nerd, a 90s hip-hop obsessive with a flattop haircut straight out of a Doug E. Fresh music video. A walking anachronism, he trawls record stores with his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). They play in a punk band together called Awreeoh (sound it out) and get made fun of a lot for being into “white shit.” The three friends have problems familiar to a lot of viewers of John Hughes movies, like bullying, mockery, and peer ostracization. On top of that, they live in Inglewood, where gang violence is a constant both in and out of school and “hood traps” are prevalent. The Breakfast Club may have had issues, but they never brought guns to detention.
One day, Malcolm runs into a good-natured drug dealer named Dom (Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky in his film debut) and they get to discussing the glory of early 90s hip-hop. Malcolm wistfully extols that era: “Everything between It Takes a Nation of Millions and The Blueprint was golden.” Dom points out the empty nostalgia at the core of this argument—neither album actually came out in the 90s. Dom asks Malcolm and his friends to attend a birthday party, and Malcolm is eager to attend since he knows his crush Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) will be there.
As often happens at fictional drug dealer parties, guns are discharged, the police show up, and students run home for their lives. But the next morning, Malcolm finds his backpack filled with bricks of ecstasy. Dom calls him from prison not too long after. A snitch apparently informed the police about the party, Dom hid his drugs in Malcolm’s backpack, and now that snitch is looking to find Malcolm.
So Malcolm and his comical nerd friends, who have zero experience drug dealing, are forced to get rid of the dope on their own, because of course going to the police would not end up well. The first half of the movie (the better half) follows Malcolm through a series of absurd chases and fights, as he tries to get rid of the dope. The second half of the film involves him settling down and devising a cunning strategy to sell it, which creates its own problems.
Both parts of the movie have a lot of silly comedy, especially some gross scenes involving the stunning model Chanel Iman. Yet there is an underlying seriousness at points and Famuyima is clearly drawing on the horror and trauma he felt growing up around gang violence. He positions Malcolm as a complete innocent—perhaps too much of one—who loves only music, video games, science fiction, and getting good grades at school. Famuyima makes it easy (again, maybe a bit too easy) for us to love Malcolm and sympathize with his outsider status not just as a black male but as a black male nerd specifically.
The concluding moments of the film are not exactly satisfying, and Famuyima rushes through a lot of plot in the last 20 minutes or so, as if he suddenly realized he was on a deadline. Dope also has some other issues that are normal among high school comedies. Zoë Kravitz might as well be Zooey Deschanel, that’s how clearly she is positioned as the romantic object of nerd wish fulfillment. She and Iman, like the many female characters in Animal House or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, are merely window dressing, completely lacking any interiority or humorous dialogue and existing entirely to tell Malcolm about how great and special he is. At least Judd Apatow’s women make funny jokes. The one exception is Malcolm’s friend Diggy, a lesbian female who is continually mistaken for a male throughout the movie.
Another very minor issue is the soundtrack, which consists of old rap familiars (“The World Is Yours,” “Scenario,” “The Humpty Dance”) that seem to be integrated at random, sometimes inappropriate moments throughout the film. One would think a film about such a schooled hip-hop head like Malcolm would have at least a few deeper cuts.
Part of what makes Dope work is the charismatic acting. I was not familiar with Shameik Moore, who apparently came up doing retro hip-hop dance videos on YouTube. He is a natural screen presence, though he is also conventionally tall and handsome and not exactly the most convincing unlovable nerd (this, of course, is also in keeping with protagonists of many, many other high school comedies). As Malcolm’s friends, Revolori and Clemons get a lot of the best lines. I was pleasantly surprised by the comic timing of A$AP Rocky, in particular during a hilarious conversation with a fellow drug dealer about the efficacy of drone warfare. The extended cast is rounded out by a number of rappers and musicians, including LA’s Vince Staples, Tyga, and some Atlanta rapper named Kap-G. Forest Whitaker provides serviceable narration, though I wish it was funnier and had more flavor.
Dope proves it is never too late for a filmmaker to offer a personal vision. The film feels young without pandering to a young audience; it also seems to get high school life in 2015 mostly right (as far as I know). If a 40-year old filmmaker can make a film this young and vital, it should make us all feel better about aging and the creative process.