Independent Gangsta: “Dope” Review

Directed and written by Rick Famuyiwa, Dope channels the spirits of two different genres into one: the “hood” drama (Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society and more recently Straight Outta Compton) with the mumble-core genre (The Color Wheel, Red Flag, Tiny Furniture). The result of Dope’s unified genres is a subversion of both the hood drama and the mumble-core genre. Hood dramas tend to focus on African-American protagonists, living in impoverished neighborhoods and their struggle to achieve something greater, usually through gang-related activities. The end of these efforts are always either marked by a significant character’s death or imprisonment (Friday and Paid in Full are two such examples). The mumble-core genre on the other hand, predominately features white characters in the middle to upper class, who, facing an existential crisis, find themselves going through a quest for self-discovery in the narrative of the film. This quest can manifest itself in a number of ways and doesn’t always warrant a journey, although both The Color Wheel and Red Flag feature narratives where protagonists are travelling, this quest can also be internal so long as the result is a sense of self-discovery or understanding, i.e., by the end of Listen Up Phillip, Phillip comes to terms with who he is as an introverted “genius.” Famuyiwa’s Dope, however, features a predominately minority cast of characters, whose protagonist Malcom (Shameik Moore) faces a crisis of identity concerning the crossover of both his personas as a “nerd” and as an educated African-American, as well as a crisis concerning class struggle; Malcom comes from “The Bottoms,” an impoverished neighborhood located in Inglewood, California and wants nothing more than to escape to an IVY league school, in this case, Harvard, where he believes he can finally do better for himself.

The plot of Dope begins when Malcom is stopped on the street by Dom (A$AP Rocky), the local drug dealer who is considered king of the area. An odd teacher-apprentice friendship begins between the two when Dom has Malcom behave as a messenger boy between himself and his ex-fling Nakia (Zoe Kravitz). Unknown to Dom, however, Malcom has also taking a liking to Nakia and when the feeling may prove to be mutual, Malcom and his friends, James (Tony Revolori) and Cassandra (Kiersey Clemons) find themselves at Dom’s birthday party, where Malcom hopes his budding friendship with Nakia will evolve into something more. Things go awry when the party is raided by the SWAT and Dom is arrested but not before slipping a cache of drugs and a gun into the escaping Malcom’s book bag.

Malcom and his friends are subsequently thrusted into Dom’s underworld when Dom’s enemies and Dom himself begin to threaten Malcom; the former want to take the drugs for themselves while the latter requires Malcom to sell it off and earn him the profits. In a moment of ingenuity that heavily roots Dope into our own digitally-driven contemporary age, Malcom turns to Will (Blake Anderson), a well-versed hacker who helps the trio sell the drugs on the Deep Web, an underground black market located on the internet.

Dope may not be a stylized film but it is a film with style, a style that Famuyiwa seeks to separate and obliterate from racial connotations. Whether it’s hip-hop, skateboarding, videogames, or even Game of Thrones, the idea (and rightly so), is that these hobbies aren’t relegated to one racial group of people or another, yet they are treated as such by the bullies who are both metaphorical and literal. Malcom isn’t seen as “black” due to his nerdiness; in constructing the world of Dope, Famuyiwa brings to the forefront several rules imposed by different sects of society onto themselves. In Malcom’s case, being “black” means that he isn’t allowed to skate-board, play in a punk band—there’s a certain irony here, given that one of the first punk bands in the world, Death, consisted of a trio of musicians who are African-American—or indulge in any habits that are considered “nerdy,” such as play video-games. In the latter ideology Famuyiwa has a moment of hip-comedic genius during a montage of how “nerds” are treated in the hood and without spoiling the punchline, the joke involves a Gameboy and a shootout.

In his quest for racial identity, Malcom finds himself entrenched in the past, specifically the 90’s, which he sees as the golden-age of hip-hop. What Famuyiwa is doing here, is that he’s playing with racial ideology that operates both within and outside of the film. With groups and artists such as N.W.A., A Tribe Called Quest, The Fugees, and Mos Def, hip-hop music was heavily pushing for a sense of black-empowerment through art and it is this sense of empowerment that the character Malcom adopts for himself, which partly comes through his physical appearance; Malcom sports a high-top fade, a haircut that’s both rooted in African-American culture as well as this specific time in the hip-hop scene. For Malcom, then, nostalgia is a way of understanding his own culture and identity, yet there exists an irony here between Malcom’s identity as “black” and his bullies. Malcom is bullied for behaving as an outsider from what is considered the norm but Malcom’s identity isn’t one that can be viewed as the “other” at all, since his own identity is one that harkens back to traditional ideas of what it means to be “black.”

There are many facets to Dope’s dialogue concerning race which would then explain the irony presented here. That is, there is no one way a race should behave, which is a point heavily driven towards the end of the film.
In having a setting that deals with contemporary youth, Famuyiwa is successful in writing a script that comes off as vernacular, an aspect that is more than important when dealing with anything contemporary, as one false-step can make the movie seem dubious. The conversations, attitudes, and characterization in the film are presented as real people rather than cinematic characters working towards something didactic and if what Famuyiwa is seeking to do in this film is have it behave as a reflection of our own contemporary society, then the film needs to not only be relatable towards groups that may identify with the characters on-screen but also be successful in creating something genuine and serious. To this extent, Famuyiwa does go the extra-step by including the deep-web into his film. Films and television shows that take place in the modern day have already taken steps to include social media, such as Facebook or text messaging, into their work and Famuyiwa is extending this conversation by having the inclusion of the deep-web and subsequently bit-coin into his film; this aspect of Dope almost gives it a science-fiction vibe as the nature of bit-coin has a futuristic aspect to it—think of credits being the predominant currency in varying works of science-fiction—but the futuristic aspect to bit-coin isn’t so futuristic so much as our own modern world has technologically progressed quickly in just the past two-decades. Ultimately, the vernacular element of Dope allows Famuyiwa to once again relate his own film back to our own real world but also it allows him to extend the range of his comedy by having jokes or scenarios that are only able to exist in our own time.

Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope is both acted and directed with hip sense of style and it is this style which is the biggest draw of Dope, yet the film proves to be more than just a nice-coat of paint; underneath Dope’s sense of style, Famuyiwa has imbued the film with serious and well discussed themes concerning race, race relations towards institutes, and perceived racial identities.

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