Published on October 21st, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant0
While we’re admitting we’re not really in a smart position to speak to the state of African American film, Dope seemed to suffer from overhype.
While I stand behind this movie in terms of pushing more original content than what you’ll get on an average weekend at the multiplex, I have to say that director Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope was hit and miss for me. I had heard Richter Scale rumblings about the film; it was an audience favourite at Sundance and it’s been a hit with the critics thus far. Now that I’ve seen it, the buzz leans in the direction of hyperbole for me.
Dope tells the story of a geek named Malcolm, who sticks out like a sore thumb in his Inglewood, Cali inner city high school, with his Kid n’ Play hi-top fade and his 90s hip hop gear. Malcolm wants to attend Harvard, but his guidance counselor is trying to bring his dreams back to Earth. Malcolm meets a girl named Nakia, played by Zoe Kravitz, who is channeling her mother, Lisa Bonet, looking like she just stepped off the set of A Different World, in a bit of inspired casting. Nakia invites Malcolm (and his friends Jib and Diggy) to the birthday party of a drug dealer, where a gunfight leaves Malcolm with a bag of drugs that he has to sell. Knowing nothing about selling drugs, Malcolm and his friends navigate the tough streets of LA, using their brains to wriggle out of some dangerous situations.
I wanted to like the movie more than I did; it starts out very well, setting up a story with a unique point of view and some clever jokes, as the nebbish, anachronistic Malcolm runs afoul of modern gangstas and drug kingpins. With its blend of high school humour and somewhat violent scenes of criminality, it started to feel like a John Hughes movie as directed by John Singleton; Sixteen Candles meets Boys n the Hood? But as the movie goes on, it feels less like Boyz n the Hood and more like the not-so-great-but-considered-classic-in-some-circles Ice Cube movie Friday (to be fair, maybe I need to rewatch Friday. I haven’t seen it since it came out in ‘95, but I remember it not being near as funny as it thought it was).
The problem comes once the plot is firmly in motion. It just feels like the movie doesn’t always know where it wants to go. It starts to meander quite a bit and the plot contrivances and situations become quite over the top in places. It’s not that the movie betrays its own internal logic — it doesn’t. But it felt much more fresh and unique in the beginning, when it was not based in such a hyper-movie-reality. It eventually devolved into some sitcomy situations and jokes. I also hate air band performances in movies, and this one has them in abundance.
That said, there are some truly funny gags and pop culture references, especially an ongoing gag where a white guy argues about the proper context to be able to use the N-word. I don’t want to be some white guy in the Great White North commenting on the state of black cinema, and the two films aren’t in competition, but for my money, a film like the recent Dear White People was a better, smarter, funnier film that lived up to its hype for me.
As a side note, Famuyiwa also directed The Wood, another coming Inglewood coming of age story that I didn’t care for. Perhaps there’s a whole other essay in here somewhere about jokes, situations, and cues that are built in for certain audiences, that someone on the outside just can’t appreciate if they haven’t lived it. Someone must ‘get’ Tyler Perry movies, right? At any rate, I can only base a review on what it means to me, but I think it’s still an important point to raise.
Don’t take me as a full on hater here; Dope is worth watching if you want something better than the usual, stupid Judd Apatow comedy (or any Tyler Perry comedy). But the fact that the hype was so big on it also makes me wonder if we’re too starved for something that feels original in a schedule full of remakes, fart comedies, and YA novels.