Dope is a refreshing and subversive comedy which showcases a vibrantly impressive young cast. Review by Alan Laidlaw at Edinburgh International Film Festival
It may come as a surprise when you realise that director Rick Famuyiwa has been making films for the past 16 years. His latest, and perhaps greatest film to date, Dope, has a wild-natured and boldly speculative vibe that feels more like the work of a newcomer. And that’s with no derogatory implications intended; it’s just that there’s a freshness and wide-eyed naivety about the film that comes bounding out of every idea and scene, taking hold and shaking you with the sort of cockiness that seems to say – ‘betcha ain’t see this before.
The film follows Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). They’re self-confessed geeks – who, as the narrator (Forrest Whitaker) puts it, “are into white-shit like getting good grades and going to college”. They prefer to listen to ’90’s hip-hop, which they defend with an all-consuming devotion, rather than listen to the stuff popular kids do, making them outsiders to the high-school existence that goes on around them.
The three friends get into a world of trouble when they come across a package filled with drugs that’s been stuffed into Malcolm’s backpack during a raid at the local drug dealer’s party. Using a mix of street-smart intelligence and computer-geek nous they decide to take matters into their own hands.
The basis of the plot undeniably resides in teen-comedy 101 territory, but never appears satisfied with simply producing a dop’d out stoner comedy (which it does with hilarious results), managing to implant a wonderfully universal and subversive message into the DNA of every gag, situation and turn.
If it weren’t for the deliberate usage of technology in Dope, you’d be hard pressed to tell which decade it was from. The music, which bombastically adorns every scene, is a mash-up of pioneering ’90’s hip-hop bangers and new hipster-worshiped artists. It’s this deliberate sense of grounding itself in the zeitgeist of a particular time, while being applicable to others, that makes Dope the sort of film that has the cross-generational attributes and appeal to become a universal success.
Dope opens with a definition of its titular word, highlighting how one thing can mean many things. This is central to what the film is about: nothing should be restricted by one singular definition; being black doesn’t signify that you’re destined to stay in the hoods, and appearances, as the gender-confusing Diggy shows, aren’t an appropriate way in which to form an opinion on someone.
It’s a message that’s passionately and articulately made by Famuyiwa for the most part. However, there’s a moment near the end in which Malcolm takes to a soap-box and makes a direct speech to the viewer in a passage that feels both condescending and wholly unnecessary to anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to the film and its ramifications. It’s a souring but ultimately forgiveable blunder that seems likely to be the result of an assumption that the audience requires – or indeed desires – some form of emotional pardon for ever having judged someone like Malcolm before.
Minor mistakes aside, Dope serves as the cinematic equivalent to the sort of music its characters revel in. Its irreverent and reactionary nature to systematic poverty and oppression, reinforced by admirable attempts to dissolve barriers and stereotypes that are alive in the world today, make it as essential and emblematic to a new generation of African-Americans as Nas’ hip-hop classic Illmatic was to the previous one.