For all of our society’s shortcomings, we’re in the midst of a golden age of African-American filmmaking right now. There’s a raft of reasons behind this, but it’s no coincidence that Selma and Dear White People and 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station have all been made while a black man is in the White House. The latest shining addition to these distinguished ranks is the exhilarating, terrifying, and terribly funny independent comedy Dope.
Our hero is Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a teen growing up in a neighborhood of Inglewood, Ca., known as “The Bottoms.” Like many others he knows, Malcolm is African-American, poor, and being raised by a single mom (Kimberly Elise). Unlike anyone he knows, he gets good grades, wants to go to Harvard, watches Game of Thrones, and adores 1990s hip-hop, going so far as to style himself after the decade with brightly colored shirts and a high-top fade. A self-described geek, he plays in a punk-rock band with other misfits at his school, racially ambiguous Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) and butch lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). In The Bottoms, a geek has bigger things to worry about than schoolyard bullying — one sequence shows an anonymous game-playing nerd being shot during a store holdup. As his blood-stained Game Boy falls to the floor, the film’s voiceover narrator (Forest Whitaker) tartly observes, “The real tragedy is, he was seconds away from defeating Ganon.”
As for Malcolm, he goes to a birthday party for a drug dealer named Dom (A$AP Rocky) because he wants to talk to the neighborhood’s hot girl (Zoë Kravitz). When law enforcement raids the place and shooting breaks out, Malcolm flees the premises, only to find a gun and at least 20 kilos of molly stuffed in his backpack. (You see, he’s so geeky that he takes his backpack to a party.) This kicks off a frantic plot as Malcolm tries to figure out how to offload his property without being arrested or killed, eventually settling on a brilliant scheme to convert the drugs into bitcoin.
The film includes numerous references to early 1990s gangsta movies like Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society, but in spirit it’s closer to Risky Business and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1980s comedies about white teenage boys who go through a crazy adventure in a compressed time frame. However, the stakes are considerably higher for Malcolm than they are for Ferris or Joel Goodman, who have comfortable homes and a safety net. The poor gamer’s fate aside, Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy frequently find themselves running for their own lives as they try to extricate themselves from their predicament. You feel the panic that sets in when a cop car makes a quick U-turn and pulls in behind them, or when an anonymous caller (Tyga) explodes during a coded discussion of the contents of the backpack, or when a Latino fence (Kap-G) challenges Malcolm to prove himself “real” by punching him in the face. Even Malcolm’s college interview turns scary when his Harvard recruiter (Roger Guenveur Smith) turns out to be knee-deep in the drug trade.
Despite this movie’s headlong forward rush, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa manages to include all manner of funny riffs, including a violent confrontation between Dom and a nightclub bouncer (Allen Maldonado) that veers into a discussion of the term “slippery slope,” a sexual encounter between Malcolm and a massively coked-out hot chick (Chanel Iman) that goes disgustingly wrong, and our heroes mulling the irony of possessing a white people’s drug. (Diggy suggests that they take the backpack to Coachella.) As their white stoner friend, Blake Anderson steals more than one scene as a compelling buffoon who debates the ethics of using the n-word with his buddies. Famuyiwa hasn’t been heard from much since he made Brown Sugar in 2002, but this native of The Bottoms has rendered his old neighborhood in vivid colors without glossing over the blight. Lacing his story’s humor and horror together, he strengthens both and gives this comedy a thrilling sense of danger.
The movie ends with Malcolm sitting down to write his Harvard application essay, and he uses it to ponder all the ways he fits and doesn’t fit the stereotypes of young African-American men. Usually when a hero asks to be seen as a complicated individual and not a stereotype, it comes off like a plea. This time, it comes across like a defiant proclamation of self with an anthem’s power. Watching this rousing conclusion, you can’t help but think, Harvard won’t know what hit them.
Starring Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, and Kiersey Clemons. Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa. Rated R.[/box_info]