Dope (2015 Top Movies, no.7)
Is it wrong to vote for Dope as the most purely entertaining movie I saw last year? Possibly. Here’s the story of Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a black male high school senior who’s intelligent, talented, prolific, and miraculously clean of any taint from the crime-ridden neighborhood he grew up in. Partly because, by virtue of him and his only friends being geeks who’re into “white shit” (like skateboards, TV on the Radio, and Donald Glover), the dealers would rather beat him up and steal his bike than sell him dope. On the bright side, he has straight-As, high SAT scores, and an upcoming interview with a Harvard alumnus. So his principal naturally tells him that he doesn’t have a shot at getting into Harvard, that he needs to quit writing creative college applications that stand out from the crowd, and that his profile should highlight growing up poor and never knowing his father. Malcom frowns and quietly accepts the indictment, clearly – and deservedly – more tired of the cliché than we are.
Then he wakes up one day and innocently finds a gun and a bag of dope in his backpack at school (of course), followed by a threatening phone call from a drug dealer demanding he hand everything over or get his punk ass beaten up (of course), which pulls him deep into a spiral of – well, you know how it goes. Or the way it usually goes in movies. Except that when this happens to a white kid, it’s a comedy, and when it happens to a black kid, it’s a tragedy. Meaning that it’s going to screw up Malcolm’s alumni interview (scheduled later that day), his chances of getting into a good college, and the rest of his life. If only he could be a white kid right now, huh? It’s the unspoken use of that enraging fictional truth (all the more poignant for being real life-reflective) that really draws us in, and brings the overriding threat to Malcolm and his friends up to a whole new level.
The message would be horrifying – it should be horrifying – but damn it, director Rick Famuyiwa (an entirely new name to me, I’m ashamed to admit) makes it all so electrifying. The script seems to cackle as it pulls out one clever beat after the other; I already feel bad about spoiling the Donald Glover joke, but don’t worry – that’s the distant tip of the stack, and I won’t go into any more details of one of the year’s most outrageous plots. There are conversational sidebars peppered through both main and incidental characters, with topics ranging from Obama, Legend of Zelda, the “N”-word, Coachella – all knowingly Tarantino-esqueTM, yet with their own sly, edgier groove. Going round the table, the editing’s slick, the track selections are a nerd-shaming dream, the score has my personal vote for best original song, and the geek-inspired fashions that permeate the film are startlingly hip. The relatively-untested Shameik Moore (his first feature film role) leads the energy with a soft, exacting performance, complemented well by Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, and a hilarious guest role from Blake Anderson. They’ll keep you invested in wanting to see something good come out of this for everybody, only to break your heart whenever a chillingly stereotypical plot turn rears its head.
It’s in strangely similar spirit to 2014’s Dear White People, teasing you with elements that should cause instinctive discomfort, yet baiting you to forget them and enjoy every minute of its rock-solid, superbly written programming – which makes the set-up punches to your guilt nerve all the more effective. But while Dope may not immediately feel as angry, direct, on point, or aggressive as Dear White People was, I’m willing to bet my possibly-ignorant ass that it’s just as subversive (and important) a takedown of the tired double-standard, if not moreso. That the subtext happens to be layered in through the humor, music, and occasional gratuity we associate with more exploitative films speaks all the better to its applaudable daring. And, yes, it makes for a damn fine piece of entertainment. Again: that song.
Writer and Director: Rick Famuyiwa; Director of Photography: Rachel Morrison; Editor: Lee Haugen; Music: Germaine Franco
Starring: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Kimberly Elise, Chanel Iman, Blake Anderson
Country: United States