“Dope”: The High-Tech Screwball Noir

Writer and director Rick Famuyiwa opens his film Dope with a clear homage to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Both films begin with a title card sporting definitions of the film’s title. Three definitions unveil:

  1. noun: a drug taken illegally for recreational purposes
  2. noun: a stupid person
  3. slang: excellent. Used as a generalized term of approval

dope

Each definition is relevant as the story careens through drug deals, sick live shows, and a whole bunch of stupid people. This is an awesome story focused around a specific subculture with which I am wholly unfamiliar: inner-city teenage black nerds. As a suburban thirty-something white nerd, it would be wrong for me to proclaim that I understand the plight of the protagonists in this film fully. In light of that, I will instead welcome any amount of insight that I am able to gleam from this fantastic movie, and will analyze it solely on the merits of the plot, theme, and general movie-making prowess. I believe that the themes of Dope are universal, but suspect that they will speak louder to those who can personally relate to the plight of the main characters.

Dope follows the ’90s hip-hop geek Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his two equally nerdy friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). The three live in a bad neighborhood in Inglewood, California called “The Bottoms” and routinely have to dodge bike thieves, drug dealers, and even occasional bullets through the course of their days – not to mention the standard torture of high school bullies. They love pop culture, play in their own hip-hop band, and are generally obsessed with getting laid, getting into college, and all the rest of the all-important goals of high school. Their lives are a collection of routines, and Famuyiwa does a superb job of depicting the work flow of their evasive strategies. Bullies trying to take your shoes again? Distract them and run to the on-site cop manning the metal detector. Gang-bangers filming a YouTube video on your normal route home? Guess you’ll have to brave the drug-dealing bike thieves one street over.

It is on this occasion that Malcolm runs into Dom, a local dealer. While nervously spouting his opinions on ’90s hip-hop, Malcolm impresses Dom to the point that he enlists Malcolm’s help in delivering a message to a girl down the street named Nakia (Zoe Kravitz, and yes, she’s Lenny’s daughter – plus she was Angel in X-Men!). After a bit of a back-and-forth, Malcolm is invited to Dom’s birthday party later that evening, and actually manages to get in! While everyone is partying in the front, Dom is exchanging a large sum of cash for powdered “Molly” (MDMA). A rival bursts in to the room firing in an attempt to make away with the drugs and/or cash, and Dom makes a quick decision to stash the drugs (along with a gun and cell phone) in Malcolm’s backpack without his knowledge before telling him to run for it.

The fallout resembles a screwball film noir – kind of like The Big Lebowski but with less pure absurdity. First, Malcolm gets a call to deliver the drugs to a red el camino after school. Then, as he is walking up to the car, Dom calls him from jail to warn him that whoever called him first is lying to him, and provides him with an address where he should ask for “AJ”. Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy manage to evade the men in the el camino and make it to the address, where they meet Jaleel and his sister Lily, who inform them that their father AJ won’t be home until later. Jaleel takes Jib and Diggy out to get some food, and Lily seduces Malcolm but takes advantage of his excitement by taking some of the Molly and subsequently flying off the handle. Eventually, Malcolm meets AJ and is forced to take over Dom’s responsibility of selling the drugs.

The three friends are scared shitless at this point, and have no idea how they are going to proceed until Malcolm recalls something he was talking to his mom about at the very beginning of the film: bitcoin! By partnering with a white stoner hacker they met at band camp named Will Sherwood, the crew are able to set up an online store on the darknet to sell their Molly for bitcoin, and they run the operation through the unused science and computer labs at their school!

I am a huge advocate for many of the technologies and software that are used in Dope, and I am actually very impressed with how well they are depicted in the film. Bitcoin, TOR browsers, memes, and the concept of “going viral” are all well-used in this film as plot elements, and the story never gets bogged down with over-explanation. It is a hard balance to maintain, and Dope nails it. A good comparison may be the Jon Favreau flick Chef, which took similar advantage of things like Twitter and Vine to craft a smaller, family-focused story. Dope does similarly but instead focuses on the trials of a group of young black nerds trying to better themselves and escape a rough neighborhood. It is an important and intriguing story to tell, and I am glad that Dope told it so well.

Ultimately, Malcolm uses his smarts to navigate through this ordeal, and capitalizes on others’ perception of him to gain the upper hand across multiple interactions. His coming-of-age story offers a unique perspective due to his race, his upbringing and surroundings, and his intellectual and personal pursuits, and despite sharing very little of his background, his story speaks with me. Famuyiwa has put together a wonderful film that should resonate with any audience, but specifically trumpets the plight of a marginalized subculture that rarely gets to tell its stories (especially in the context of Hollywood). Dope champions crucial themes with intelligence, and as Malcolm smiles to the camera in the film’s waning moments, we empathize with his jubilation .

 

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