“Dope” has so much going on, and accomplishes so many things, that it’s practically a miracle.
It’s a film with a lot to say about race and identity in 21st century America. It’s a depiction of a very specific world and a character study of very specific people. And it’s also a bonafide crowd pleaser. And at all three, it succeeds wonderfully. This film will challenge you- and you’ll have a great time being challenged.
“Dope” is the story of Malcolm (standout newcomer Shameik Moore), a teenager in an impoverished section of Inglewood, Calif., who lives with his single mom (Kimberly Elise) and is a self-described geek. He studies, is good with computers and has aspirations of academic excellence. And along with his two friends (Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori- Lobby Boy!) he has great love for the hip-hop culture of the early ’90s- that means not only the music of Public Enemy, De La Soul and Digible Planets, but also fashions like flat-top haircuts and Cross Colors shirts. Incongruous, sure, but if you watched Iman Shumpert play in the NBA Finals, you know the flattop is having a resurgence.
The film was written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, who also made “Brown Sugar” and “Talk to Me.” Since, like the protagonist, Famuyiwa is a native of Inglewood, Calif., and had a Nigerian father, I’m guessing it’s at least semi-autobiographical. And while I normally look askance at films that write contemporary teenage characters as loving the long-ago music that the director probably loved when he was a teenager, I give “Dope” a pass for a simple reason: The soundtrack is absolutely fantastic.
“Dope” spends its entire running time juggling a lot of balls. It starts out with Malcolm and friends trying to make it in their rough neighborhood and school, where bullies literally steal his Nikes off his feet (another phenomenon more associated with the early ’90s than today.) There’s also the part about Malcolm trying to get into Harvard, and also gather up the courage to talk to a neighborhood girl named Nakia (Zoe Kravitz.) Then, they stumble into a drug deal and it becomes a riff on the plot of “True Romance”- nerd who very much isn’t a criminal stumbles into a quantity of drugs and has to find a way to sell it, without getting killed in the process.
There are various twists and turns, involving a Bitcoin scheme, a collegiate hacker played by ‘Workaholics’ star Blake Anderson, and a college interview with a Gus Fring type (Roger Guenveur Smith) that isn’t anything like what it seems.
The cast is excellent top to bottom, especially the three main teenagers, whose chemistry is never less than joyful. Smith, in two brief scenes, is delightfully smarmy. When Zoe Kravitz first appeared I noted how much he resembled Lisa Bonet- until I remembered that Bonet is her mom.
Ultimately, it’s a caper. One involving drug-dealing, crypto-currencies and a closing-credits performance of “The Humpty Dance.”
But let’s talk about one particular scene. Having a character write a college admissions essay is a frequent part of coming-of-age films, to the point of it becoming a cliche. This scene is almost never good or witty; in this week’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” its excruciating.
The one is “Dope” is not only the best scene in the movie, but maybe the best of any movie this year. And it doubles as the film’s thesis statement: People- and black teenagers in particular- aren’t always what they seem to be, and their identities are many things, not only one thing.
Do you remember the Twitter hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown? Around the time of Ferguson, it featured young black Americans posting two pictures of themselves side-by-side- say, one of them dressed for graduation, and the other of them dressed for a homemade rap video. The idea was to wonder how, in the event of their violent death, they might be shown on TV. “Dope” has a lot of the same things in mind.
This is a film that I’m very much looking forward to the public discourse on. I’m dying to read what Ta-Nehesi Coates has to say about it.
“Me and Earl and Dying Girl,” once again, came out of the same Sundance Film Festival as “Dope.” But if “Me and Earl” represents the worst of Sundance movie- smug, navel-gazing, and utterly un-self-aware- “Dope” is the best- an underdog film with no huge stars getting a deserved chance.
##IFTHEYGUNNEDMEDOWN #'90S HIP-HOP #BITCOIN #CROSS COLORS #DE LA SOUL #DOPE #KIERSEY CLEMONS #MOVIE REVIEW #MOVIES #PUBLIC ENEMY #RICK FAMUYIWA #SHAMEIK MOORE) #TONY REVOLORI #ZO? KRAVITZ #MOVIE REVIEW: “DOPE”
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