Dope is an escape-the-ghetto survival tale, a Superbad-like comedy, and a modern-day Scarface drug front all rolled into one geeky joint and puffed on by soon-to-be household name, director Rick Famuyiwa. You immediately think you’re in for a more technologically advanced take on John Singleton‘s Boyz n the Hood, but as the plot progresses, a sincere coming-of-age story rears its underprivileged head in the most unique way. While this is a project-dwelling slum dramedy filled with 90s hip-hop swagger, grungy punk music becomes the focus of Famuyiwa’s Yo! MTV Raps inspired story about busting free from the chains of close-minded perceptions.
Shameik Moore stars as Malcolm, a nerdy teen who’s just trying to survive the thuggish Inglewood landscape of California. Along with his two best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), the trio relies on the righteous vibes of 90s hip-hop as a sanctuary from gang beatings, drug dealers and all the other typical societal pressures of their underprivileged California war zone. With Harvard in his sights, Malcolm works hard to be a model student despite his surroundings – but one chance night could change all that. While attending an underground party for a local drug peddler (Dom, played by A$ap Rocky), Malcolm comes to possess a backpack full of white gold, which he assumes is dope. This starts a chaotic journey for three unlikely kids, but despite the inherent danger, Malcolm’s predicament might just be the revealing adventure these newfound “criminals” need.
Famuyiwa’s modernized gang landscape is a new, curious take on old methodologies. We’ve all seen the rough-and-tumble thugs straight outta’ Compton before, but with this presently hip generation of gangstas, a new wave is born out of the Steve Jobs era. Malcolm and his friends try to flee from a drug dealer’s muscle committee, but repeatedly find themselves with the debt collectors on their tail, tracking Malcolm’s every move using his iPhone finder app and an iPad with GPS. Yup, that’s the new ghetto look: a sideways-tilted glock in one hand and a $400 tablet in the other. Why go to an actual black market when you can just use bitcoins on the internet? The criminal underworld is evolving every day, and Famuyiwa shows us how.
I suppose this is the world we live in now, and that’s what makes Dope so charming. Crips and Bloods spend time making YouTube videos to promote their colors, thugs sit around discussing the implications of drone warfare and everyone knows “[racial slur]’s don’t eat scones!” – the hardest of the hard eat poundcake from Seven Bucks (a Starbucks fake).
Famuyiwa’s comprehension of the world around him makes its way into his satirical mockery of a broader cultural movement, yet he condenses it down to fit in the world of Inglewood. From addressing whitey’s fascination with the “N” word and why they can’t use it, to the classification of Donald Glover as “white shit,” there’s just something about a rough-riding thug talking about sippin’ his Chai latte that just doesn’t have the same anger – but it’s damn hilarious to watch.
This is a film that runs entirely on awkward energy, all stemming from the quirky witticisms from the main triumvirate’s flat-top swagger. In a school where most students are just sporting their colors, Malcolm and his crew stand out like multi-colored, chain-wearing sore thumbs, but they own their “Humpty Dance” style. They represent the outcasts, the misunderstood juveniles lost in a sea of mediocrity, but each one owns their individuality. Malcolm is able to drop the names Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ice Cube coherently in the same sentence, Diggy fights the power as a vocal lesbian who’s seen as possessed by some evil power, and Jig is there to comically balance tension. Moore, Clemons, and Revolori are bright, shining stars who embrace their hipster-90s-Inglewood vibe – mature performances from three young stars destined to break out in a BIG way.
Famuyiwa misses a huge opportunity to end Dope on an extremely powerful note as Malcolm re-introduces himself while Awreeoh (his punk band with Jig and Diggy) lays down an infectious groove, but that’s just a minor quibble. This is a coming-of-age story not only for a new generation, but for all those people trying to beat the unfair judgments brought upon by forces that will always be uncontrollable. There’s a tremendous urge to rebel when thrust into a situation like Malcolm’s, where he tries to separate himself from the violent gangs that rule every street, especially when trying to erase the “another black kid from Inglewood” stigma – losing himself in the act.
Dope is a movie about self-reflection and discovery, and it just also so happens to revolve around a bag of drugs, murderous thugs and some sweet 90s tuneage. It’s fresh, spunky, and ripe with attitude, right down to the fresh kicks Malcolm wears that he has to keep from being stolen. Famuyiwa’s vision explodes with a funky-fresh energy that’s infectiously light-hearted despite the grave stakes at risk, from the aptly-themed soundtrack (new music provided by Pharrell) to Malcolm’s eclectic fashion sense. There’s no detail Famuyiwa doesn’t calculate, addressed with fiery passion and the quick-fire wit of a beat-boxing virtuoso. There’s just too much satirical fun to be had with Dope, and that’s coming from a pasty-white boy who happens to be listening to Childish Gambino as he types these final words.
I know who I am.
Dope is a funky-fresh take on today's "hood" culture that's surprisingly empowering when Malcolm's coming-of-age story steps front and center.