Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Feature Film, Coming-Of-Age Drama/Comedy
Starring: Shameik Moore
Rakim Mayers (aka A$AP Rocky)
Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
It opens with a textbook definition: Illegal drugs, an idiot, and slang for cool: Dope.
Definitions are at the core of this film, Dope (2015), which takes place in “the Bottoms” of Inglewood, California: the textbook definition of ‘a bad place,’ characterized by its gang wars and its drugs, by its failing high school and its youth who are trapped in its system. We follow three of those youth, Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib — geeky kids who are starstruck by the 90s, a classic feel-good time of post-Cold War America unsettled by the boiling racial tensions that uneasily beckon to this day.
Everything here is defined: the geeks, the bad education, the nostalgia, the drugs, the money, the Bloods, and the Crips. But the film itself is not a textbook definition — instead, the film is about the redefining; central to this film is more than just the labels and the stereotyping, but an energetic and honest redefinition of life. After all, this is the 21st century and in the 21st century, there exists Bitcoin.
The main character, Malcolm, actually opens the film by explaining what Bitcoin is to his mother. Immediately, Malcolm is a geek, but he’s black, and he’s got a flat-top for hair. His two friends Diggy and Jib are just as ‘whack,’ with one being a lesbian, and the other just as oddball. But that’s no matter, it’s reality. Before long, you’re riding with his friends as they end up in the crossfire between gangs and police, unknowingly carrying several kilos of MDMA. They don’t have the option of returning back to normal life — you either move or you die. So they move their MDMA through the Deep Web, selling on a Silk Road-inspired site and avoiding the Feds, partially to strong-arm a Harvard alumnus into helping Malcolm’s acceptance to the school, but also to avoid getting killed — a task that is harrowingly manifested in a bloodied gameboy.
It’s this modernity which makes the film so intriguingly refreshing. Harking back to its roots, it’s got the daring storytelling elements of Jackie Brown (1997) with the heart-wrenching honesty of Do The Right Thing (1989), but it is also renewed, not only with the revitalized music themes or the surprising depth of A$AP Rocky’s acting role, but by steeping the characters in the digital age. In this, the internet and bitcoin take center stage to demonstrate the changing tides of liberation for a community of poor minorities who need something more than the DEA and FBI to hawk over them or a dropout factory of a school — they need magic internet money, the Deep Web, and will to live.
Liberation is actually very prevalent as a theme; the kids need to go through a metal detector with a security officer at the other end just to get into school. The police do drug sweeps randomly. The gangs stand around at every inopportune moment. Federal agents shoot up a birthday party after the drug pushers talk about drone strikes. Not long after, people get shot by already illegal guns and do even more illegal drugs. Blood and money flows while our main characters only try to make better-than-worst decisions. It’s a pervasive sense of dread that reminds me of Boyz n The Hood (1991), or worse yet, the very real communities of Baltimore or Ferguson.
But it’s not about any white-on-black violence or racially-motivated crime, it’s about the eerie calm of resignation that comes from generations of living in the Bottoms; everything screams out that life here is a prison.
Yet this, the ‘black experience’ is also under the careful magnifying glass of director Rick Famuyiwa as well as notable producers Pharrell Williams and Forest Whitaker. In examining what it means to be black, but also get good grades and aim for not just graduating, but attending college, Harvard even, Dope seeks to redefine the ‘black identity.’ It’s a difficult task to take on, but with inroads made by Kendrick Lamar and Ava Duvarney, to Spike Lee and Melvin Van Peebles, in the same few years as massive race tensions, it’s a discussion that at the very least needs to come into the light of the mainstream.
And yet, this film remains impetuously optimistic. Inglewood is crafted in love. The music curation for the score is impeccable. And there are whole sequences in the film that reminds us that life is moving forward, with or without the old ideas of government control, with or without the Drug War, the money tracking, the racial stereotypes and the virtual imprisonment of the people of the Bottoms. Bitcoin is king. The Deep Web is king. The internet is king. In fact, there’s a whole scene that recreates the night before through what we see through filter of Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and Youtube. We are nowhere and somewhere at the same time, an ulterior state of being where we can both escape and expose the conditions of living under the thumb of police and gangs, both of whom are are treated almost as ubiquitous oppressors wearing different clothes.
The final beats of the film are critical — and its most honest. After such a journey with Malcolm, director Rick Famuyiwa gives us a chance to not look away, but to look in ourselves. Beyond the wit and joy, there are deep motives behind the drastic measures of the story – ones that seem impossible to anyone outside of the Drug War Zone. The complexities of life that Famuyiwa expresses presents a stark reality where there is no silver-bullet or even a clear distinction of what is good or bad. Even for geeks and ‘good kids,’ life isn’t simple — and that ain’t dope.
Have you seen Dope? Let us know in the comments below!
Image: Dope (2015)
Calvin Tran is a film student at New York University.
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