There’s a secretive, furtive film of superior quality lying in wait within Dope, but I’m not sure that discovering it would be a unilateral good. The current film’s capricious, mercurial demeanor and generally fractious tonal imbalances are as much a selling point as a weakness. The essence of the primary flaw – the film’s deliberately adolescent, unformed habit of rushing from spot to spot whilst only backhandedly debating with the depths of its implication of adulthood – is itself a restive encapsulation of the mindset of its teenage characters. Like those teenagers, it isn’t really invested in the darker caverns of its material, and it often errantly wanders into regions of interest before jogging off into more fleeting segments of comedy that are, if rough, cheerfully so at the least. It benefits from a learning-the-ropes abandon that necessarily implies a better film lies waiting within, desperate to get out and never really finding the limelight. But Rick Famuyiwa’s film is operating on its own wavelength, which happens to be tripping back and forth between every wavelength it can find, and that freefloating, jejune quality is not without its own charms.
Famuyiwa certainly gets points for perspiration and youthful scruffiness, and his unformed talent shows through both in his inspirations and his exuberant desire to rush from moment to moment with convivial atmosphere. Dope plays homage to the early ’90s, as the early ’10s have been wont to do in order to fit in with the US habit of looking 20 years back in time for cultural nostalgia. Fittingly, Dope captures the brash, rough-and-the-edges qualities of ’90s “in the hood” films by the likes of Spike Lee, John Singleton, and the Hughes Brothers. A noble instinct, and it is nice to see the age of early ’90s nostalgia encompassing the early wave of mainstream black-directed cinema aiming to dissect black culture and racial inequality with searing urgency at the time.
Of course, Dope’s take on those films is remixed through the modern lens of hipster-fried teen cinema, mimicking main character Malcolm in his love for the early ’90s in the fact that the film is very obviously not a genuine product of the early ’90s, but simply an enthusiast, a fanboy, from the present with so much zeal you don’t quite notice it isn’t the real deal. Speaking of Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore), he is transitioning from retro-fitted nerd to runaround errand boy for drug dealers, struggling to balance the two modes in a sort of personalization and encapsulation of the double-consciousness idea birthed by WEB DU Bois. Malcolm, along with his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), exhibit exactly this double identity, struggling to survive the densely populated urban concrete of Compton, California, famed stomping ground of old-school, barn-burning, society-takedown hip-hop group N.W.A., whilst also underscoring their own identity as frowned-upon “nerds” and math/ science enthusiasts.
Now, the film doesn’t necessarily develop a thesis on this double consciousness, nor does it delve down the rabbit hole of scorching ‘early 90s hip-hop cinema. Occasionally, this is because it exhibits its own double-consciousness, hop-scotching like a DJ between rough-and-tumble street drama (circa Boyz ‘n the Hood) to hazy tripped-out hood standup routine (circa Friday). Because of this, it never finds its own identity, but this is as much a marker and mimic of Malcolm’s struggle to find a cohesive identity himself; the film, like him, has to slip and slide between styles and tones to mark out its own niche in scrap-heap fashion. Moments like a protracted (comic) bid with sexual temptation for Malcolm don’t necessarily belong next to the “or-else” consequences of the main narrative. Or perhaps comedy really is the film’s backbone, and the real outsider could be the empowered, dramatic sermon that closes the film after all. As with many teenagers, it is hard to see through the schizophrenic shambles of its consciousness, which is precisely the point.
Famuyiwa’s film plays like a greatest hits, debating serious homage to its influences as well as snarky satire of them, which may be his way of exploring how Malcolm and the like (certified hipsters, especially Malcolm with his retro high-top fade) embrace that early culture but are still somewhat distant from it and must necessarily modify it to fully understand its potency. The key of those films were their revolutionary understanding of cinema as well (Do the Right Thing looked not only to the past of film history and the present of society, but to the future in how to modify cinematic style for its own purposes). Comparatively, Dope is sometimes too stranded in the past to emerge as more than a nice, slightly warped cover song. It may be that Famuyiwa’s out is to ensure that he knows Malcolm can’t entirely connect with that early hip-hop culture, which is why Famuyiwa’s best moments sometimes lovingly poke fun at the situation that requires Malcolm to find an identity, any identity, even if it is one that resides in the past and not in the present.
Admittedly, I am not yet sure Famuyiwa has figured out his view of race in modern America (the film veers somewhat dangerously between social critique of American society and broader comedy aimed somewhat at the film’s black drug dealers themselves). He wishes to explore how Malcolm can only become himself by embracing his “nerd” and “street” halves, which become dangerous masquerades for “white” and “black” at points in a film that doesn’t always understand the ways in which “non-nerd” African-Americans are themselves fighting for their survival against a system that affords them precious few options. A late film implication of Harvard business types as the domineering string-pullers of the neighborhood is too little, too late, as Dope stills seems to be figuring itself out by the time it ends.
It is unambiguous that Dope is an ambiguous film then, and its closest center is a wonderful Shameik Moore, who imbues Malcolm with this exact ambiguity, capturing him as a wayward, somewhat lost, but always engaged teen who is smart but never smugly knowing or self-superior. There’s doubt in Malcolm’s heart, exactly the chill that tingled across the spines of the boyz in John Singleton’s seminal modern classic. But Malcolm never becomes cold under the spell of the chill, and Famuyiwa finds real life in him, just like he finds a buoyancy in his slightly cartoonish life-in-a-minute depiction of Compoton as a smorgasbord of competing interests, actions, and reactions that all never really find a central purpose but still burst with vivaciousness and spirit.
He may be playing Compton loosely and without the gravity and duress that the real world crippling of inner-city economies may require, but at least he restores some of the day-to-day energy and off-the-cuff positivity to an area that has so often been played like a sigh and a cemetery for so long in cinema. It isn’t a masterwork of style by any means, but Famuyiwa always tackles the teenage spirit, and the restless pull of life in Compton, with a certain spunk that captures the locale and the teenage mindset as, if not a place of great economic wealth, a microcosm of diversity and life itself.
I can’t quite refer to it as “Compton as a real place”. It’s more equal-parts “Compton as gritty hub” and “Compton’s dream about itself”, exactly the two realities Malcolm sees when he recognizes the brutality of Compton life whilst also exploring its sense of possibility. It is, then, life on the streets that is somewhat idealized, but life that is idealized in a way that explores that idealism as a teenage playground coping mechanism for Malcolm and friends to retain their hope for the future. If the film stumbles, as they do, it always retains the hope and spirit of its characters, and it is, like Malcolm and friends, compulsively watchable, warts and all.