Directed by Rick Famuyiwa.
2015. Rated R, 103 minutes.
Roger Guenveur Smith
Writer and director Rick Famuyiwa uses his Inglewood setting as a character similarly to the way he did for his debut feature, 1999's The Wood. It breathes life into the film, deeply influencing every facet of the lives of the humans that inhabit it. This is essential to our understanding of, and empathy for, our protagonist. It crystallizes the effects of external forces on Malcolm and everyone involved. The trick is that Famuyiwa uses this to explain circumstances without completely absolving people of their sins. Because we see all this, we quickly become rooted in our hero's corner. He's striving to be an individual where strength in numbers is not just a saying, but a way of life. To remove himself from the rut most of the people around him seem to be stuck in he will have to, pardon the cliche, pull himself up by his own bootstraps. Shameik Moore handles the role quite well. He makes Malcolm's awkward otherness believable and endearing. He even endows the character with a certain level of confidence, even though we're fairly certain he'll never admit to having any at all. It comes from being comfortable in his own skin. He is cool with not being cool.
Famuyiwa's bigger, but sure to be under-appreciated, triumph might be how fully realized he makes another character: Dom, the drug dealer. His occupation, willingness to use violence, and all the images that conjures up in your head means he perpetuates many stereotypes about young, black males. Since he's a minor character whose real function is that of a plot device, he could've been left at that. Famuyiwa gives him something behind the eyes. We can clearly see he is intelligent, if misguided. His two big moments make this clear. First, his conversation with Malcolm includes a passionate, yet friendly debate on whether or not the 90s was the golden era of hip hop. Second, there was the "slippery slope" conundrum which clearly marked him as brighter than his peers. This quality keeps Dom from being totally repellent to Malcolm and the audience. We even get the sense that at some point in his life, perhaps not all that long ago, Dom was a lot closer to being Malcolm than Scarface. Dom is also a bit of a romantic. He's genuinely trying to woo a young lady rather than treating her as a plaything. He is still not a sympathetic character. Making him one would be a mistake. He is, however, a human being. The performance of rapper A$AP Rocky is solid upon a bed of strong material. It's not an award-worthy turn, but is exactly what the film needs from him. The miracle he combines with Famuyiwa to work is that all this is conveyed in a relatively short period of screen time.
While Malcolm and Dom are both wonderfully rendered, the rest of the cast doesn't enjoy the same riches. They're all flat drawn tropes that simply propel the plot to the next point. At each point a new character is introduced. By the time we get to the third act, this is a heavily populated movie filled with tons of types, but very few people. As a result, a pair of very talented actors are wasted. Kimberly Elise plays Malcolm's mom. She's capable of great depths as an actress, but is relegated to a couple generic conversations with her son. Veteran character actor Roger Guenveur Smith is given even less to do even though his role does have a major purpose. Zoe Kravitz suffers a similar fate. Her character is important, but she hasn't much to do.
Somewhere between three dimensional and paper thin are Diggy and Jib, our hero's two sidekicks. We know a little more about them than other supporting players and take delight in watching their band with Malcolm. We stop short of actually caring about them. It doesn't help that they disappear for a sizable chunk of time that proves to be integral to the plot. When on the screen they don't quite do what others do. They're an external conscience for our hero. Diggy plays Malcolm's superego while Jib is his id. This works because both are very fun characters. We like spending time with them and understand why Malcolm does, too. Kiersey Clemons as Diggy and Tony Revolori as Jib make us believe that with excellent work that makes the most of their roles. There's an added bonus for those of you who have seen The Grand Budapest Hotel. You will understand that Revolori has quite a bit of range since he plays a far different part just as effectively.
As Diggy and Jib are fun, so too is Dope as a whole. The jokes are witty and land much more often than not. They are not always gut busters, but keep the viewer with a knowing grin on his/her face. Malcolm's sneaky sarcasm is responsible for a lot of our enjoyment. He often points out the stupidity in what others are saying. Occasionally, he gets called on it himself. The conversation between him and one of the bad guys in which his attempts at using some sort of code language becomes an overwrought metaphor utilizing sandwiches is a high point as the ridiculousness of this is pointed out to him. There is also the humor derived from the expectations of others most apparent in the metal detector gags. However, it's also evident in the way the characters interact with one another. They seem genuinely surprised when the other person doesn't say the things or react the way they're expected. Also adding to the fun is the excitement of the chase that dominates the last two acts of the film. Narrow escapes that manage to be both fun and tense are the order of the day.
Malcolm and his friends are not action heroes by any stretch. What they are is a trio of teens who find themselves in the very situation they've been trying to keep themselves out of for their entire lives. The events of the film serve as a microcosm for the survival they fight for every day in a world where that's not always guaranteed. They also raise an interesting question: do the ends always justify the means? The movie certainly says yes, and presents it in such a way that we have no choice but to go along with that line of thinking. It helps that "the end" is a rather lofty goal. Then again, making Dope was lofty to begin with. We have a main character that works hard to defy stereotypes and is totally aware of the fact. Perhaps that's part of the film's success. Malcolm is a person who is highly relatable to those who do not look like him. Famuyiwa is to be commended for giving us such a character in a climate that still markets movies based on constrictive demographics. In the face of this he makes a film that is fun, has some interesting things to say, and is far more universal than it might appear at first glance.