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Cinema Spotlight: “Dope”

Dope, written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, was one of this summer’s most popular indie films. With some acting help from chart-topping hip-hop artist ASAP Rocky, and up-and-coming rapper Vince Staples, it was clearly a film that was marketed toward a young and hip crowd.

Photo via: CBSRadioNews
Hip-hop artist ASAP Rocky making his acting debut in Dope (photo via: CBSRadioNews)

The film follows Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy, three black friends from Inglewood, California, who try to survive the various struggles of public school in the inner city. The protagonists are singled out from the rest of their classmates for their love of “white people shit”, which includes getting good grades and trying to get into college.

Like a John Hughes comedy with a touch of Boyz n the Hood, the main characters get themselves into increasingly wackier situations as they get caught up in a drug selling ring. They find themselves with a backpack full of Molly, a gun, and the mission to sell all of the drugs as quickly and as stealthily as they can.

One thing that the film never lacks is style. The three protagonists are all obsessed with 90’s hip-hop culture. And through their dress, dialogue, and the soundtrack, the film is equally oozing with retro style. From “The Humpty Dance” to “The World is Yours”, classic hip-hop tracks guide the characters through an ever-escalating series of events.

The 90’s aesthetic of the main characters is played off of the contemporary style of the rest of the cast, and while this sometimes creates an interesting dichotomy, it also occasionally causes the film to feel just a little disjointed. The style of the characters isn’t the only thing that doesn’t seem to gel together.

The film never seems quite sure what to make of itself, whether its a teen comedy, an action film, a drama, etc. When all of this tension is played out on screen, the audience is left feeling pulled in a few too many directions and a little confused. Of course, this sort of identity crisis is also being experienced by the main characters themselves, so the dissonance at least serves some purpose.

The end of the film switches to a dramatically different tone. As the last of the plot’s loose ends are tied up, the mood suddenly becomes serious as Malcolm’s entry essay for Harvard becomes the film’s thesis. Malcolm looks directly at the camera (and therefore at the audience) as he asks explicitly asks some of the hard social questions that the film had been bringing to light, several times.

One of the main themes of the film is the representation of blackness on screen, specifically its lack of depth. The main characters are tired of being hedged into small boxes of identity, and constantly facing ridicule for being into “white people shit”. These characters show a depth and complexity that is all too often missing from black characters on the silver screen. They’re black protagonists that are breaking free from the all too heavily used stereotypes that we’re familiar with.

Its a coming-of-age story from the ghettos of California that is able to comment on the many issues surrounding that environment without relying on cliches and shallow characters. And for that, the film is commendable.

However, when discussing the things the film does right in terms of representation, its hard not to discuss the few things that it does wrong. One of the biggest issues the film has is its treatment of women. Nearly all of the female characters of note are important to the story mostly for their sexual appeal. The two main exceptions to this rule; Diggy, who is a lesbian, and Malcolm’s mother, receive precious little development. Having a lesbian as one of the three main characters, while having the potential to address numerous issues, mostly serves as a sort of comedic relief. She is seen as “just one of the guys”, and her sexuality is only commented upon when a joke can be made. And Malcolm’s mother, a working class single mom trying to help her son reach his dream of getting into Harvard, doesn’t receive near enough screen time for the audience to form much of a relationship with her.

The three main characters form a punk band, playing songs written by Pharrell Williams (photo via: NYTimes)
The three main characters form a punk band, playing songs written by Pharrell Williams (photo via: NYTimes)

In all, Dope is a mixed bag of a film. It does many things right, and it hits a lot of high notes. However, its not without its flaws. While trying to do so much, the overall presentation can be a little messy and disorganized. The audience isn’t always sure when its trying to be a comedy, and when its trying to be a drama. And the issues of representation that it fails to address can somewhat dampen its overall message. Like its main characters, the film is complex and flawed, yet totally genuine.

Despite not being perfect, Dope is still an important movie, and definitely worth watching.

Click here to see if Dope is playing in a theater near you

Check out the trailer for Dope below: