Dope: Famuyiwa’s Fresh Look at Black Youth in Drug Culture

dope_posterThe mixture of themes, styles and tones which marks Dope, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s tale of black high schoolers who get involved with drug dealers, proved satisfying to most viewers when the film world-premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Fest.

However, when the film played at Cannes Film Fest last month, some French critics complained that, yes, Dope is funny and irreverent and thus shows promise for its filmmaker, but they faulted the work for its lack of focus and center.

While we have seen many films about drugs and gangs, using hip-hop music, Dope should be commended for its fresh look at this often-depicted context in movies (both mainstream Hollywood and indies), while not neglecting the more serious and ever-timely issues of race, racial and interracial relationships, and racism.

dope_3Produced by Oscar-winner actor, Forest Whitaker, who is also the narrator of the saga, Dope will be released by Open Road as counterprogramming in late June.

This is the fourth feature of Famuyiwa (who previouslt made Our Family Wedding) and like his first one, The Wood, it is set in his hometown of Inglewood.

Shameik Moore plays Malcolm, a likable teenager living in Los Angeles in a poor crime-infested area with his single mother (Kimberly Elise). Most of his time is spend with his friend, Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), who overcome bullying at school by their interest in rap.

dope_4While attending a party, courtesy of Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), a shootout occurs over a drug deal, Malcolm and friends escape, failing to realize that the drugs have been deposited in their backpack.

A bright youth, Malcolm resists the prevalent social and racial profiling of black youth by the school and media. He works hard to be a good student (intending to attend Harvard), he initiates a punk band.

dope_1Famuyiwa, who had previously directed The Wood and Brown Sugar) is not interested in making a message film about racial inequality, instead focusing on the humorous aspects of his protagonists’ lifestyle and their playful personalities.

Once Malcolm discovers that he possesses the drugs, he must figure out a way to dispose of them without getting killed by those who are aggressively pursuing him.

One of the most entertaining scenes is set at the house of rich boys (played by the model Chanel Iman and Quincy Brown), who talk about “lunch” (slang for drugs), leading to a shoot-out in a hamburger joint.

dope_2Famuyiwa has cast his film with the right actors.  In his first leading role, Shameik Moore,  sporting a flat-top hair, captures Malcolm’s awkwardness while also showing a the smart kid with quick wit and amazing adaptability. When placed in unexpected and absurdist situations, including fending off a drug-crazed sexpot, Moore shows Malcolm’s ability to handle any problem as it arises.

Revolori displays laidback comic timing as Jib, riffing with Diggy and encouraging Malcolm to be more aggressive with the women.

Speaking of femmes, the tale contains a butch lesbian, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), who loves the “shit white people like,” a character seldom seen in such features, whose sexual orientation is at odds with her church.

The predominant tone is comic, which works well in highlighting the more multi-nuanced look that the movie takes in depicting contempo African-American lives, a vastly different approach from tht taken by the black cinema of the early 1990s, in films by Spike Lee, John Singleton, and others.

The storytelling, with its various subplots, is loopy and not always grounded (or even necessary), but there is so much else going on that you disregard the shortcomings and enjoy the strengths, which are plentiful.

Here is a dynamic, sharply observed feature about nerdy overachievers that doesn’t shy away from being a crowd-pleaser.  Judging by the response of the first audience at Sundance, Open Road has a winner on its hands.