I heard great things about Rick Famuywia’s Dope since Summer of 2015 when it came out at Sundance Film festival. And after I sat down to watch the DVD on the laptop last week, I’d have to say all the praise this film got from critics and viewers alike is well deserved. Dope is one of the best films of 2015 and possibly the best film Rick Famuywia’s career.
Dope follows Malcolm, a geek who’s into late 1980s and 1990’s old school rap and late 1980s and 1980s fashion as he and his geek friends Jib and Diggie navigate life in The Bottoms of Englewood California. While they attend school and pursue their hobbies like Manga and a band they formed, have to overcome an obstacle course of thugs, gangstas and dope dealers who bully them for acting “White”. As they work towards getting good grades and graduating high school, Malcom aspires to go to Harvard and escape the poverty of The Bottoms of Englewood.
After a meeting with his guidance counselor, Malcolm is told that his admission essay on Ice Cube’s A Good Day isn’t good enough to get him into Harvard. That his deconstruction of the song isn’t unique or shows anything distinct about him or his life experience, the things that’ll leave a powerful first impression on Harvard’s admission board. With that said, his counselor tells him he has a scheduled meeting with Harvard Alumni Austin Jacoby, the CEO of a check cashing company. On the way home to prepare for his meeting, he runs into Dom, a dope dealer who invites him to his birthday party. What happens after Malcolm goes to that party begins a journey that will truly show what makes Malcolm unique as he has to use his creativity, resourcefulness and critical thinking skills to figure out a complex series of puzzles revolving around what he finds in his backpack. The solution to that puzzle could be his rise to the top or a slippery slope downhill that could destroy him. I won’t give away that solution; this movie is TOO GOOD TO SPOIL.
Dope is a well-crafted film that tells the story of a great American Novel on film. Stylistically it reminds me of classic White teen comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, The last American Virgin, and Clueless, but tells a story from an African-American perspective. In between the comedy and drama is a balanced and humanized story of a boy’s journey into manhood filled with the layers, depth, and complexity. Dope is an addictive film that will have you eager to watch more of it again and again to catch all the little details and nuances you missed the last time.
I believe Dope is the kind of film people will be talking about for years, the twists and turns in this movie will really make you think. Watching Malcolm deal with the challenges in his quest to write the essay that he believes will get him to Harvard reminded me of the late 1990’s film Fresh, where the Sean Nelson character had to use chesslike strategies to overcome the obstacles in front of him and the enemies around him. As Malcom encounters each person in his personal journey they seem like players on the chessboard. Rooks, Queens, Knights, Kings and pawns. And the as the geeky Malcolm gets to know them he learns how to use each player to his advantage to get him towards the king and the eventual checkmate. When he checkmates the final challenger in the film (HUGE PLOT TWIST) the viewer starts to understand that the game of life is chess, not checkers.
Being a comic book geek and a straight A student back in the day in I could relate to a lot of what Malcolm and his friends went through in this movie. I ran into a lot of the same kinds of situations Malcolm ran into dealing with bullies who ridiculed me for liking comic books, video games and superheroes. And like Malcolm I had to find another way to overcome those challenges in my efforts to get out of the hell known as high school in New York City. I know from experience that every day in High school with dope boys and thugs is just survival and you just live to get through a day. But the only way to get to the last day of high school, Graduation Day requires critical thinking and the ability to plan a long-term strategy.
Director Rick Famuyiwa does a spectacular job on Dope of presenting a unique picture of African-American life. His camera work and unique visuals tell a story we rarely get to see, a story of the good kids who get caught in the middle of the world of dope dealers, thugs, gangs, and police officers in the inner city. It’s a story that rarely ever gets told about Black life, and as a kid who grew up living that life I can honestly say he captured the spirit of a life experience I knew growing up in the South Bronx.
I’d love to see more films telling stories like this about Black life, it’s these kinds of films that show what’s special and unique about Black life and Black culture. Watching Rick Famuywia’s Dope made me think about what I was trying to do with Spinsterella last year, tell a story about a part of Black culture we rarely hear in mainstream media. I believe we need more stories about Black Geeks, Black Goths, and Black people from different walks of life to put the shades and textures on Black culture that will show the world that there’s more than one Black experience.
Dope is a GREAT movie. It’s must-see viewing I highly recommend everyone picks up and adds to their Black cinema collection.