I grew up in the nineties and as a middle-class white kid growing up in the suburbs of Surrey, of course, my music of choice back then was hip-hop. Many a summer was spent listening to Snoop’s Doggystyle, Wu-Tang’s double disc spectacular Wu-Tang Forever. I remember one summer working on a project about how wonderful water was to the sounds of The Fugees’ The Score. What a time to be alive and closed up in doors.
I bore you with this trip down memory lane to partly explain my excitement when I heard about the premise of Dope. Shameik Moore plays Malcolm, a highly intelligent teenager living in the modern day but is obsessed with late 80s/early 90s hip-hop culture. From the flat top to digging the crates in music in his pure white Nike Air Max’s he thinks music stopped be going post Jay-Z’s The Blueprint (he’s made aware of the fact that it came out in 2001). Along with his two best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Tony Revolori) they skateboard and play in thrash punk band. So people like myself who transitioned from Hip-Hop into punk I love themselves a bit of Trash Talk will be in seventh heaven as Forest Whitaker’s silky tones narrates all this info to us in the first ten minutes.
It’s the opening act of Dope which is a delight. Writer/Director Rick Famuyiwa keeps things snappy and sharp letting the narrator tell the story and the events taking place largely in montage. Malcolm makes for a very attractive hero, he’s too smart for the cool kids but too stylish for the nerds he and his friends sit in a no-man’s land of social acceptance. Even his teachers mistake his intelligence for obnoxiousness. As a bubbly, coming-of-age drama set to an impeccably nostalgic soundtrack it was shaping up to be one of my favourites of the year.
Things take a turn to the darkside with the introduction of A$AP Rocky’s Dom, a locally famous rapper and small time drug pusher. Like the characters quickly growing up on screen the film itself seems to suddenly become a more grown-up-affair as a crime element lunges into the story which sees likeable Malcolm suddenly involved with selling drugs.
Again if you grew up watching 90s crime films, the majority of them set to hip-hop soundtracks involving drugs, they followed similar templates; young kid out of his depth, older thugs out to get them, a big boss in a big mansion and a seductress who will tear the heroes world apart. Act two becomes a 90s drug film and throws in Spike Lee favourite Roger Guenveur Smith (Do the Right Thing‘s Smiley) for that real retro feel.
I appreciate this has been a reverence-tastic review which isn’t meant to do Dope a disservice. Famuyiwa is a director who wears his influences on his sleeve and it’s is a love letter to the films and culture he clearly loves. In another form the toneal change-up would be an impressive piece of storytelling. The problem here is that the opening world of Dope is so appealing, populated with lovable characters that the downward spiral of seediness is just as unwelcome as it were happening to you in real life.
The final denouement which then goes beyond crime movie cliche into social/political statement feels horrendously misjudged and spiteful. In the end it feels like there were ideas for three films and maybe they should have been made into a trilogy rather than shoehorned all together.
Filled with fine performances all round, a wonderfully fun first act, a middling middle section and a downright bewildering climax Dope was both highlight and disappointment of the year.
3 / 5
Dir: Rick Famuyiwa
Scr: Rick Famuyiwa
Starring: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, A$AP Rocky, Forest Whitaker
Prd: Nina Yang Bongiovi, Forest Whitaker
DOP: Rachel Morrison
Music: Germaine Franco
Run time: 103 mins
Dope is available on Digital HD and DVD December 28th 2015.