One of the definitions of the word “Dope,” as Rick Famuyiwa’s eponymous film tells us in its opening titles, is a drug.
This new film is sort of like a drug. It’s professionally packaged and designed to give you a mean high. This drug, like many others, will do just as well, if not more so, with white people as it will black people. It may induce Southern California hot flashes and hazy visions of “House Party,” “Menace II Society,” and Famuyiwa’s last coming-of-age film, “The Wood.” Snippets of songs from Naughty by Nature, Nas and other ‘90s Hip-Hop artists will fill your ears, making nostalgia a side-effect of this narcotic.
It all sounds so good. Sadly, this dope is not 100 percent pure
The trailers tell you that “Dope” is about a nerdy, ‘90s culture-loving, high school senior named Malcolm (Shameik Moore), who gets in trouble with some local drug dealers in a tough neighborhood in Inglewood.
That should all suggest where this movie is heading, and one might think there will be some playful upending of expectations from Famuyiwa. Instead, he rushes headlong into them and even dares to explain what’s happening.
You see, Malcolm is a geek. We know that when he explains what bitcoins are to his mother (Kimberly Elise) and when he rocks out in his garage band with his geeky friends — a tough, light-skinned lesbian (Kiersey Clemons) and a polyracial clown (“Grand Budapest Hotel’s” Tony Revolori). We also know this because the narrator (Forrest Whitaker) tells us so, describing their love of Donald Glover, skateboards and getting good grades — “white shit”, he says — and holding our hands through the irony of the situation.
It doesn’t stop there. Malcolm wants to go to Harvard, that lazy shorthand for white excellence, but his student advisor tells him his college essay (a comprehensive treatise on the context behind Ice Cube’s “Good Day”) isn’t personal enough. Malcolm surmises that he wants him to write about growing up in the hood under a single parent household, which he calls “cliche.”
But cliche is the name of the game here as Famuyiwa serves up a smorgasbord of them and expects that his knowledge of what they are should substitute for doing something interesting with them. Our trio’s retro tastes is as self-aware and phony as their forced use of the N-word.
Famuyiwa seems to think that merely presenting a black protagonist with so many disparate tastes and quirks makes for a sharp commentary on blackness in the 21st century, but by the time the film has zoomed through several unfunny and sloppy set-pieces and introduced a number of thinly drawn character types (naturally, the women suffer most) before you know it, the nerd essentially becomes a drug dealer and the themes collapse on themselves.
Whom is this movie for besides the white people who want to appear “down” and will ask permission before using the N-word (which one character does here)?
Perhaps it’s for “black nerds,” who in one song Donald Glover says represent the realness, but nothing feels real here. The trio of young actors, Moore in particular, are likable enough, but sometimes Malcolm’s youthful nerves — particularly around his crush, played by Zoë Kravitz — seem a product of performance rather than character. The other actors: Kravitz, rapper A$AP Rocky, a shamefully wasted Kimberly Elise and Roger Guenveur Smith, don’t seem to believe anything they’re saying or doing.
Famuyiwa just doesn’t know what he’s doing. Worse still, he actually seems stuck in the 1990s, when a story like this might have been a bold entry among the ranks of “Menace,” “Boyz N’ the Hood” and others. But those films have come and gone and ultimately cannibalized each other.
This is 2015. Social media tells us everything this movie thinks we don’t get. Races are intermingling like never before, and there isn’t a bag of drugs in sight. Music and television are giving us more and more racial gumbos to feast upon.
It is only in film that there are still designated, highly regulated arenas for blacks to play in. “Dope” gives us one: the hood, and it dramatizes its protagonist’s transcendence of that hood by celebrating its embracing of the hood. “This is a part of you,” the film says by the end. Malcolm’s final essay to Harvard, a thematic summation of the film that breaks the fourth wall, is so bogus, self-righteous, and didactic that it’s embarrassing. Naturally, there will also be applause: “Would you ask why I want to go to Harvard if I were white?”
The thing is, no one did. And in 2015, no one would (or should). Famuyiwa’s “Dope” is three steps behind its audience when it thinks it’s three steps ahead. While Famuyiwa thinks he’s giving us a throwback joint with a millennial sheen, he’s actually pushing ideas of blackness backwards. It’s time to move forward, nerd and gangsta’ alike.