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Rick Famuyiwa's "Dope" opens by providing its titular term with three
distinct definitions - to paraphrase, the word can mean an illegal
drug, a stupid person, or an affirmation of something's greatness. For
the next one-hundred and ten minutes, the film works to illustrate all
of those features in some way or another through a lens that's unique,
refreshing, and respectful to its characters and their cultures.
Our main character is Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a black teenager
carefully surviving in his crime/drug-ridden neighborhood of Inglewood,
California, Despite being influenced by modern forces like the internet
and Bitcoin, he loves nineties hip-hop and the culture of yesteryear,
and so do his two closest friends, Jib ("The Grand Budapest Hotel"'s
Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), who play in his punk band.
Malcolm is going for what seems to be the impossible, which is applying
for Harvard and forging a successful career path post-high school.
However, in the mix of taking his SAT and writing his college entrance
essay, Malcolm gets caught up in the underworld of illegal drugs and
crime in the most unconventional way possible. After being invited to a
party thrown by a drug dealer (rapper A$AP Rocky), Malcolm works to
craft a name for himself by getting invested in the online
drug-drealing world, using the help of a local hacker and Bitcoin to
create a huge influx of revenue for him and his friends.
Famuyiwa attempts to do the same thing to African-Americans that John
Hughes did with the middle class high school population in the 1980's,
which is cut through the stereotypes, the incredulous romances, and
what adults perceive teenagers to be like to really get to the heart of
them as people. People with choices and decisions to make that are
often times as big or as impacting as the ones adults make. The
difference is, however, adults come equipped with life experiences
where teenagers generally come equipped with their own instincts and
peer pressure in their decision-making.
"Dope" shows the constant struggles of being a moral teenager engulfed
in a society driven by illegal behavior and surrounded by peers who are
nudging you onto a more dangerous pathway than on which you'd like to
travel. The fact that it pays homage to the music and the urban movies
of the 1990's is interesting because "Dope" doesn't focus on an
anti-hero in a gritty neighborhood, much like the films of that era
did. Instead, adhering to the principles of Hughes, it turns to the
geek and, in turn, humanizes and paints him as a character trying to
find himself in the mix of all this madness.
Famuyiwa and cinematographer Rachel Morrison crossbreed the early
1990's hip-hop culture with the contemporary technology of the
mid-2010's, causing a culture shock of epic proportions in "Dope"'s
aesthetic variety. "Dope" has the cinematic look of acid-washed jeans,
the feel of a sun-soaked day at the beach, and the smells of everything
from acne cream, sunscreen, and marijuana ostensibly infused into every
scene. It's the kind of aesthetic that's so detail-centric it almost
channels the likes of Wes Anderson, minus the meticulous symmetry in
Shameik Moore must be given considerable praise for his role here,
which can only be described as a breakout performance. His human
characteristics, carefully painted by Famuyiwa, his conflicted
personalities, and his subtle arrogance, all traits that, in the end,
make him very likable, echo the sentiments of Cuba Gooding, Jr. in
"Boyz 'N The Hood," another conflicted soul caught in between being
moral in a morally bankrupt area or taking the easy way out. Alongside
Revolori and Clemons, two supporting roles that, again, go far and
beyond the call of supporting roles, Moore is a talented who you find
yourself being unable to take your eyes off of throughout the entire
Above all the aesthetic and character charm, "Dope" is a surprisingly
optimistic film. It doesn't get bogged down by environmental cynicism,
even when Malcolm has to turn into the kind of people he never wanted
to associate himself with. Famuyiwa takes a brave step in the opposite
direction of his peers, capturing acts like drug-dealing and backhanded
deals in a light that accentuates joy and positivity, but it's all this
that make "Dope" an even more fascinating character study, coming of
age story, and a subversive tale about life in an urban area.
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