“Dope” is the New American Teen Classic (And over 30s will LOVE this movie, but for different reasons)
Last night, I was so weary from everything I was seeing on the news from the last week.
I was emotionally bruised and battered. Between Rachel Dolezal playing and pretending as a black woman, issues of race and color playing out in the Dominican Republic with the removal of anyone seeming to look Haitian, and then the gruesome shooting of nine innocent people worshiping in a church, it was all too much.
I was totally ready to escape and watch a nerdy, smart black kid and his friends navigate living in the hood and pursuing their dreams of college. “Dope” delivered and then some.
Dope keeps the spirit of- and sticks to a very familiar formula of most American teen classics: be thrown into a situation where the main character and his or her friends are in over their heads, but manage to creatively outwit their enemies/bullies/authority figures, stumble in romance and attempts to get laid, surprise themselves, go to parties, make mistakes and by the movie’s end, mature right before our eyes. You know, just doing the things kids do.
While writer and director Rick Famuyiwa (thanks for retweeting me last night!!), stays with the formula of teen cult classics, his story and the presentation are far from run-of-the-mill (and for the mill he don’t run… Hip Hop heads will catch the reference, anyway…). The writing is sharp and current, the characters are relatable, flawed, innocent, (sometimes) street smart and full of heart.
While the main character Malcolm and his friends are outsiders, they are very well aware of their world in inner-city Inglewood, California, I love that there are moments in the film where being a nerd in the hood served as a protective factor to give them an advantage in certain situations, but also contributed to gaps in their common hood knowledge (i.e. timing of monthly school drug sweeps).
Dope didn’t disappoint and it was genius because it manged to do something amazing. On the surface, it would not seem intergenerational, but it is. Even though these kids are a good 16 years younger than me, the writing from this story made me see myself when I was growing up, taking AP classes and accused of acting white, but also scrambling to exit the hood parties when the cops showed up to shut it down.
The struggle of teenagers trying to find themselves is a universal theme movies have always celebrated for a long time now. Thanks to John Hughes and his “bratpack,” it’s a genre that really picked up steam in the 80s that’s not going anywhere. Someone just told me they saw articles and reviews on Dope that accurately describe that it’s a where John Hughes and John Singleton meet. I can’t agree more. American Classic!!!
In Malcolm and his friends, I saw Duckie from “Pretty In Pink” (1986). Remember his obsession with old school music and style? Yup, Malcom’s crew’s obsession with 90s Hip Hop in a 2015 world is a strong parallel. The vulnerability and the awkwardness of Molly Ringwald in any movie she did back then, I also saw in Malcolm while trying to gain the affections of Nakia. The kind of adventure Malcolm and his friends experienced, and those moments you find yourself thinking they’re going to get caught, and holding your breath reminded me a lot Ferris Bueller (1986) or “Adventures in Babysitting” (1987). I saw Craig from “Friday” (1995) when inevitably, Malcolm has to show some heart and bravery and stand up to some very scary people, despite his friends often cutting tail and running.
The influence of the drug culture in this movie totally brought me back to the movie “Go!” (1999) where some unlikely characters are forced to moonlight as drug dealers and move the merchandise in creative ways, while trying to avoid the dangers of police and other unsavory characters in the drug world. Other friends said they saw elements of “Risky Business” (1983). I also recognized “House Party” (1990), as Malcolm and his friends love a wide variety of music and perform their own and it’s pretty darn good. And in the spirit of movies like the “House Party” franchise, or movies featuring Hip Hop stars like Ed Lover and Dr. Dre’s “Who’s the Man” (1993), there are plenty of great cameos by today’s hip hop artists, including Tyga and most notably, A$AP Rocky (who now my old ass has developed a crush on, SMH) who played a very charismatic drug dealer Dom. Supermodel Chanel Iman showed that beautiful girls can be terribly gross, and Dope featured rising superstar Zoe Kravitz, the genetically perfect progeny of Lisa Bonet (Denise Muthafucking Huxtable) and Lenny Kravitz. The celeb children appearances don’t end with Zoe, who totally channeled her mother and was the Uber cool Nakia. The casting choice of Quincy Brown (son of Al B. Sure (Stepdaddy P. Diddy) and long time Hip Hop stylist to the stars and Diddy’s baby mama, Misa Hylton Brim) was a surprisingly good one. He had a brief, but strong and very funny appearance playing a privileged son of a successful man from Malcolm’s hood, hilariously co-opting his dad’s street cred as his own (I wonder if he was making fun of himself a little bit…). There’s a great and super smart scene where even the blerds (black nerds) poke fun at how out of touch he really is with “the hood” and confuses him in the process.
