Forest Whitaker’s steely voiceover quickly informs viewers that Malcolm (Shameik Moore), the high top sporting protagonist of Dope, is a geek. Despite what Whitaker’s barely present narration may say, however, the truth about Malcolm is something much more complicated than that.
The film makes no secret of its racially-charged leanings, but rather shouts about them from the proverbial south LA rooftops. Malcolm, and to a lesser extent his friends Digby (Kiersy Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), are bullied in and outside of their school for embodying a few too many aspects of white culture while living in “The Bottoms”—the ghetto of the ghetto in Inglewood, California. Tellingly, the three of them have an indie-punk band called Oreo.
Despite his humble sob story beginnings—single mom, bad neighborhood, underfunded public schools—Malcolm isn’t afraid to dream big. His Harvard ambitions are routinely squashed by a school adviser who’s quick to point out kids like Malcolm don’t usually attend hoity-toity Ivy League colleges. His current application essay, debating the artistic intentions of Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” doesn’t help his chances either. Nonetheless, his plebeian advisor arranges for Malcolm to interview with another Harvard graduate from a similar background.
Dope isn’t How High. That is, it is not a film about Malcolm struggling to overcome his underprivileged situation and go to the most prestigious university in the nation—okay, it is, but it isn’t just that. In fact, Dope has a lot in common with more run-of-the-mill teen sex romps, made more unique and complex from would-be peers like Superbad by a simple change of setting and skin color, and a whole lot of intelligence.
The real action begins once the meek Malcolm becomes a liaison between a drug dealer named Dom (rapper A$AP Rocky) and his sort-of girlfriend Nakia (Zoe Kravitz). One thing leads to another, and after some bonding with Nakia and a birthday party gone very bad, Malcolm winds up with some unwanted cargo. Backed into a corner with a pack full of drugs and no idea who to trust—not the cops, that’s for sure—Malcolm, Digby and Jib are left with few options, forced to associate themselves with the pervasive gangland culture they’ve so far been able to avoid.
For a supposed comedy, Dope packs a lot of plot into its two-hour runtime, sometimes bordering on too much. Somehow it finds time to include an MDMA-crazed femme fatale, several discussions of white use of the N-word, some creative use of the school science lab, a detour to Randy’s Donuts, a bit of vomit, an ill-timed Harvard interview and a lambasting of California club culture (which, believe me, deserves some lambasting). The film does drag a bit around the middle, though to its credit, Malcolm does feel fully developed in spite of all the madcap goings-on that might otherwise distract from his issues.
It’s the setting that really keeps the adrenaline and the ‘90s hip hop jams pumping throughout, as every scene has the potential to end in tragedy. There was never much risk in Superbad of the main characters being shot, but this deep in the inner-city, Dope proves the narrative worth of employing such stakes.
I’ve paid some lip service to the racial themes of Dope, but viewers predisposed to disliking such loaded (pun not intended) themes might be able to willfully ignore them until they’re quite literally spelled out onscreen. Dope isn’t really about politics—though it will surely be read that way by some—but about black identity.
Thankfully, director Rick Famuyiwa knows when to be subtle. The story isn’t all sex, drugs and old school hip hop between the opening and closing bits of shouting its themes from Inglewood rooftops. Many of the secondary characters are alternately hilarious and poignant embodiments of race-related archetypes—there’s a young white male doing his best to emulate black culture, a rich mixed kid still clinging to his family’s hoodrat roots and most significantly, a successful grown-up street kid with a whiff of traitor representing what Malcolm might become.
As his excessively vintage look indicates, Malcolm isn’t an archetype. It’s his being an outsider that finally allows him to synthesize his influences and solve his problems in some surprisingly creative ways. Malcolm may be caught between two worlds—harassed in his hometown for not embodying traditional black traits, and looked down upon by the rest of society for his background – but somehow manages to retain his identity. And his identity isn’t dependent on his supposed whiteness or blackness. Hopefully more people, whether Harvard application officers or hapless filmgoers, will be able to see that.