“So, why do I want to attend Harvard? If I was white, would you even have to ask me that question?” asks Malcolm Adekanbi.
The first time I saw the poster for Rick Famuyiwa’s latest film Dope, I thought it was a period film set in the late 1980s or early 1990s (based on the clothes and hair styles of the characters on the poster). Little did I know that the film was actually set in the present and that the three main characters on the poster just really love early ’90s hip hop. Given Famuyiwa’s past directorial efforts (1999’s The Wood, 2002’s Brown Sugar, and 2010’s Our Family Wedding), my expectations for the film were low. Thanks to positive buzz coming out of the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, I raised my expectations. I finally had a chance last August to see Dope on the big screen, and it was much better than I had hoped. Like 2014’s Dear White People, Dope manages to inject both comedy and drama into a story that deals with race, its preconceptions, and an educational setting.
2015’s Dope follows a high school senior named Malcolm (who is black, a geek, and lives in Inglewood, California). Malcolm and his friends cross paths with a dope dealer and, after a bizarre set of circumstances, comes into possession of a large amount of a drug called Molly. Malcolm and his friends need to find a way to sell the drugs in order to get rid of them while also dealing with high school bullies, the S.A.T. exam, and getting into college (Malcolm in particular is aiming for Harvard). Famuyiwa assembled a terrific cast that includes Shameik Moore (as Malcolm), Tony Revolori (as Jib), Kiersey Clemons (as Diggy), Kimberly Elise (as Lisa), Zoe Kravitz (as Nakia), A$AP Rocky (as Dom), Chanel Iman (as Lily), Blake Anderson (as Will), Roger Guenveur Smith (as Austin Jacoby), Tyga (as De’Andre), Rick Fox (as Councilman Blackman), and Forest Whitaker (as the Narrator). Moore is outstanding as Malcolm; he brings the right amount of naivite and charm as an early ’90s hip hop-loving high school senior who has to juggle bullies, his S.A.T. prep, his Harvard entrance essay, his feelings for Nakia, and the drugs he and his friends are forced to sell. Anderson (from Comedy Central’s Workaholics) is hilarious in his small but pivotal part as Malcolm’s former band camp counselor who is currently a pot dealer and computer hacker (I loved his rants about not being able to use the ‘n’ word in a non-racist manner).
Famuyiwa’s screenplay focuses on a coming-of-age tale inspired by the films of Spike Lee and John Hughes (as well as Risky Business) that feels refreshing. It finds a good balance between comedy and drama, featuring plenty of humor while reminding the audience every now and then that the main characters are in constant danger and could be killed at any moment. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is bright and expressive, making Famuyiwa’s images pop throughout, and Lee Haugen’s editing keeps the film moving at an energetic pace. Famuyiwa’s Dope is a loving tribute to films such as House Party and Boyz N the Hood while taking a sharp yet entertaining look at race in modern America.