As with the standard teen classic, there were impossible crushes who give our hero a little hope of reciprocity, and a hierarchy of bullies, jerks and druggies and cool kids. There were caring parents who seemed to never be around (a prerequisite for a great teen film), but show up with a word of encouragement and unconditional love. And in Dope, the lovely Kimberly Elise plays that position as Malcolm’s caring, attractive, hardworking bus-driver, single mother.
Dope sets the standard in handling how the new generation is dealing with the mashup of race, gender and sexuality in a clever, and intelligent way. Malcolm and crew have a brilliant, white hacker/druggie friend (who spends most of the film wanting to have permission to use the N-word), and within the crew, Dig is a lesbian galpal who is often mistaken for a boy, but pulls off a quirky, androgynous kind of sexy probably purposely reminiscent of TLC, when she occasionally chooses to wear midriff tops and sports bras instead of loose baggy clothing from head-to-toe. Jib, never specifically says what he is, except when he self-identified as “14 percent African.” The closest we get, was a description of Jib’s ethnicity by their befuddled white friend Will, as a mixture of middle eastern…
There were some other nuances that I enjoyed about this movie especially in terms of looking at the “scary” drug dealers or gang members. And how bad guys come in a variety of forms, some not so obvious. Dope shows you that even the “thugs” are really just kids. I love one interaction where an OG security guard (who is De’aundre Bonds all grown up from Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus”) reads a gang member from cover-to-cover explaining that he ran the streets with his dad and to try him and the kid stands down. There was some comedy with some of the drug dealers revealing some were smarter than they seem or weren’t always the cool guys on the block. And some of the characters were silly, reminding me of how Full Force used to chase Kid N’ Play around in several movies. They were bullies, but generally, they just wanted to have fun and be invited to the parties too.
Malcolm’s punk band Awreeooh (pronounced Oreo) could rock a party just as hard as Kid and Play did. Speaking of which, some of the epic party scenes and the social media aspects of Dope’s storyline reminded me of a recent teen hit “Project X” (2012), where another group of “nobody” kids decide to make a name for themselves, go balls to the wall and finally get some. Murphy’s Law played a significant role in Dope as it did in the Harold and Kumar flicks. I’m also reminded of certain scenes in both films when gorgeous women are found doing really gross things… Oh Chanel Iman!
I could really go on about the genius of this film because while it felt familiar across generations, the story was fresh, but it’s built to hold up over time. My nephew is 11, and I bet you he’s going to discover this film in high school or have it downloaded into whatever new technology he’ll bring to college and watch it with his friends over and over and love it too.
One final piece to making an American teen movie a certified classic, is the soundtrack. We know the John Hughes movies by the music. We just do. I’m an old head, and I love the blend of late 80’s and 90’s and early 2000 hip hop classics with some of the newer music of today. It was only fitting that Pharrell Williams, a.k.a. Skateboard P, founding N.E.R.D. member (who actually helped a lot of black nerds get some love), led the sonic effort as the music supervisor of the film. Because Mr. “Happy” himself had personal experience as a Malcolm, and a student of hip-hop who forged his own unique sound, Dope’s soundtrack is going to also stand the test of time, pleasing old heads and young bucks alike.
You can tell a lot of thought and heart went into the making of this film, it’s music and the selection of the cast. Newcomer Shamiek Moore (Malcolm) has a bright future ahead. I’d love to see a sequel where he may have to get the band back together… I think there’s fertile ground for it based on how the story ended. GO SEE THIS DAMN MOVIE. I’m probably going to see it again before the weekend’s out.