Just Say Nope

Dope (2015) A film by Rick Famuyiwa.

The first thing to say about the three protagonists in Rick Famuyiwa’s new film “Dope”—Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolori), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons)—is that they’re adorable! (I sound like my wife here.) As three geeks at a ghetto high school in Los Angeles, where guys routinely rob you of your sneakers in the hallway and you have to dodge dope dealers on the way home, they all look innocent, and hopeful, and smart. They’re also the three best-looking geeks I’ve ever seen in my life. Normally I object when the whole cast of a movie is good looking—have the filmmakers ever walked out on the street?—but as I look back I can’t think of anyone in this movie who wasn’t great looking, and I didn’t object at all. I found the scenery most pleasant.

In a way “Dope” has come out at exactly the wrong time. The issue of race has always been difficult in America, but in recent months it has become tragic, to the point that people become wary about what they say (President Obama uses the n-word in an interview, to make a point, and the Republican Presidential candidates have a conniption. Really?). “Dope,” like Mat Johnson’s new novel Loving Day (at the top of my to-read list) takes a comic look at the subject. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fundamentally serious, or doesn’t see things in a deeper way than more serious works do. Only knuckleheads think comedy can’t be serious. They should read Gulliver’s Travels.

Malcolm is a geek in a gangsta world. He’s the child of a working mom (his father deserted the family and went back to Nigeria, leaving his son a video of his favorite movie, Superfly!); he’s devoted to schoolwork, preparing for SAT’s, and hopes to go to Harvard. At the same time, he’s not removed from black culture, has an almost scholarly appreciation for it, including hip hop, about which he has fanatical opinions. One of the funniest early scenes in the novel is when a dope dealer calls him over (“Hey, little n-word. Come here.” I myself intend to be entirely politically correct in this review, though the movie is anything but), and they have a complicated discussion of the history of hip hop (about which I know nothing). The dope dealer seems as knowledgeable and opinionated as Malcolm.

So we’re in the milieu of Superfly!, but in the company of three geeks. Isn’t that funny? It’s kind of like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. And while “Dope” is commenting on, and rising above, and making fun of gangsta culture, it’s also kind of a gangsta movie; people get shot with real guns, snort real drugs, and throw up on each other during sex because they’ve snorted too much (that’s one of those details that was right on the edge for me. I understand that, when you’re finally losing your virginity to the girl of your dreams, and it turns out she throws up on you, that’s funny when you say it. But when you see it, it’s repulsive). My wife sees movies from a visceral viewpoint and was furious at the end of this one. Too much violence, dope, and dissolute lifestyles. I saw it as a satire, one with so many nuances that I didn’t catch nearly all of them, and never could. I would happily have stayed and watched it again.

The dope dealer in question, Dom (AS$P Rocky. I realize that looks like a misprint, but that’s apparently the young man’s name, at least when he isn’t Rakim Mayers) wants Malcolm to take a message to a young woman he’s had his eye on, (Kimberley Elise), asking her to his birthday party. Malcolm has had his eye on her too, so it’s almost as if he’s asking her out himself. She isn’t happy that Dom hasn’t manned up to ask for himself, but says she’ll go if Malcolm will. Malcolm reports this news back to Dom, but Dom has taken a shine (oops), I mean a liking, to this little n-word. So Malcolm comes to the party, has to check his ever present nerd backpack, and when a drug deal of some kind goes sour—that’s when the for-real shooting happens—Dom stuffs the drugs into Malcolm’s backpack. Oh shit. Now Costello has to deal not only with Frankenstein, but with Count Dracula and the Wolfman too.

The movie then becomes one of those “geeks outsmart the cool people” movies, and I found it hilarious. The gangstas are riding around in pimp-mobiles, and the geeks are on bicycles and city buses, but still elude them. They show up at the house where they’re supposed to take the drugs, a vast mansion, and the two people inside are not AJ (the man who was supposed to get the drugs, or maybe the money from their sale) but his two very good looking children, who welcome the geeks in, play some music with them (in what seems to be a fully equipped recording studio) and almost have sex with Malcolm (the daughter does), while the son and his friends were out getting cheese fries, or some such repulsive food item. I suppose this paragraph is full of spoilers (have I really spoiled anything?), but they’re not important plot details, except for the thing I’m about to reveal (so look away, all you spoiler haters): AJ, the papa (Roger Guenveur Smith), turns out to be the Harvard alum who is interviewing Malcolm.

In the meantime there were all kinds of touches I found hilarious, the long discussion of the term slippery slope before Dom whacks somebody; the beautiful girl of his dreams actually seducing Malcolm, making him admit he’s a virgin; the gang bangers who are chasing after the dope stopping for a bag of donuts; the incidental scene that occurs at a coffee shop that looks exactly like Starbucks, but it’s called Sevenbucks (and a black man who’s being interviewed for TV explains that he was inside enjoying some pound cake, because “a black man don’t eat no scone.” Another racial characteristic I wasn’t aware of).

What we’re seeing is a world where even a Harvard grad has other businesses for a front (I believe it was a check cashing store), but is really just a dope dealer. Malcolm, if he goes to Harvard and comes back, might wind up the same way. And he’s got to accept every part of this complicated heritage, and still try to get out of the fix he’s in, and get into Harvard. What choice does he have? He’s not big enough to deal drugs. Doesn’t Dom call him “little n-word”?

I have to admit that I didn’t understand either of the two most important conversations between Malcolm and AJ. I’m too stupid, and too unhip (not too white and old and wrinkly, mind you), and I know nothing about hip hop culture, drug culture, or buying things with bitcoins, which are vitally important to the movie (apparently this was the first movie ever where you could pay to get in with bitcoins). I’m basically admitting I didn’t understand the plot of the movie. I thought the central themes came toward the end, when Malcolm was putting together his Harvard application and letting us hear what he was going to say (or perhaps would have said, in a better world). The fact is that he just wants what countless white high school seniors want: is that okay? And he’s not going to get anywhere by ridding himself of his heritage. He has to take it all in.

I thought this was a brilliant movie, beautifully written, beautifully directed, beautifully acted, and if all the actors were beautiful (except for the nerdy white guy; maybe that’s grounds for resentment) so be it. I’d like to see the movie again. I’d especially like to see the credits, where Malcolm was doing a wild and funny dance but my wife was so pissed off that she made us walk out.

After she fumed for about twenty minutes she thought it was a good movie too.