REVIEW: Dope

21 06 2015

DopeIf writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s movie “Dope” were one of your friends at a party, he would be the friend that thinks himself invincible when letting any mind-altering substance enter his bloodstream.  This is the guy that thinks every jumbled fragment that leaves his mouth is divinely inspired and merits inclusion in some kind of philosophical toe.  He is the guy that makes dangerous decisions, assuming they are perfectly reasonable, and somehow convinces you to go along with them.

“Dope” tries to subvert racial stereotypes by having a drug dealer who knows what the phrase “a slippery slope” means (yet does not recognize it as a fallacy) and a main character, Shameik Moore’s dorky Malcolm, who prefers the artistry of ’90s hip-hop as opposed to the commercialism of present-day rappers.  The film attempts to be a coming-of-age story, a romance, a drama that grapples with race, a comic drug caper like “Pineapple Express,” and ultimately a heist film.

In other words, Famuyiwa attempts a lot and completes a little; what he does complete does not feel entirely convincing.

I can let a film that does mediocre humor slide – and with tired gags involving a floozy, coked-out heiress, “Dope” has quite a bit to spare. Not every con film needs to reach the heights of “American Hustle,” either.  But blowing what could have served as a vital discussion about racial identity at a time when America really needs to talk about thee issues just left a really bitter taste in my mouth.

Dope Shameik Moore

“Dope” tells its audience that there are two Americas: a white one, where all positive values reside, and a black one, where one can find any number of societal ills and pathologies.  In order to succeed and gain admission to Harvard, Malcolm must combine values from both races; it is not enough to merely “act white.”  Malcolm, who made the mistake of bringing his backpack to a local drug lord’s birthday party, gets unwittingly saddled with pounds of narcotics.  He gets to show some ingenuity and entrepreneurial gumption to sell them on the Internet black market, which is a plus for race representations.

But Famuyiwa implies he needs to get in touch some kind of black experience by dealing dope in order to become a fully fleshed-out candidate for admissions.  Malcolm appears only fully actualized when he lays claim to and reaffirms a monolithic whiteness and blackness within himself.  The message seems so scrambled and confused that it does not deserve a full takedown.  “Dope” is far from ignorant but nowhere near fully informed about the issues on which it wants to sermonize.

By the end, Famuyiwa expects us to believe Malcolm is now part Heisenberg but still an entirely honorable, sympathetic protagonist.  It feels as if he wants to invalidate what made “Dope ” a worthwhile movie in the first place: its fun banter, unpredictable situations, and honest depictions of meme culture.  B-2stars

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