1. Dope is a movie about ’90s hip-hop and black culture, but it feels like a throwback in other ways, too. That decade, somewhat amazingly, was the last time movies like this existed on a semi-regular basis: ambitious, original, almost-raw movies by black people about black life, aimed at a national audience. Malcolm X, Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society, Friday, Juice, Love Jones, and on and on and on ... we didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a golden age for black cinema. In my conversation with Spike Lee in 2012, I posited that black cinema had gotten progressively worse since Lee’s ’90s heyday—to make Do the Right Thing, Mo Better Blues, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X in the span of four years is a staggering achievement—and he agreed: “There was more variety of subject matter back then. I think it showed more depth to the African-American experience. Hollywood can make a certain type of film when it comes to black folks. Like, Think Like a Man. That film made a ton of money, so I know that they are probably writing the sequel at this moment.” Dope isn’t a great film, but it is a vivid, compelling, alive one that makes you feel like it’s 1992 again. In a just world, it’ll be a massive hit and we’ll get more films like it. We need them a lot more than we need another Think Like a Man.
2. Dope follows three present-day kids obsessed with ‘90s hip-hop and culture in general, living in rough area in Inglewood, Calif. Life’s difficult enough there, but particularly so for this threesome of computer dorks who play in a punk band and are into “white people shit.” (This list of “white people shit,” actually printed onscreen, includes “college,” “TV on the Radio,” and “Donald Glover.”) Mostly, though, they’re just awkward, confused teenagers who spend too much time on their phones, desperately want to get laid, and keep being disappointed by adults who claim to have their best interests in mind but don’t understand shit. We meet Malcolm (a fantastic Shameik Moore) and his two best friends, a lesbian (Kiersey Clemens) whose church family is constantly trying to “cure her” and a Guatemalan kid (“I’m 14-percent African!”) who may be the nerdiest of the three, but also the most well-adjusted. (He’s played by Tony Revolori, the kid from The Grand Budapest Hotel.) But this is mostly Malcolm’s story. He’s the one with the Yo! MTV Raps VHS tapes, the straight As, the high top fade, and the unwitting tendency to get him (and his friends) into all sorts of trouble.
3. The movie is full of plot, probably too much: Malcolm ends up getting involved with a drug dealer and his pseudo-girlfriend, a drugged-out sexpot who just causes him more headaches, and a Harvard interview with a local executive (Roger Guenveur Smith, a vet of many of the ’90s movies this adores so much, including Do the Right Thing) who ends up having some unconventional chances to show his Harvard acumen. The movie rambles a lot and tries to cram in way too much, constantly darting from one storyline to another, and it tends to feel a little overstuffed. It’s at its best when it’s just hanging out with Malcolm and his friends, who are nerds like nerds have been nerds everywhere since the beginning of time: smart, obsessive, ambitious, and more than anything, completely out of place. One of Dope’s slyest jokes is that Malcolm and his friends are able to bring all sorts of illegal contraband into their high school because the security guard, watching the metal detector beep like crazy and the drug-sniffing dog bark like a maniac whenever Malcolm walks through, just assumes the machine and the dog are broken. These kids are out of step with their peers in every way, and they just want to get out.
4. The movie is written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, who has quietly been making smart, charming movies for years (The Wood, Our Family Wedding), but I suspect is finally going to break through with this one. (He’s also directing the upcoming Anita Hill HBO film Confirmation, with Kerry Washington, Cobie Smulders and, amusingly, Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden.) The movie has a propulsive energy that blasts you through the sometimes awkward transitions and shifts in tone, and it’s full of an undeniable, infectious affection for its characters and its ability to see every scene from everyone’s perspective. (There’s a lovely, unstated moment involving a holdup on a bus in which a minor character does something so calm, collected, and heroic that it’ll break your heart.) The movie is funny and crowd-pleasing—at the very least, you’ll be bouncing along to the soundtrack, consisting almost exclusively of the ’90s hip-hop tunes favored by our characters—while rarely going for the easy, cheap joke. This movie has genuine empathy for everyone in it, which is rare.
5. But when I think about the movie, I keep coming back to Shameik Moore as Malcolm. Moore is a neophyte actor—though he’s also in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Netflix series, this is only his second film—but he carries every scene he’s in and nails everything Famuyiwa throws at him. Malcolm is required to be geeky, emotional, scared, angry, the foil, the hero, the punch line, the straight man, and even sometimes a rock star, and Moore is effortlessly all of them: It’s the type of performance that brings a huge smile to your face and keeps it there. I suspect he’s going to be a massive star. The movie turns dark at times, and at certain points maybe bites off a little bit more Serious than it can necessarily chew, but you’ll never stop smiling. And it ends, as it inevitably had to, with a closing dance sequence that’ll send you out of the theater spinning, particularly if you came of age in the ’90s like Famuyiwa (and me). Dope isn’t perfect, but I’d watch it again in a second. I’d watch a lot more films like it. I hope I get the chance.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
The Concourse is Deadspin’s home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us on Twitter, too.