Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
Starring Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, A$AP Rocky, Zoe Kravitz, Chanel Iman
One of the best and rarest privileges afforded this profession is that, every so often, you catch a movie with such a rich, unique and idiosyncratic voice that it hits you in the face like a blast of ice-cold water, almost overwhelming your senses with its clarity and purity. So it is with Dope, the new comedy from writer and director Rick Famuyiwa.
High school student Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore) is dealing with the usual set of urban drama problems: he’s a young black man from a single parent family, mired in the dangerous milieu of Inglewood, an LA suburb steeped in gang violence and drugs. He’s also a straight A student, au fait with modern geek and internet culture, and obsessed with ’90s hip hop.
Malcolm isn’t so much an outsider as a border dweller, balancing on the edge between two worlds. When he isn’t worrying about SATs and getting into Harvard, he’s worried about getting jacked for his shoes, or caught in the crossfire during an armed robbery. When a mix-up results in Malcolm being stuck with a bag full of molly and a pistol that belong to drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky), he’s tasked with selling the stuff while Dom is locked up. Together with his equally nerdy friends, Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kersey Clemons), Malcolm brings his considerable intellect to bear on the problem of slinging the dope without getting arrested or killed.
Tonally, Dope is a marvel – Famuyiwa manages to keep things light and breezy on the surface while at the same time never losing track of what’s at stake – imprisonment or death. The trappings of your typical ’90s urban coming of age drama are all present – the drugs, the gangs, the guns, the poverty, the school door metal detectors – but they’re treated matter of factly, and sometimes even comically, allowing them to inform the proceedings without overwhelming them.
That leaves centre stage for Malcolm and his friends to do their thing, and they’re just flat-out amazing. It’ll be a crying shame if this isn’t a breakout role for Moore, who manages capture Malcolm’s contradictions perfectly. Malcolm is socially awkward and vulnerable, but he’s also crazy smart, charismatic, ambitious and confident in the skill sets he possesses. It’s an incredibly adroit and nuanced performance.
Kersey Clemon’s Diggy is the toughest and most confident of the group. She’s a lesbian, but the film never leans on that part of her identity, except to make jokes about her being more sexually experienced than the guys. She’s the drummer – of course she’s the drummer – for the trio’s punk group, Awreeoh (band name of the year), which reflects her social dynamic as well – she’s there to anchor proceedings, to glue the three together when the escalating plot threatens to fragment them.
Jib is probably the most underwritten of the three, but Revolori’s charming turn lifts the role. Jib is a nerd who’s happy to be nerd – he has no aspirations beyond his self-defined station in life. He’s the guy most likely to chicken out, to cut and run – and he’s also the “whitest” of the three. There’s a funny bit of business where he declares that he has N-word privileges because he’s 14% African-American according to Ancestry.com.
Race is a big part of one of Dope‘s central questions, whether we’re defined by what we do or what we look like. No pat answers are offered: Malcolm’s perceived identity is malleable depending on the viewer. He’s not a gangtsa, not a nerd – he’s both and neither, and he learns to play different roles to get what he wants – what he wants, of course, is to get to a place where playing such roles isn’t necessary, but in order to do so he has to traverse some dangerous and uncertain territory, bridging the gap between black drug culture – where the drug trade is a deadly business – and white drug culture, a landscape of frat parties populated by wasted college kids and trust-funders who are insulated from the street origins of their illicit highs. Diggy’s advice to sell the molly to white people – “Go to Coachella.” – is right on the money: it’s quicker, easier, and safer.
Digging into Dope‘s themes makes it sound like a pretty dry polemic, but it’s not – it’s a very funny movie with a lot on its mind.