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Review: Dope (2015)

Dope (2015)

Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa

Premise: Three teenagers from a rough Los Angeles neighborhood get invited to a party and accidentally end up in possession of a large supply of narcotics.

What Works: Dope is a coming of age story and like a lot of these kinds of films it’s about a group of teenagers who must grow up when they are confronted by adult realities. In Stand By Me that reality takes the form of mortality, in American Pie it’s sexuality, and in The Spectacular Now it’s substance abuse. Dope has quite a bit going on in it but as a coming of age story it’s centered on identity with an emphasis on race. When the movie is focused on that aspect it is generally pretty strong. The filmmakers have deliberately set out to make a movie about blackness, and specifically to blow a hole in the homogeneous image of black youth offered by the mainstream media. The film is led by Shameik Moore as Malcom, a high schooler who is obsessed with 1990s hip hop; he uses 90s slang and dresses like a cast member of House Party.  He is also a good student, the vocalist of a punk band, and is busy applying to Ivy League colleges. Malcom is, in a word, a nerd and the way his personality contrasts with the world around him and the culture’s expectations of him as a black teenager makes for a lot of the film’s most interesting aspects. Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons play Malcom’s friends and these characters also share his idiosyncratic interests and also upset racial stereotypes. When Dope is fun it is very entertaining and the movie has a smart and subversive sense of humor. The film puts the characters into a crisis in which they are unwittingly drafted into the drug trade and the filmmakers discover humor by sending up many of the clichés of urban drug dramas.

What Doesn’t: The tone of Dope is all over the place. Parts of this movie play like a serious urban street film but other scenes play as broad comedy. The filmmakers aim for the mix of violence and eccentricity in Coen Brother’s movies like Fargo but that isn’t quite accomplished. Dope tends to jerk the viewer around from one tone to the next and the discordant tenor results in a lot of pieces that don’t fit together. The narrative of the film is as troubled as its tone. Dope begins as a story of outsiders who get invited inside and once there they try desperately to get back out. That plays pretty well at first but halfway through Dope becomes a very different kind of movie and the film suffers for it. The main characters end up in possession of narcotics but when they return the product to its owner the teenagers are blackmailed into selling the drugs. Why a kingpin would attempt to distribute his product through three teenagers he doesn’t know and who have no experience in the drug trade makes absolutely no sense. From then on the movie becomes ever more unbelievable with the teens selling drugs over the internet. That leads to a strange mergence between the content and the promotion of this film. The teens go about selling the drugs on black market websites where buyers purchase the narcotics with Bitcoin digital currency. As it turns out, the theatrical release of Dope has been supported by Bitcoin and so this portion of the movie plays like a blatant product placement. But the most disappointing thing about Dope is the way it squanders its themes of race and identity. This trio of teenagers are obsessed with 1990s hip hop culture but the 90s nostalgia doesn’t serve any discernable end. Dope is reminiscent of 1990s urban crime movies like Menace II Society and Boyz n the Hood but in tone and plot Dope is closest to Friday. Yet, the filmmakers never really make anything out of their provocative ideas and the ending slaps on a grandstanding statement of identity politics that is disconnected from the rest of the picture.

Bottom Line: Dope is a flawed movie. It introduces some provocative ideas about race and racial representation but neither the ideas nor its story are fully formed. However, Dope has a lot in it that is unique, especially in the mainstream cinema marketplace, and there is as much to admire about the film as there is to admonish it. 

Episode: #551 (July 19, 2015)