Growing up black in America inevitably means dealing with the stereotypes that the majority (white) culture places on you, and more than a few films have explored those tensions. With “Dope,” Nigerian-American writer-director Rick Famuyiwa takes it a step further and asks: What does it mean to be a minority within a minority, to not fit the stereotypes the ‘hood imposes on you?
“I’m just sick of hearing niggaz don’t listen to this, niggaz don’t do that” says Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Famuyiwa’s nerdy high school hero. Malcolm and his misfit friends — mixed-race Jib (Tony Revolori) and lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) — are into ’90s hip-hop and rock the vintage De La Soul look, but they don’t play sports, they aren’t in a gang and they are constantly being hassled for being into “white s—-,” which means stuff like skateboards, comic books, “Game of Thrones,” literacy and wanting to go to college. The trio also have their own indie band called Awreeoh, embracing the old Oreo cookie insult: “black on the outside, white on the inside.” (The influence of executive producer Pharrell Williams is definitely felt in their vibe.)
Malcolm, Jib and Diggy suffer the torments of nerds everywhere — the jocks bully them, the pretty girls ignore them — but growing up in the Inglewood, California neighborhood known as “The Bottoms” brings the added risks of the streets. Malcolm describes this as “a daily navigation between the bad and the worse,” like swarms of thieving dope fiends and random gangbanger gunfire.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||103 mins|
Famuyiwa’s focus here is on the “slippery slope,” which, as Malcolm explains to a dim-witted gangster, is “a small event that leads to a chain reaction of events with unintended consequences that were unforeseen at the time of the inciting event.” In Malcom’s case, it involves attending a birthday party thrown by street corner dealer Dom (ASAP Rocky), where he hopes to chat up super-cute and secretly brainy Nakia (Zoe Kravitz). When gunfire breaks out at the club, everyone flees, and Malcolm only discovers later that Dom’s huge stash of pure MDMA has been hidden in his backpack.
After spending his entire life trying to avoid drug dealing and gangs, Malcolm is eager to return the stuff, but finds that it’s not going to be so easy. Dom is in jail and some very dodgy people are looking for the drugs, which is not what Malcolm needs as he prepares for his admissions interview with Harvard.
“Dope” feels a lot like vintage Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing,” “Crooklyn”) in how Famuyiwa plays it for comedy, but can’t resist the urge to drop some wisdom on you too. The humor is very much “now,” with jokes about internet memes, “Molly,” the Tor Browser and hip-hop-loving white boys wondering why they can’t use the N-word. But it’s also quite good at showing the pressures to conform within the black community, whether it’s Diggy’s mom and her churchgoing friends trying to “pray away the gay,” or Malcom’s high school counselor who urges him to write an application essay that focuses more on adversity and victimhood.
Famuyiwa keeps you laughing to the end, but message-wise, he muddies the waters. The nerds triumph by deciding to become dealers and unload the ecstasy themselves; Awreeoh’s breakthrough comes from a viral video of a gig that would make 2 Live Crew proud, where the “ho’s be getting wild” and naked on the Molly that Malcolm sold them. After all his complaining about stereotypes, Malcolm only succeeds by embracing them, albeit on his own terms. You can view this as wish fulfillment — of being smart enough not to live that life, but totally able to pull it off if one wanted to — or an unresolved struggle between Malcolm’s ego and id.
Nakia, for her part, after sitting through all Malcolm’s rationalizations, tells him sweetly but clearly, “You’re complicated.” For real.