Directed By: Rick Famuyiwa
Written By: Rick Famuyiwa
Starring: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Kimberly Elise, Chanel Iman, Tyga, Blake Anderson, Zoë Kravitz, A$AP Rocky
(Originally written for Youtube Feb 27 2016)
Dope, like its main character, has a black exterior hiding a white interior, but, like its main character, that might not be a detriment.
Dope follows Malcolm, a black nerd living in the poor neighborhood of Inglewood, California, on the verge of graduating and with dreams of attending Harvard. Things get complicated when, after a shoot-out at a party he’s attending, Malcolm finds himself with a backpack full of drugs that he has to sell, or the local gang will come after him and his friends.
And all the gang-violence, Inglewood, and 90’s hip-hop basically just provide a black wallpaper on what is essentially a John Hughes style coming of age movie. At the center is a teenage boy focused on the twin goalposts of teenage-boy-dom, surviving high school and getting laid. Predictably, Malcolm’s geekiness due to liking white-people things like Punk Music and getting Good Grades, provide exactly the sorts of advantages that allow him to get the girl and get rid of the drugs in time. It’s a movie where the main character finds strength in his otherness where at first there was only alienation. And being that Malcolm’s otherness is directly and repeatedly linked to his white-ness despite being black also gives this film a bit of a mighty-whitey bent. Malcolm is, essentially, a super-negro or exceptional-black-man archetype.
Honestly, I find the race politics of this film to be incredibly confusing, and even two-faced. By the end of the film Malcolm accepts that the world will inevitably see him as a black man before seeing him as anything else, but he doesn’t learn to embrace it. Instead, his strengths, and his entire character are built from him removing himself from the elements that define blackness for every other character in the film. And what is that supposed to say about the value of the black culture that he spends the entire running time trying to avoid? Yet the movie has the gall to directly accuse the viewers with a pretentious fourth-wall breaking speech about how we supposedly automatically have low expectations for black people?
I feel that Dope has its heart in the right place, and knows what it wants to try to say about perceptions of race and ability and whose culture we place value on; but it has no idea how to say it. For instance, there’s a moment in this movie where our main characters, all people of color, are explaining try to explain to a white character why they’re allowed to say the N-word while he isn’t; and this exchange ends with the explanation being “you shouldn’t say it because I’ll slap you.” The ideas of privilege and linguistic reclamation are there, but not communicated in any meaningful way.
And, despite all this confusion, I can’t say Dope is a bad movie. It’s well acted, well paced, beautifully shot, and engaging. Shameik Moore plays Malcolm with tons of charm and charisma, and is a believable character throughout. He’s also the only character with any real weight to him, with everyone else there to basically facilitate his journey. The soundtrack, which uses a lot of 90s hip-hop, as well as some original compositions by Pharrell is fun and high-energy. And, while the movie is stuffed with plot points and different scenes and locations, it does a great job of whipping everyone along at a good clip. It’s not incredibly original or outstanding, but it’s a lot of fun from beginning to end.
And, returning to the race thing one last time before ending this review. Despite everything I’ve said about it, I don’t think I’m in a position to say whether or not this film is any less meaningful because of it. One, because I’m not black. And two, because this still counts as black representation by black artists. Despite being a familiar character, Malcolm is still one of the first versions of this particular character to be a person of color. So if this is the first time an audience member of color sees someone he can identify with in this film personally that also happens to look like him; well, I have no right to try and call that illegitimate. Representation can’t solely be about great diverse characters; we need space for all sorts of diverse characters so that anyone and everyone can find someone that reflects them in media; even losers come in all colors.