If you aren’t careful, the world will try to tell you who you are, and you might be dumb enough to believe it.
Rick Famuyiwa’s "Dope" follows high school senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore), and his two best friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), as they struggle to fit into their Inglewood, California neighborhood that’s affectionately coined The Bottoms. Obsessed with 90’s hip-hop culture, the trio hide behind the stylish and musical nuisances of a past time, instead of facing their 21st century environment. A film that initially felt like it could be another "Boyz N the Hood" or "Menace II Society," I thought I had seen some version if this story before. It turns out, I was dead wrong.
Instead of a typical coming-of-age tale, "Dope" is like a modern day Black "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" (1986), or almost any other John Hughes film. Average American teen nerd who, in an ambitious act of self-exoneration, becomes cool, and/or has a sexual encounter with a girl seemingly out of his league. "Dope" is somewhat like that. Also, Malcolm breaks the fourth wall, speaking to the audience, and his constant self-analysis is much like Ferris’.
Though he’s known for his “grown up” films like "The Wood" (1999) and "Brown Sugar" (2002), director Famuyiwa really captures the essence of coming-of-age in Obama’s America. He encapsulates John Hughes nostalgia, and flips it on its head to incorporate the vitality of John Singleton’s films. In doing so, Famuyiwa gives a voice to today’s young black male, while removing the "hood-homeboy" element that we’ve often seen in the past.
Famuyiwa seems to have thrown every stylistic idea he’s ever had into the film, so much so that I was often reminded of a Pinterest board. But, despite the stylized filmmaking with many visual effects, the majority of Famuyiwa’s choices work. The film does get a bit showy with some of its use of spilt screens, and the like, for example; but Famuyiwa is able to reign in his audience, ultimately bringing the focus back to the story at hand, emphasizing substance over style.
The music in the film also played a pivotal role in driving the story home. Malcolm hoards VHS tapes of old "Yo! MTV Raps" recordings, and instead of an iPod he uses a cassette player. Everyone from Nas to A Tribe Called Quest provide the soundtrack to daily life in The Bottoms. The old-school sound juxtaposed against new artists like A$AP Rocky – who plays a supporting role in the film (and is actually quite good), and others who make quick appearances – really comment on the longevity and the importance of hip-hop culture. Likewise, Zoë Kravitz’s unpretentious portrayal of Nakia, is the cherry on top. It was like looking at her mother Lisa Bonet all over again.
Much of the film’s humor comes form newcomer Moore and surprisingly, Chanel Iman, who I initially thought may have been miscast in the role of Lily. Iman’s performance was over the top (as it should have been for the role), however, I was nagged by a feeling of inauthenticity when she first appears in the film. At first, Lily seems to exist in a world outside of Malcolm’s, but I suppose that was likely the point.
The film, like others, is not without its flaws. As noted previously, some of the visual gimmicks felt contrived, and left me wondering, in each moment, if what I was watching was meant to be a work of satire, or a straight narrative. Still, the charm of the actors, as well as the story, helped me easily forgive what I felt were a few false steps. Like the "hood-homeboy" films of the 90s, the city of Los Angles is a character in the film. The modest bungalows and palm trees don’t simply serve as a backdrop to the narrative; the visual framing of the city grounds the audience in the space, so much that the story and the city exist as one.
What I love most about "Dope" is director Famuyiwa‘s confidence in his audience. He seems to have thrown every cinematic *trick* he knows into the actively-paced film, never really relenting, seemingly believing that his audience can keep up. "Dope" isn’t a spoon fed tale, and that makes it even more worthwhile.
Overall, the story pays homage to hip-hop music and culture of the 90s, but it’s also very much a film of the present. "Dope" reflects back on the people we’ve lost, and looks forward to today, at those who are simply trying to figure out who they are.
The film will be in theaters this Friday, June 19th.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.