Monday, June 29, 2015
People who throw around the phrase “geek culture” probably aren’t thinking about the three high schoolers at the center of the new film Dope. Malcolm (Shameik Moore) lives with his mother (Kimberly Elise) in a rough part of L.A. known as “The Bottoms”. Malcolm wants to go to Harvard, and when he isn’t turning in application essays about ‘90s hip-hop he’s playing in an art-punk band and trying to avoid losing his shoes to a bully (Keith Stanfield). It’s all Malcolm and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori of The Grand Budapest Hotel) and the lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) can do some days to make it home without running afoul of gangs or drug dealers.
What sounds like the setup for a drama of overcoming one’s circumstances is fact the ingredient list for a comic but pointed tale of self-discovery. Malcolm crosses the radar of a drug dealer (A$ap Rocky) whose girlfriend (Zoe Kravitz) also wants to go to college. When Malcolm winds up with a backpack of drugs and in the sights of rival dealers he must unload the product to protect his friends and his future. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa doesn’t lose sight of the stakes for Malcolm while filling the film with exuberant cross-talk about everything from classic hip-hop (the soundtrack is a winner) to President Obama’s drone policies to why white people can’t use the n-word. Famuyiwa’s script plays with our expectations nicely, there’s a jarring act of violence in the first few minutes while we’re still getting used to the narration by producer Forest Whitaker. Later Malcolm points a gun at someone and it’s played as an act of genuine desperation as opposed to a scene of Malcolm discovering his inner killer. Famuyiwa throws twitter feeds, Bitcoin, hacking, memes, hoodies, and a probably too soon Aaron Swartz reference into the mix and comes up with something fresh, a film where everyone (including the main character) is a quarter turn from what we’re used to.
Dope ends with a declamatory speech to the camera by Malcolm, it’s supposed to be a last-minute rewrite of his Harvard application essay. The speech is the kind of sequence that Spike Lee would have filled out with a mournful Terence Blanchard score and some snazzy editing, but Famuyiwa is working with fewer resources and so we just get Malcolm. A teacher calls Malcolm “arrogant” early in the film, and this summing up is arrogant enough to critique the tropes (drug dealers vs. innocents, celebrations turned into shootouts, single motherhood) of the film we’re watching. Dope bends ‘90s “gangsta” (I use the term with caution) films through filters of irony and sadness, all the while asking us to think about how we watch. Dope is too good for summer.