Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar), Dope is a coming of age story with an awkward, nerdy kid from the hood at its center. Malcolm Adekambi knows what’s being said about it him by society. Even with his 90’s high top and wardrobe fresh off Yo! MTV Raps, he still fits a stereotype. He’s a poor kid, raised by a single mother, who is just trying to make it out of the hood alive.
We’ve seen this story before, literally every other story about the hood, is about a young Black—more times than not a male—trying to beat the odds and make something of himself. What Dope does different is that it lets the story of this awkward teen and his equally awkward two best friends be complex. The major story line, three geeks having to sell dope that was forced upon them in a completely unreal chain of events, is far-fetched but entertaining. So entertaining that you almost forget there’s a constantly running underlying theme of Malcolm’s self-discovery.
First things first, Shameik Moore.
That beautiful child of Jamaican descent was perfect to lead the cast of the film. Malcolm Adekambi is a relatable character. You sympathize with his plight and you want him to achieve his goals. Throughout the movie there’s this constant awkwardness and discomfort that Moore brings to the character of Malcolm that you can’t shake but you don’t necessarily need to.
Between all the laughs and Black folk cameos (Rick Fox, Chanel Iman, Diddy’s eldest son. etc.) there are small moments that remind you Malcolm is here for a greater purpose. What separates this movie from many of the cult classics of the decades before is the humanization of the characters.
One of the most memorable and powerful moments of the movie involves Malcolm finally standing up for himself against a bully. This incident happens right after the trio has finally cleared the last hurdle in the journey to get the kingpin all his dough (*cue ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’*) and are on their way to seal the deal and be rid of this drama forever. As the kids are attacked and it appears the bully (who I named ‘Twan in my head) and his crew are going to take all the cash they’ve worked so hard for, Malcolm shocks every one by pulling out his gun and aiming it ‘Twan. As he holds the gun, his hand is visibly shaking and he asks—borderline pleads—‘Twan to return the money. In this moment ‘Twan, who throughout the movie we’ve only seen terrorizing Malcolm and his clique and being a general pain, meets Malcolm’s eyes and the only word to describe the expression on his face is heartbreak.
Malcolm, for all his good grades and goofiness and almost complete aloofness, is in a position to take some one else’s life. Someone who newscasters will write off as ‘a longtime gang member,’ who police officials will disregard as a ‘thug involved in drugs’ and who locals will solemnly mumble about as ‘another life lost to the street.’ This one black male who could become so insignificant and forgotten so quickly is on the other side of a gun while the one holding it’s life is positioned to be equally ruined once the trigger is pulled.
After the altercation is over Malcolm’s friends, Diggy and Gippy take the gun, console him and tell him ‘its all over now.’ The drama is over, they’ve cleared their debt and they can go on about their lives. What’s great about this movie is there are so many small and intricate moments that shed light on the bond between Malcolm and his friends or the struggle he faces being an outcast in his surroundings that you can’t help but enjoy the ride. Not only do you have a funny, relevant movie focused on the lives of a bunch of Black and brown characters, something you rarely see on the large screen, but you also have the humanizing of people who are generally seen as less than in our society.
Another great aspect of the film is the writing of many of the major characters. Rakim Myers’, better known as A$AP Rocky, Dom is the local dope dealer. Even though moving drugs is his game, it’s made evident early on that he knows topics other than drugs and crime. When Malcolm explains why he loves the 90’s and its music so much by noting the magic of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint Dom corrects him by pointing out that record came out in 2001.
At his birthday party as he’s about to receive a new shipment of Molly, Dom and his connect (played by Tyga) begin having a discussion about the ethics of using drones in foreign countries. Dom points out the problematic nature of invading other countries via drone strikes and notes that at any given time the government can decide to strike the hood because they believed poor folks of color to be ‘terrorists.’
The film is by no means perfect. It could have greatly improved upon its portrayal of women in the film. The ‘Lily’ character serving only to provide laughs and ultimately as a catalyst to a larger plot point was a bit cringe-worthy. Her massive public meltdown is never addressed by her father, the kingpin who forces Malcolm to move the dope, who is more concerned with Malcolm having his coin than the fact that his daughter is a drug addict. She almost completely disappears after the incident and is only mentioned when people reference the drug named after her.
Also, lets not get into Diggy constantly being referred to as a man simply because she did not dress stereotypically ‘feminine.’ Lastly, the relationship between Malcolm and his mother and estranged father could have been hashed out a bit more as opposed to the audience being subject to sit through an extremely problematic argument about a white character wanting to say ‘nigga.’
These issues aside Dope is an instant classic. There’s so many quotable lines and hilarious scenes I can easily see people watching it for years to come and for that I have to say tip of the hat to you writer Rick Famuyiwa, take my money multiple times.