Written by Jeff Bannis
What can one say about DOPE? Firstly, that it’s a far more intelligent comedy than the usual Hollywood effort. It also has a cast list packed with young talent that will entertain and charm the most hard-bitten of cinema-goers. On top of that, there are some thought-provoking moments that really hit home.
The opening scenes, where we meet Shameik Moore‘s Malcolm establish him as a nerdy kid who, in the best traditions of high school comedy, is mercilessly bullied by jocks. In voiceover, Malcolm complains he is unpopular because he does “white stuff”, like read books. Malcolm is obsessed with 90s rap music, as are his friends Diggy and Jib (played by Kiersey Clemons of Transparent and Tony Revolori of Grand Budapest Hotel). One’s a lesbian, the other is just odd, like Malcolm they’re also outsiders.
When not on the run from the jocks, our geeky chums like to play in their rock band, Awreeoh (geddit?) or hanker after girls. Malcolm’s current crush is on smart ghetto girl Nakia, played by Zoe Kravitz. Nakia also attracts the amorous attentions of hood-with-a-heart, Dom (A$AP Rocky).
Set in a tough neighbourhood, named “the Bottoms” in the film but in reality a thinly disguised Inglewood LA, its only a matter of time before the eponymous illegal substance rears its head. Finding himself in accidental possession of a massive drugs cache, Malcolm has to figure out a way to avoid the law and keep various drug-dealing villains off his tail while securing a scholarship to Harvard. Piece of cake!
Its a complex set-up but there are some truly funny lines along the way. DOPE has a winning cast, some genuine laughs and the film’s light approach persuades you to stick with it. It’s a departure from its producer, Forest Whitaker‘s last success, the excellent Fruitvale Station, although the two share the same camerawoman.
On the demerit side, for a film that sets out to debunk black stereotypes, DOPE misses its targets. Malcolm and his friends all love 90s rap, so why do they choose to express this through dated, post-punk pop music (courtesy of executive producer Pharrell Williams)? The stuff Awreeoh perform really is rubbish but its presented, embarrassingly, as quality. Now, perhaps its aimed at the assumed demographic for a John Hughes-influenced teen comedy, but its inclusion here implies that rock is the default musical form for intelligent teens, rather than just for white people. Why don’t Awreeoh just make 90s-style rap?
On a similar note, in a piece direct to camera, Malcolm challenges the audience to examine their supposed surprise that he wants to go to Harvard. This falls flat because “disadvantaged kid achieves excellence” is such a well-established trope in Hollywood, we can all write this film’s ending. Who exactly do the makers think will part with hard cash to see this film? For its likely audience, it isn’t a revelation that black youths strive to achieve – it’s a revelation when they make it.
Rick Famuyiwa is not a debutant director – his forthcoming HBO movie, Confirmation, which stars Kerry Washington as Anita Hill will doubtless raise his profile even further. But DOPE’s weak points are due to his uncertain handling of tone, especially noticeable in intimate scenes.
The film scores hugely when it throws the over-complex storyline away for a while and lives in the moment. The LAPD need to put out an APB on model-turned actress Chanel Iman right now, because she absolutely steals this movie with a hilarious cameo. It doesn’t play any part in the story but it’s genuinely funny, sexy and lifts the whole endeavour into the arena of anarchic fun that is surely the initial intention of every comedy writer.
It’s not giving much away to say that DOPE has a happy ending. In a manner that’s not fully expounded on-screen, Malcolm acquires a backbone and starts standing up for himself. The fact that he shows this by selling drugs and in a willingness to use violence undermines the film’s message somewhat but it puts necessary story elements to bed.
Dope has great entertainment value and is ambitious in trying to satirize the stereotyping of black people as criminals and their white clientele as warm, freedom-loving human beings. If in rounding all the bases it loses its way, it should be forgiven if only because it takes such a refreshingly grown-up stance on stubbornly immovable social barriers.
© 2015 Jeff Bannis
Dope In Cinemas 4 Sept
Meet The Artiste: Filmmaker Rick Famuyiwa