“It’s the Nineties. Can’t afford to be afraid of our own people anymore, man.”
-Furious Styles (Boyz n the Hood)
Like most suburban white males growing up in the Nineties, I had an infatuation with hip-hop culture. I was a fan of everything from Friday to Juice. I had the Menace II Society soundtrack on repeat and thought 2Pac was the next Elvis Presley. Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope was made for me, or at least that’s how the trailer made me feel. Dope is more than a trip down nostalgia lane. It is an immersive cultural critique of what it means to be not only black, but just different.
Shameik Moore plays Malcolm, a nerdy kid who loves everything about the Nineties. He loves the styles, music, and verbage of a bygone era. Malcolm is a straight-A student with realistic dreams of reaching Harvard. His two best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) share his nerdom. They form a quasi-rock band called Awreeoh and rock out after school in an empty band room. The trio are regularly picked on and robbed by thugs, jocks, and corner boys. Their luck seems to change when dope boy Dom (A$ap Rocky) invites him to his birthday party because Malcolm helps facilitate a conversation between Dom and his estranged girlfriend Nakia (Zoe Kravitz). Malcolm reluctantly goes because he has a crush on Nakia.
This is where the film flips from being about teens in high school to what it means to live in Inglewood, California. Dom’s party is broken up by police, and Malcolm is unwittingly given a bag full of “molly”. Malcolm’s story diverts from slapstick fun to an interesting comedic look at being an outcast. Shameik Moore is vibrant in his debut lead role. Malcolm is his role of a lifetime. Moore’s on-screen presence reminds me of a young Cuba Gooding Jr. His innocent smile and unique intelligence set him apart from other young actors.
Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori are terrific as well. It’s always great when the off-screen friendship can clearly be seen on screen. These kids obviously care about each other, and it shows in their performance. Zoe Kravitz is the spitting image of her mother Lisa Bonet. They have very similar acting styles, and she does a great job as the sexy unattainable girl. Roger Guenveur Smith plays the villainous Austin Jacoby with a sly quietness that is absolutely menacing.
Rick Famuyiwa’s The Wood was a hit-and-miss film, but Dope is expertly written and directed. He has shown great improvement in his ability to tell a story visually. Dope is a gorgeous film. As harsh as the surroundings may seem, Famuyiwa loves his city. Inglewood is given love and care. He shows a fair side to every character. In a film about not judging a book by its cover, this is extremely important. Famuyiwa’s writing is tight, and the dialogue is spot-on. It is clear he sees more than a little of himself in Malcolm. Very few characters have been written with the sincerity that Malcolm has received.
Dope is a great film. Malcolm isn’t just a character to which black males can relate. We all have felt like Malcolm. The outcast. The misunderstood. The weirdo. Dope is a film about finding your place in the world and being okay with who you are. The film has its bumpy parts, particularly when the film shifts into the second act. But this can be overlooked because of the tremendous writing of Rick Famuyiwa and the charisma of Shameik Moore. Dope is an excellent film and is perfectly poignant.