For roughly the first 5 minutes of Dope I was worried – worried that due to the subject matter at hand (racial identity) the film would quickly devolve into posturing and pandering. Worried that “needing to say it” would get in the way of “saying it well.” Worried that a message with such relevance and urgency could be reduced to the “Us vs. Them” mentality that undercuts progress in the name of a finger pointing festival. As these first few minutes plodded along, I was fearful that this critical darling would be lost on me, and I’d have the uncomfortable task of declaring Dope to be a noble failure, but once the film found its groove (and I began to groove with it), it became clear that I was watching something special – something important – and I was having a blast doing so.
Dope tells the story of Malcolm (Shameik Moore, who is about to rightfully become a star), a high school senior in Inglewood, California. He’s a self-proclaimed geek, much more interested in his own creative and academic pursuits than in the gang culture which threatens to consume many kids his age. He rocks a flat-top haircut, obsesses over 90s era hip hop, and plays in a punk band with his cronies Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Toni Revolori of The Grand Budapest Hotel). He walks through a metal detector on the way to class, has to run from shoe-stealing bullies, and navigates brought a labyrinth of gangs and violence on a daily basis. Yet, try as he might to live apart from the culture that surrounds him, he cannot escape it, and when he accidentally obtains a large amount of drugs, he’s forced to play the game.
As I mentioned earlier, the film stumbles at the outset, seemingly lost in a cloud of stylistic ADD which never fully dissipates. Situations are set up that don’t pay of, and a few characters established in the opening narration are oddly sidelined along with the narration itself. But what appears at first to be a movie with an indecisive screenplay and aimless direction soon proves to be a stylish, skillful, and interesting piece of art. Once the all-over-the-placeness of it becomes the basal setting, the vibes are just oh so good. While a rewrite probably could have helped smooth over these small issues, I enjoyed the film so immensely that I wonder if a little polish would have ended up hurting it.
And that’s the secret to Dope: it’s fun. By being such a rousing good time, the filmmakers get to speak on an important message about privilege and personal responsibility without making villains. Sure, circumstance may play a part in what tools we are given to succeed, but it’s how we define ourselves amidst these circumstances that truly gives us power. Whatever your racial, gender, sexual, or social identity, there is both a sobering lesson and a pat on the back to be found within Dope, and in a time where flame wars and social vengeance threaten to replace conversation and reasonable discourse, this is an immeasurably necessary thing.
Dope is a colorful story, chock full of fantastic music culled from the golden age of hip hop (and peppered with a few originals from Pharrell, because of course), smart performances, and a beautiful message hidden behind a good ol’ time at the movies. If you, like me, are somebody that laments a lack of diversity in Hollywood, but is cautious to champion diversity for diversity’s sake, put your money where your Twitter feed is and pony up some cash to go see Dope. You’ll be glad you did. Here’s your chance to let the world of film know that not only do we need more movies like Dope, we want them!
Dope opens today in Philly area theaters.