Dope

August 22, 2015
Shameik Moore in 'Dope' (2015)
Shameik Moore in 'Dope' (2015)

Dope is the surprise of the year. One might be excused for expecting an updated blaxploitation film, a mawkish coming-of-age saga, or a typically vulgar, sentimental teen comedy. Instead, Rick Famuwiya has given us a movie that is fast and funny, with a clever plot and crisp dialogue. Why can’t Australian directors make films like this?

Inglewood, Cal., is a place where black kids grow up in poor, crime-ridden neighbourhoods, with no prospects. Success in Inglewood means being a prosperous drug dealer, but Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is the bright boy at school who has set his sights on Harvard. In this story he finds that the path to university requires an unexpected detour through crime.

We recognise Malcolm right away as that stock character of American high school comedies – the nerd. Raised solely by his mother, his personal style consists of a flattop hairdo, a shirt buttoned to the neck, and a pair of gleaming, oversized sneakers. Malcolm is a straight A student with two equally nerdy friends: Jib (Tony Revolori, the bellboy from The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) – a dyke who dresses and acts like a boy.

The technical term used in this film is “geek”. The three geeks share the same musical interests, and even have a punk-style band, although Malcolm’s passion is for 80s and 90s rap. For his application to Harvard he has written an essay on Ice Cube’s Today Was a Good Day. The school counselor, Mr. Bailey, (Rick Fox) advises him to get a serious topic, and to set his academic aspirations at a more realistic level.

It’s sobering to think that a song by a 90s rap artist now qualifies as a ‘classic’.

Life in Inglewood is a perpetual struggle for survival where you might be relieved of your shoes or your bike at any time. In avoiding one of these encounters, Malcolm and his friends meet Dom (A$AP Rocky), a friendly drug dealer who offers protection in return for a favour. Malcolm must go ask a girl, Nakia (Zöe Kravitz), to come along to a party Dom is giving. She agrees to attend if geeky Malcolm will also be present.

The three friends go to the party, which degenerates into a shoot out and police raid. To save his skin, Dom hides his drug stash and a gun in Malcom’s backpack. It is only when the school metal detector goes off the next day that Malcolm finds what he’s carrying.

Having been unwittingly drawn into the drug scene, Malcolm can’t simply give back the goods. Dom is now behind bars, and a group of heavies are after the dope. When he tries to drop it off with a man named AJ, he finds that his chances of getting to Harvard are now vitally dependent on his ability to deal. This he does in an ingenious, geeky manner, with the help of a hacker named Will (Blake Anderson) whom the friends met at a band camp years ago.

I can’t say any more about the story without spoiling it. The refreshing part of the film is its unapologetic amorality. Famuwiya implies that drugs are such an intrinsic part of American life they offer the opportunity for a small business success story. He also suggests there is very little chance for a student from a place such as Inglewood to get into a top college, no matter how good his grades. In such circumstances one must apply Machiavelli’s famous dictum: the end justifies the means.

There’s an improvised feel to Dope, as if Famuwiya has taken the opportunity to insert favourite details of popular culture whenever he can. The music conversations have the ring of truth, and could only have been scripted by a fan. The film is both a homage and a spoof of movies such as John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991), and similar tales of life in America’s poor, predominantly black suburbs, with Famuwiya’s directorial style often seeming closer to Quentin Tarantino than Spike Lee. Like the former, he has a knack for combining violence and comedy.

The characters are all stereotypes but nonetheless engaging, partly due to the quality of the acting. The action moves so quickly one never has time to dwell too long on the implications of the story, although there is a dark, cynical aspect to this cinematic romp. It is a portrait of a capitalistic world that rewards initiative on either side of the law. It’s a world in which you have to be bad to be good, where doing wrong is the only way to ensure the right outcome for yourself. No wonder the word “bad” means “good” in ghetto vernacular, and that “dope” can mean both stupid or cool.

Dope
Written & directed by Rick Famuwiya,
Starring Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, A$AP Rocky, Zoë Kravitz, Blake Anderson, Chanel Iman, Rick Fox, Roger Guenveur Smith
USA, rated MA 15+, 103 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 22nd August, 2015.