In the opening scene of Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, the camera scans through the bedroom of teenager Malcolm (Shameik Moore), lingering on items like a Gameboy, retro Jordan brand sneakers and posters of epochal hip hop records like Dr Dre’s The Chronic. Seemingly establishing a particular period aesthetic, the audience is quickly yanked out of such nostalgia by an animated conversation about BitCoins with Malcolm’s bemused mother. And so sets the tone of Dope and one of its great stylistic sleight-of-hands, paying homage to cultural hangovers of the 1990s while zeroing in on pop culture today, clashing landmark artists and works like TLC and Boyz in the Hood (which the film deliberately resembles in broad strokes) with current trends; of social media and viral memes – both have had enormous influences over young African-American experience and identity, and Dope ultimately looks at both through the eyes of its core group of outsiders which form the film’s protagonists.
Malcolm, dressed in wildly coloured button-up shirts and sporting an admirable hi-top fade, is obsessed with 90’s hip hop culture, as are his best friends Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). Self-professed geeks, the trio are social outcasts amongst their wider high school cohort due to their interests in “white people” pursuits, such as punk rock music and getting good grades with college in mind. These aren’t the only markers of difference, however – Malcolm’s father is African, rather than African-American, Diggy is a lesbian and although enamoured with African-American culture, Jib appears to be a distinct racial minority at the school.1 Living in South Central, they often mention the danger of their surroundings, and of stories of well-meaning people killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, surrounded by Crip and Blood gangs. Through a chance meeting with a local drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky), they are invited to a party that is the scene of an ambush by rival dealers. Finding himself in possession of a large pack of MDMA (‘molly’) Malcolm panics when he is tracked down by Dom and another gangster after the package, and finds himself drawn into the wider drug trade.
The central narrative is compelling, but doesn’t hold up particularly well in its construction; Dope is more interesting in the interplay between the three leads and the numerous narrative and stylistic digressions the film takes. It’s a tremendously funny film, and the film’s strongest points generally involve the interplay between the Moore, Clemons and Revolori who form a really strong chemistry as a group, and show a knack for comic timing . In one of the best scenes, they find themselves in a mansion of a local businessman and drug trafficker, alone with his spoilt son and his studio. They quickly start teasing him for his inauthentic street slang and inconsistent use of swapping out Bs from words with Cs due to his supposed lifelong hatred of Crips. Indicative of Dope’s best qualities, this scene resonates as topical pop culture (Young Thug infamously changed his album name from Carter 6 to Barter 6 just last month), is interested in the particular linguistic complexities in African-American culture, and has a nuanced understanding of a high school social fabric – Malcolm and his friends are usually the ones bullied, but like all teenagers they can perceive when they have the social upper hand and can detect weaker targets in their social environment. Similarly strong is the running gag of their white friend Will (Blake Anderson) trying to reasonably argue why he should be allowed to use “the N-word”, with the film’s script humouring him, but never seriously entertaining the debate. None of these scenes advance plot, but left to the film’s strong feel for its character and endlessly quotable script they find Dope in its strongest element.
It clearly presents itself as a product of pop culture – Pharrell and Diddy are listed as executive producers, to say nothing of A$AP Rocky’s serviceable supporting performance – and its continual rehashing of hip hop video aesthetics and stunt casting (Tyga also makes an appearance) combined with its idiosyncratic dialogue make the inevitable Tarantino comparisons not completely misguided. But the form follows content, this is a film about how young people express themselves and draw meaning through pop culture, and Famuyiwa has his finger on the pulse of current trends, especially the way social media has now permeated youth culture, especially among African-Americans,2 and its connection with hip-hop culture as well.3One of the best jokes in the film is about local gangs uploading videos to YouTube, which would be hilarious if not so accurate, e.g. this video For anyone familiar with meme culture and online discourse about hip hop, Dope will feel like a lightning bolt – when a white character later on in the film expresses exasperation at someone who hadn’t heard of 2 Chainz, I didn’t just feel a pang of familiarity, but the distinctly stronger sensation of Famuyiwa the artist peering directly into my soul. Dope may feel disjointed to some, but it’s winning combination of style, humour and leads make it a great time at the movies – it may not be my single favourite film of the Sydney Film Festival, but it’s the one I’d rewatch in a heartbeat.
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