By Scott Southard. The dangers and inevitabilities of life in South Central Los Angeles were thoroughly diagrammed and expanded upon in the bleak Sisyphusian tragedies of Menace II Society and Boyz N The Hood. Then came Friday (and its barrage of increasingly disintegrating sequels) to display the antipodal side of the tragedy, providing a good-natured humor that — at the time — most of America never realized was possible. For a while, the “gangsta movie” was its own genre where John Singleton and The Hughes Bros dominated a market hungry to learn of a world they’d never know. Was it exploitative novelty? Expositional creative fiction? Decent cinema? All of these things?
In Dope, director Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Our Family Wedding) takes the thematic setting and stylistic anaphora of a genre we know and love and modernizes it for a time when distanced exoticisation and practical segregation are becoming far less accepted. Part coming-of-age story, part madcap crime thriller comedy, part future-tech commentary, it’s a film about Malcolm (believably played by the mind blowing dancer, Shameik Moore), an average high school kid growing up in 2015’s still troubled, ever-rebuilding Inglewood, California. He and his friends, Jib and Diggy (solidly performances from Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons, respectively) aren’t neighborhood toughs, or drug dealers, or gang members. They’re total nerds that love 90’s hip hop (which allows for dozens of touching nods to the old guard of the genre), who are happenstantially swept into an inescapable, hijinx-laden whirlwind of drugs, money, and most importantly, race relations.
Malcolm’s adventure hits absurd peaks and valleys in the uninventive mold of a teen comedy (the scene where the slightly older, ultra-attractive woman asks him about his obvious virginity brings American Pie to mind for the first time in forever), but what makes it interesting is his future-minded consciousness and rooted desire to succeed academically and professionally. He’s a multi-faceted character with hopes and dreams, and yes, he wants to have sex, but he also wants to go to college, be accepted by his friends, understand his identity, and learn how to function in a society that (at best) seems not to favor the circumstances of someone unlucky enough to be born black in a black neighborhood in America.
There are moments of incredible clarity that encapsulate a very modern social consciousness toward the attitudes surrounding race in today’s United States. (Mild spoiler: the film closes with the protagonist throwing on a hoodie to give a monologue regarding the American media’s portrayal of young black males. It’s pretty chilling.) However, these moments of concise, penetrative wisdom make the movies’ imperfections — like its misogynistic (and just generally insensitive) overtones — sting even harder, given the juxtaposition. It seems to follow the general pattern of a film so self-aware that it becomes unsure of itself: the “crazy drunk harlot” trope or the casual “retarded” joke feel so out of touch when peppered between thoughtful, if not fully fleshed out, arguments between a multi-ethnic group of people regarding use of the n-word or a simple portrayal of a human being trying to grow up in a poor, crime-heavy neighborhood. It seems as if the filmmakers were skeptical that such a smart, thoughtful film could stand on it’s own.
Which brings up the crazy amount of (mostly non-Hollywood) star power behind Dope. Pharrell Williams, Forest Whitaker, and Sean Combs all have producer tags of some sort. With A$AP Rocky as local-big-time-friendly-drug-dealer, Rick Fox as a school administrator, and smaller roles doled out to rappers Tyga, Vince Staples, and Casey Veggies, there’s… there’s just a lot going on here. And the added dose of newcomers Zoë Kravitz (whose quiet roles in Dope and the new Mad Max leave me undecided but excited about her potential in the industry) and Blake Anderson (the goofy one in Workaholics) doesn’t make it any easier to parse out what the film is trying to do. It’s a smattering of hyper-talented individuals, each with their own ideas of what Dope is supposed to be.
While it retains its thoroughly enjoyable ’90s overlay throughout, Dope’s lack of cohesion is frustrating as hell. It navigates through a wide spectrum from deep-gutted emotion to spine-folding cringes in a way that few contemporary films can scarcely manage to handle. It’s complicated, problematic, confusing, inspiring, and imperfect. Almost like real life.