Dope – Rick Famuyiwa (2015)

Dope has garnered many comparisons to 1983’s Risky Business. The comparison is apt insofar as both films revolve around college-bound teens who, generally being straight shooters, want to live it up and taste some of the wilds of adulthood before heading off to school, and who get caught up in more excitement than they bargained for. Dope also has elements that throw back to Kid ‘n Play’s features from the early 1990s, as well as the Friday series of drug comedies. The film concerns Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his two friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a trio of nerds who are obsessed with the hip hop culture of the 1990s. They watch old tapes of Yo! MTV Raps, are ardent collectors and defenders of the era’s music, and they dress in homage to the decade (Malcolm sports a hi-top fade too). They are intelligent, good students, and misfits, as besides their obsession with the past and geeky ways, Diggy is a lesbian, and Jib is of indeterminate ethnicity in this largely African-American neighborhood. The three live in the Bottoms, a tough section of Inglewood, where they have to continually dodge thugs at school who want to steal their stuff (mostly shoes) and drug dealers on the street, who want to take their bikes. One day, Malcolm happens to talk to and somewhat befriend one of the dealers, who asks him to be a romantic courier to Nakia (ZoĆ« Kravitz) the neighborhood hottie who is studying for her GED so she can go to college. Malcolm of course develops a crush on Nakia, and offers to help her study for her GED, in the hopes that she’ll go with him to the prom. The drug dealer, Dom (A$ap Rocky), invites Malcolm and his crew to a party, and the three go, despite being under-aged and drug free, mostly to further Malcolm’s romantic designs on Nakia. The party, of course, is where the plot really picks up, as everything goes haywire – Dom is in the middle of a drug deal when gun-wielding robbers try to boost his weight, and in the midst of the mayhem, he secrets the large quantity of ecstasy into Malcolm’s backpack (unbeknownst to him). Discovering the drugs, and a handgun, the next day at school, Malcolm at first panics, then tries his best to get the drugs back to their intended source without getting killed, or arrested, in the meantime. After much hustling around and avoiding various rival drug dealers who also want to get their hands on the stash, Malcolm is directed to pay a visit to the big boss, who also happens to be the local magnate of a chain of payday loan storefronts and the man Malcolm is supposed to have his Harvard application interview with. This man, Councilman Blackmon (Rick Fox), is a pillar of the community, but runs a boys club that is a front for his drug dealing activities. Blackmon has no desire for the drugs, he simply wants the cash that Dom would have generated from them, so he tasks Malcolm with converting the drugs into money himself, as the best possible credential for his placement within the Ivy League. Being a nerd, Malcolm decides to make use of technology to aid him, rather than deal on the streets, and enlists the help of his “friend” Will (Blake Anderson), who helps them establish a listing on a dark web drug site and sell the drugs for Bitcoins. To cut to the chase, he gets it all done, avoids being killed or arrested, and, to an extent, wins the heart of the girl, all while various more and less serious hi-jinks ensue.

The film doesn’t have quite the atmosphere or “walk on the wild side” tension that Risky Business does, for a couple of reasons. One is that Risky Business is about a fish out of water, a preppie white kid entering a world of sex and larceny that is quite foreign to his everyday experience. Dope is about a black kid from a tough neighborhood who, although a straight arrow, is quite familiar with the world he is entering into – in a way, it is more about his ingenuity and ability to play a variety of roles, rather than about adapting to various shocking yet arousing situations. Formal elements make the stakes feel lower too. Malcolm’s drug dealing, thanks to the magic of technology, feels distant and light weight, far from the street or danger, and is accorded a quite small parcel of screen time. The website goes live, the drugs move, the end. There are one or two shots of the crew using the chemistry lab to cut the stuff up, but that’s about it in terms of the hands-on portrayal of dirty deed doings. There are also simply fewer moments of threat than in Risky Business. In that film, the adults are absent because of a vacation – in Dope, the adults are usually absent, due to economic necessity or social contingencies. Which gets us to the main difference between the two films: race (duh). The differences between Risky Business and Dope provide a portrait of the differences between white and black America. For Tom Cruise, one wrong move would bring down a carefully constructed edifice of expectation and responsibility, destroying a life that would have no reason, except for perverse inclination, to fail. For Malcolm, the stakes are lower – not for his own care for his future, but for society’s. His father is absent, his mother is working and barely present, and, given his neighborhood and skin color, nobody expects that much from him, so his dilemma takes on the form of a fork in the road of existence. One way leads to Harvard, the other to prison, but oftentimes the roads overlap and cross, and how Malcolm navigates this split matters for him personally more than it does for anyone else. The film does a good job of playing up this doubleness (also reflected in the multiple meanings of the title), and making it clear that life for Malcolm, a bright, charming kid with promise, matters much less to society than it should. There are times it lays bare this hypocrisy in a way that is almost didactic, as at the end, when Malcolm, his problems solved, writes (and performs for the camera) an admissions essay that explicitly addresses the double nature of expectation that America places on its youth, depending on the color of their skin. The end of the film also smartly leaves us in suspense as to Malcolm’s success – we see a large envelope arrive from Harvard, we see an ambivalent reaction shot from Malcolm, and the film ends. Did he get in or not? Malcolm’s essay makes the point that, if he were white, we wouldn’t have to ask this question. By not answering the question and satisfying the audience, Famuyiwa reinforces the point – nothing in Malcolm’s world is ever a given in the way it would be for a white man and, yes, even in our supposedly post-racial society, we all know that Malcolm can do all the right things and still lose out big time. What complicates this view is that he doesn’t do all the “right” things, because he can’t – he does what he has to, in a world where there are no right answers, and where doing the “right” thing will potentially penalize him as much as doing the “wrong” one. The portrayal of Councilman Blackmon is thus not cynical, but plays up how the mindless praise we as a society heap upon the “entrepreneurial spirit” is a lie; both the Councilman and Malcolm are doing what America has told them to do (that is, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps), but because they have done it within the world they have access to, and with the materials of that world, they have to, at the least, live a double existence that denies part of their identity. The true denial comes from a society that has attempted to put success out of reach for them a priori, by making the world they live in, and the paths out of it, all illegal. The film does a great job of showing this reality without being overtly political, and we feel for Malcolm and the way his life is twisted and confined by the lies we, who live in another world, tell ourselves about who we are. The proceedings, especially in the second half of the film, have the rushed, sketchy quality that much exposition has these days. The cast is fresh-faced and very appealing, though, and there is much that is funny and enjoyable about the movie, especially for anyone who remembers, and is perhaps nostalgic for, the 1990s. All the same, the second half plays out as expected, and by the end, is a bit rote and boring. We do need more films like this being made; films which do not play into the lies we like to tell ourselves, or which pretend that magical, shiny technology has somehow solved the problems of racial and economic justice that exist within our society. We need more films about what it is like to be black, or outside of any social guarantee. It is sad that such films are rare, and Dope serves as a reminder of how many films cravenly congratulate and coddle their audiences on having a politically correct attitude which amounts to having “solved” problems simply by refusing to acknowledge them.

Three stars out of five