Written and Directed: Rick Famuyiwa
Produced: Pharrell Williams, Rick Famuyiwa, Sean Combs, Michael Y. Chow Forrest Whitaker
Starring: Shamiek Moore, Tony Revelori, Kiersay Clemons, A$AP Rocky, Zoe Kravitz, Chanel Iman
For some reason, I’ve been missing high school movies. Could be that I’m getting older, but really, I think it has to do more with this second childhood thing I’m experiencing. I’m into a lot of the shit I was into in high school–except bad grades. One of those things is hip-hop. I’ve never fell out of hip hop but I have taken breaks from it. My interest in hip-hop now, I think has more to do with me honing my identity. Growing up and realizing that hip hop seems to be a foundation. But for me, still, I’m not so sure what that means. What does it mean to be hip -hop? Dope, written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, seeks to tell a story about hip -hop, drug life, the similarities of the two and how they inform on each other. Dope, as a film has all the conventions of a high school movie, and yet at its crux, lays a societal and cultural issue that provides the film its personality, originality, and importance in African diaspora cinema. Dope joins the list of recent major releases in the field of African diaspora film dealing with black identity. Dear White People and Selma, possibly 12 Years of Slave are on the list. These films centering on the black experience deal with what it means to be black, but Dope deals with being black on a major scale–a world wide scale. Sounds pretty, unimaginable for a kid, Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends Jib (Tony Revelori) and Diggy (Kiersay Clemons) growing up in the south central LA. , But the story is not so much about growing up in the hood as a black geek, but how growing up in the hood, like a drug dealing past, is a sort of coat of blackness–it’s not actually “black”. Titling the film “Dope”, Famuyiwa automatically ground the films in hip hop culture and also leaves room for anybody with a sense of how the drug trade works (probably less than half on the film’s targeted audience, including the film’s protagonist who says multiple times “I don’t know shit about this) –or anyone who watches gangster films, 70’s Blaxploitation films (to which Superfly is referenced and Dope grabs some of its plot line from) or logs on to YouTube to see the latest video by any rapper detailing his drug dealing past, or knows anything about dope’s relationship to the black community, to start thinking by the time Malcolm comes in contact with his first drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) that this film is much more than a quirky Dear White People for high schoolers, or the black version of Richard Ayode’s Submarine, or a black Wes Anderson knock off, (to which it borrows some elements like Forrest Whitaker, sparse, and almost useless narration) and something that relates to black youth not totally sold on the reactionary politics of some of their thrifting, bohemian, brothers and sisters. Dope by all means is a quasi hip gangster film, without the glorification of the gangster lifestyle–what Paid in Full could have been had it not been for money hungry Dame Dash.
But that’s exactly the point. Just like the slang term dope, defined at the beginning of the film, standing for something amazing or “excellent” as the film states, “dope” has usually been slang for heroin, sometimes cocaine and it’s arguable that its use in hip hop culture originates from black people’s encounter with drugs at the beginning stages of the development of hip hop, during the late 70’s. The use of the double entendre magnifies the issue at the heart of the film. What is “Dope”? This is the first film outside of a documentary that seeks to question hip hop culture’s authenticity while at the same to presenting hip hop culture as a part of an identity, and not so much a whole of an idenity—like race. Malcolm and his friends, self affirmed 90’s hip hop geeks, come across a bag of Molly, after escaping a raid of birthday party for Dom. Malcolm, whose sole dream is to get out the hood, get into Harvard, and be happy in hip hop nostalgia, now has to find away to dispose of the “lunch” without getting killed, arrested, or potentially sending Dom up north. Not to mention, falling for any girl who gives him the least bit of attention. In Malcolm’s case, one seems just as hard as the other. Can you blame him? He’s a nerd. Famuyiwa’s film shows that “D’evils” are much more than a story you hear in Jay-Z’s music or Nas on the street corner, Raekwon and the clan reflecting on C.R.E.A.M. or Freddie Gibbs’s tales of thuggery or Pusha T’s malice—but that they’re as nearly inescapable as a knocking bass from the back of the trunk. It’s hype. Dope is the newest latest. Temporal. Famuyiwa does a great job of showing the parallels between the drug game and the rap game, playing on line made famous by Nas in “Represent” He does so by careful characterization happening to bring out a parallel between Malcolm and his homie, a white stoner/hacker/musician/hip hop fan obsessed with being “down” Will played by Blake Anderson. Will wants to say the word “nigga” so bad that he’ll willfully get slapped for it. Diggy does the slapping. “You my nigga, but I can’t let you say that,” she admits. The issue is brought up again at a party where Malcolm and his friends perform (they’re a punk band) and Will and a friend are in discussion over the word. “What am I supposed to say when (and the friend quotes a Snoop Dogg song till the point where the line for nigga comes up) and clinches his mouth. Will says it’s fucked up and the friend says they should be able to say it. And they say it. The issue is access. And when whites in America feel their access is taken a away from them, they go ballistic. They want to be able to reach in, so to be able to get that high and then come down. And toss away the needle like it never happened.
Famuyiwa makes this painfully clear by how he depicts America’s obsession with the latest in semi fictionalized montages of people creating YouTube videos, meme’s, vine’s, and hash tags of the newest drug “#Lilly”. While Lilly floats around the Internet and the country, providing the momentary feeling of happiness, Malcolm is in the hood and must decide whether he will live or die. It’s as dramatic as it sounds like Kane’s grandfather in Menace II Society lecturing him. But for a black man, life and death take on a double toll. Death, for a black man is not only dying but also dying not yet recognized as a true self. A self, no Yo MTV Rap or VHS copy of Superfly can give you. Life, is simply absorbing and growing, but also putting yourself in position to do that; even if it means foregoing all notions of what you think being black is. Mos Def, in one songs– “Hip Hop”–gives the line …”Hip-hop will simply amaze you/craze you/pay you/Do whatever you say do/ but black, it can’t save you”. I think Famuyiwa is trying to say that.