Last year’s Dear White People was a satirical comedy about black college students finding their own identities amidst today’s subtle racism. But what it really focused on was avoiding stereotypes and finding your own identity among what might be the most culturally diverse generation in American history. It was one of the funniest and best movies of 2014, but it was also a more refreshing look at today’s black culture than Kevin Hart yelling his way through comedies and god-awful Tyler Perry movies. It’s also nice to know that this type of movie seems to be catching on because a mere year later there’s another fresh take on current black culture. Though it is ironic that the film’s protagonist declares himself a “‘90s hip-hop geek,” it’s far better than seeing Madea on-screen again.
Dope follows high school senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a straight-A student living in Inglewood, CA, sporting classic Air Jordans, a high-top fade haircut, a cassette player and a BMX bike to cruise around in. He plays in a punk band with his buddies Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), lives with his single mom and hopes his essay on the theory of Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” will get him into Harvard. Malcolm and his buddies are bullied daily by the gangsters that roam his school and neighborhood. One of them, a drug dealer named Dom (A$AP Rocky), uses Malcolm to get a girl he likes, named Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), to come to his birthday party. Nakia invites Malcolm and co. to come with her, but a shootout happens and Dom needs to get rid of his latest stash of MDMA. His solution? Put it in Malcolm’s backpack and deliver it to his buyer, who turns out to be a Harvard graduate who Malcolm is interviewing for a possible recommendation. The buyer, an Inglewood native-turned local business owner named AJ (Roger Guenveur Smith), wants Malcolm to sell the drugs or else, so hip-hop infused hijinks ensue.
Energetic, bright, fast-paced and smarter than you’d think are all perfect words used to describe Dope. When Malcolm and his friends are described as geeks, they aren’t used as punchlines for nerd jokes or painted as superheroes amongst idiots. They’re simply young teenagers with a certain passion that use their abilities to succeed in situations, almost like *gasp* real people. Newcomer Moore knows how to work Malcolm’s deadpan humor and his vulnerability. He may know how to talk himself out of getting beat up by Bloods, but he’s adorably nervous when talking to Nakia (or a sexy Molly addict looking for thrill in a very funny bit). Even when he talks of setting up a drug deal like a slick stud, he still looks terrified to be in the situation to begin with. He’s also got great support in the sharp Diggy and the wise-cracking wimp Jib, played for laughs by The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori. A$AP Rocky makes a fine film debut as well as the cool but cold Dom and Zoe Kravitz is soft but still matches wits with Rocky and Moore. Extra comedic support is supplied by Blake Anderson of Workaholics as a hacker and drug expert who feels cool enough to use the n-word with his black friends (spoiler alert: he isn’t, but he gets slapped by Diggy when he tries, so that’s funny).
Dope isn’t a home run like Dear White People was, as it sometimes gets too involved in drug-dealing subplot and Malcolm’s reveal of the operation is like the climax of Ocean’s Eleven. Regardless, Dope is a great movie. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa (Brown Sugar, Our Family Wedding) shoots the movie with some actual craftsmanship, using good long takes to extend events and quick cuts to mash events together. He also picked a great soundtrack with the likes of Malcolm’s punk band Awreeoh and classic tracks from A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy (helps to have Pharrell Williams as an executive producer, I guess). Dope serves as an interesting look at black nerd culture and how their black peers perceive them. It doesn’t paint them with stereotypes but as real people that are part of current American culture. Think of it as Boyz N the Hood told from another culture within the hood itself. Sure, it bounces around a lot, but it’s hard to find a topical movie with this much energy (especially this summer).