Dope

Nasty turn on the slippery slope
★★★
☆
Released: 
2015
Director: 
Rick Famuyiwa
Starring: 
Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Chanel Iman
The Setup: 
Three friends in Inglewood navigate life in their dangerous neighborhood.
Discussion: 

Netflix… oh dear, what a complicated relationship we have. Nowadays when I turn on Netflix I want to just watch a fun movie and not have to take notes on it (in order to write about it later). So one night I turned on this movie and, to my surprise and delight, the first five minutes were so packed with interesting stuff that I thought “I need to come back to this and treat it seriously, take notes and write it up.” Then, last night I did, and… unfortunately it’s not quite as brilliant as I hoped it would be. But it’s disappointing in relation to the amount of great stuff in it, and the expectations raised by it, so, there are definitely worse ways to fail.

We open with three definitions of the word dope, as in an illegal drug, an idiot, and something cool. We then meet our three main characters, Malcolm, who has a tall flattop in the old Kid n’ Play mode, and is introduced telling his mother about bitcoins [which is not there by accident], and that he has one memory of his father, who sent him a VHS tape of the film Super Fly. He is friends with Jib and Diggy, and all of them are obsessed with 90s hip-hop, and dress in 90s fashions. They are “geeks” and criticized by others for “acting white” by getting good grades and caring about school [and liking Danny Glover, haha]. It gets a few minutes into the introduction before it stops and says “Did I mention that Diggy is a lesbian?” Which is a brilliant reversal, because you’ve assumed that she’s a guy up til now, and you’re like “Hold on, are we going to have a hip-hop lesbian?!?! How fascinating!” I’ll tell you now, though, this turns out to be one of the biggest disappointments of the film, as this comes to nothing [NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING] and has about as much to say about real lesbians as the average straight porn film. Essentially, her lesbianism is used as a gimmick, a point of differentiation, but there is NO insight on the matter to be found here.

But wait… we were still being positive! Only sometimes I find it better to just deal with matters as they arise and not wait til the end. Anyway, we find out that they live in Inglewood, terrible, gang-controlled area of LA, also known as “the bottoms.” Here the kids joke about having an app to help them avoid gang activity to get home from school, and Malcolm has his sneakers stolen at school. There is also a bit about how an average day might be getting killed by a stray bullet in a gang shooting, and a joke about a kid at school who got killed, but “the real tragedy” was that he was about to get a high score on a video game. It’s crass… but we’re still being forgiving and waiting to see how that comment fits into the whole film. Only by the end do you know it’s really just distasteful.

We see Malcolm in a conference with his principal, who derides his entrance exam on Ice Cube and says “who do you think you are?” about Malcolm’s wish to get into Harvard. Malcolm says it would probably be better to write about cliché things like growing up without a father in a poor, crime-filled neighborhood, because that’s what whites expect to hear from blacks. He has an appointment to meet with an alumni who went to Harvard as an advisor.

On the way home from school, he has a run-in with a drug dealer and ends up flirting with a pretty girl, Nakia, which results in he and his buddies going to a party that night. The drug dealer is taking possession of a ton of MDMA, there’s a shootout, and Malcolm ends up with a gun and a backpack full of drugs. He gets a call from someone claiming to be the dealer’s friend, saying bring him the drugs. As he’s walking toward the car, he gets a call from the dealer, saying that’s not his friend, run! There’s a chase, and now they have a new destination, a wealthy guy who runs a “boy’s club.”

By the way, in here, and at various points, we get discussions of the concept of the “Slippery Slope,” which will be much more pertinent by the end.

The guy isn’t home, but his two kids are there, a guy and his daughter Lily, who starts making outrageous come-ons to Malcolm immediately. She is gorgeous and has a great body, so her interest in Malcolm is very, very unconvincing, but at this point it all seems like a Project X-like wacky comedy with an edge, so we go along. The brother, Diggy and Jib go to get take out, where the brother gets shot by a gang member, while the two friends get away [but not without first nabbing some fries, in a funny touch]. Meanwhile, Lily is preparing to relieve Malcolm of his virginity, when she vanishes for a bit and it becomes clear that she has taken the drugs. She goes quite crazy, and during this moment, Malcolm realizes he’s supposed to be meeting his Harvard advisor! Lily says she’ll drive him, then she’s behind the wheel while barely able to stay conscious [some rides should be refused] then suddenly gets out of the car to go pee. She runs over to “Seven Bucks Coffee” [an obvious Starbucks clone] and pees right on the street. Then Malcolm decides to leave her there and take her car [umm, okay] and while he’s doing that, the brother, fleeing the police, crosses his path. He makes it to his appointment. We never hear of any aftermath of him essentially stealing her car.

There, he sees that Lily and the brother are the KIDS of the advisor, the one he was supposed to deliver the drugs to. He gives Malcolm a long speech about how when Amazon says they’ll deliver something they have to deliver it, which I didn’t think anything of, but Malcolm interprets as the guy saying that he [Malcolm] must sell the drugs and deliver the money. So this sets up the last half of the movie, in which the three friends set up a bitcoin operation to sell the drugs over the internet, doing all of this right from within their high school. I took about half the notes on the second half, because it just becomes considerably less interesting and funny. One amusing bit is that a video of Lily urinating publicly went viral, and the best advertisement for their drug is that THIS is what she was on when that happened. But the second half of the movie is all about our heroes using their resourcefulness and intelligence to become drug dealers, which is a bit questionable. Toward the end, Malcolm is in danger of losing the drugs to the guy who tried to steal his shoes at the beginning, and he holds him off with a gun. This is supposed to be a sign of moral slippage, and once again we remember the repeated image of the “slippery slope,” which is another way of looking at Malcolm’s becoming a drug dealer and his brush with drug violence. The movie doesn’t moralize, which one can appreciate, but then again, one can come away with the feeling of “So I'm supposed to be happy that my main character is a drug dealer?” The thing with the gun is also a repeat, although slightly less successful, of the exact same situation in Friday.

The movie ends with Malcolm writing the standard “black person” entrance essay that he mocked at the beginning, ending with “Why do I want to go to Harvard? If I was white, would you even ask?” Which, the whole “If I were white” and comparing his reality to a straw man imagined white reality [in which everything goes perfectly and everyone who is not him sails effortlessly through life on a golden yacht of privilege] ends the film on a reductive and trite note. Really, all the complexity you’ve built up through the film just comes down to a simple “if I were white” crack and hip-hop music video [which the film ends with]. It’s just a big comedown from the fascinating and complex world the initial scenes set up, and starts you on your string of reflections that a lot of the promise this film showed early on just didn’t quite pan out.

So yeah, ultimately it just ends up being much less by the end than it promised at the beginning. The movie begins by trumping the ways in which it’s going to be different from most African-American comedies, but by the end it’s very much the same. It a particular disappointment that the lesbian character comes to nothing. The punk music the kids make comes to nothing and adds nothing to the story. Their love of 90s hip-hop adds nothing but hipster fashion dressing. And most depressingly, their much-vaunted intelligence comes to nothing, as by the end they’re just hanging out and being cool like everyone else, and pointing their intelligence toward a new way of selling drugs. It’s still good enough and slightly different enough, but by the end it has worn away its promise and let down the expectations raised by its fine opening moments.

Should you watch it: 

No real need to, but it won’t kill you.

Comments

A car chase that is important in itself but ultimately comes to nothing? Naughty girl who gets you in financial trouble? A Harvard-striver who slips and falls into being the head of a criminal enterprise? We've seen this movie before.