We see a lot of these hip-hop films that show us the difficulties of living in “the ghetto” or “the hood”, and these films get to be a little routine after a while. There has to be some unique quality that sets it apart. Dope (2015) puts ‘90s culture, the videogame nerd community, and a newer and blitzier way of telling a story and creating compelling characters that get themselves so far involved in a plot, it almost stresses you out and makes you wonder: “where can these kids go from here?”
Big names went into producing this feature and it’s not surprising why with a striking script like this. Produced by Forest Whitaker, Pharrell Williams, and P. Diddy, Dope had a good thing going for it from the get-go. It was also in good hands, being directed by Nigerian-American director Rick Famuyiwa who has films like The Wood (1999), Brown Sugar (2002), and Talk to Me (2007) in his repertoire.
So we dive right into Dope with Malcolm Adekanbi (played by rapper/actor Shameik Moore, taking his first lead role with this feature) is a nerdy high school senior in a shifty Californian neighbourhod looking to break out to bigger and better things through a hopeful acceptance into Harvard. He’s accompanied by his friends Jib (Tony Revolori who you might recognize from The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons, who also plays on the award-winning show Transparent) as they unwittingly get involved in the drug trade after a fateful party that goes off the rails. Malcolm becomes a duality: part geek with a future and part renegade drug-dealer.
Having the nerd as the underdog hero may seem like a tired concept, but when the hero is an adamant hip-hop fan as well, it adds a bit more flavour. Right from the get-go, the film’s vibe is fun and the characters are likable. As with a few other indie films (to the point of becoming a bit of a trend), this film’s cinematography is stark and colourful. There’s something oddly Revenge of the Nerds (1984) about this movie if it were updated, racialized, and a lot less hokey. It ends pretty ambiguously, leaving the audience to decide what Malcom truly is: a nerd with a bright future or a dope-dealer doomed to fall in line with the stereotypes surrounding the hood. The journey – all at once hilarious, shocking and with grim realities – has you making up your own mind.