Familiar with the System
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Rick Famuyiwa
Malcolm (Shameik Moore) expresses no opinions, has nothing to say about his life in Inglewood, California. He just lives there. Even in his utter vacuousness, he is immensely attractive to women, including the daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, who looks like a cross between Naomi Campbell and Debbie Reynolds. Malcolm’s straight A’s in school and high SAT scores would entitle him to go to any school in the nation. He chooses Harvard.
Dope is a story about how bad things are for Malcolm. Wait a second, you are probably saying, somewhere in this magical success story, what exactly went wrong? I guess the answer would be nothing. Malcolm is also the lead singer of a band named Oreo. His friends Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) play the guitar and drums, respectively. The band’s music is fantastic.
Despite the fact that before he graduates from high school, he has probably resisted the potent allure of gang life a million times, Malcolm finally succumbs at the age of 17. There is no one below that age ever in Dope. Not one of the characters has a younger sibling. Everyone in the world is in fact around the same age: 18-34.
Dope may not have much of a script, or make sense on any level, but the performances carry the film so far beyond what it should have been. Moore is a phenomenally captivating actor, if a bit limited in his range. He stares at everyone in his world with open, untrusting eyes, like it is his first time seeing them, even when he is holding a gun. What he does possess is a preternatural ability to convey vulnerability and strength at the same time, which is so rare that Marlon Brando made an entire career out of projecting it.
Revolori and Clemens are both exceptional in supporting roles. Malcolm just pretends to be an outsider — his mixed-race and gay friends actually are exceptions in their culture, and it is a shame we never hear more about who they are or what they want. Revolori makes noise about wanting to go to a good college, but he allows Malcolm to pull him into a Bitcoin-drug scheme for what seems like no reason, and explains he is permitted to say the n-word because he is 14 percent African according to Ancestry.com.
Malcolm’s love interest Nakia (Zoe Kravitz) is such a dunce that she requires help from him, a high school student, in her college studies. Her judgment is so bad that she has been leading on a local drug lord (A$AP Rocky). Malcolm saves her from all this: there is nothing that a man from the Ivy League can’t accomplish given time and money, and the 26-year old woman attends his prom.
In the end, Malcolm ends up having to blackmail his way into Harvard. In the real world, the trustees would probably make him an offer to be president of their university. Malcolm also sells a bunch of drugs for around $100,000. The first draft of his college essay is an brilliant, esoteric analysis of Ice Cube’s career; his final draft is a meaningful essay about how it’s hard to be an African-American who loves Game of Thrones and came from nothing. The world taught him to be a victim — he had never even thought of it before.
Dope is not very funny or insightful about the kind of struggles that actual people face. At times it seems like a parody of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, where you felt as if the transcendent director was actually opening up people you never knew existed. Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa has already told his Inglewood-story in 1999’s The Wood, and after that more genuine film’s lack of success, Dope feels like a collection of what people want people to be like rather than what they are.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
“Poppin’ Off” – WatchtheDuck (mp3)
“The World Is Yours” – Nas (mp3)