Released June this year, Dope is the antidote to the year’s spate of summer blockbusters. A comedy that centers around Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Ever since, it has generated critical attention chatter, begin nominated for and winning awards.
Malcolm and his friends live in Crenshaw, Los Angeles, in an area known as ‘The Bottoms’. As you may expect form the name, it is not a great place to live, grow up, go to school in. In fact, living – never mind growing up – is almost aspirational. Crime is rampant and life is routinely cut short on a little more than a whim. Malcolm and his friends are set apart from their peers; typical nerds they have interests that include skateboarding, ’80s-90s hip-hop, manga, comic books, playing in a their three piece punk band called Oreo and getting good grades. Their peers term this “white people shit”. Malcolm, a brilliant student, has aspirations of attending Harvard. However those plans may be scuppered when he, Diggy and Jib attend a party held to celebrate a local gang leader’s birthday. The party is busted by the police and, while the trio emerge unscathed, Malcolm discovered that his backpack was used to hide the drugs that the authorities were looking for in the raid. In the events that follow, Mal, Jib and Diggy and must find away to get rid of the drugs, sidestepping all the problems that may get them killed. Life in ‘The Bottoms’ was bad – really bad – but it is (as we all know) going to get much worse.
The film has a charm that rests on the charm of it’s three major characters. Moore manages to make the character Malcolm a geek without resorting to the cliches that are so often seen in the depictions of geeks. He has trouble with girls, but he is not a sexual repressive. He has nerdy interests, but they are not his only interests. It is is more impressive when looked at in tandem with the performances of Clemons and Revolori. Although his friends are like-minded, each have distinct personalities that don’t play to a type. On it’s face, that may not sound impressive. After all, one would hope for as much with any kind of content. That said, the depiction of dorks has a history that is patchy at best, so it is refreshing to see someone get it right.
The film is also notable for its politics, including its gender politics. There are three women of Malcolm’s age who are each drawn differently, one of whom deserves particular attention. The political gains made by LGBTQI+ people in the last decade are of course inseparable from the cultural changes over the same period. The depiction of gay people has begun to help normalize gay people and culture in society. However, these depiction are not without limitations especially in mainstream cinema and media generally. Although it it not difficult to find positive representations of lesbians, the representation of individuals described butch is often two-dimensional. By contrast, Diggy (Clemons) is not only badass, but a badass with that is also as well developed as her male peers.
Having said all that, the film is most impressive in its ability to be politically aware without forgetting to be funny. The film is a comedy of errors that blends both high and low concept film making to great effect taking. It takes burning issues of the day – income inequality, social deprivation, institutional racism, the drug war and the social media tool – as its features without then lecturing the audience on what they should think about them. Nor are said issues trivialised or cheapened in being treated with humour. Crucially you laugh at the characters and the various twist in which they find themselves. As a consequence, when the film does finally confront the matter of social justice directly it feels earned, having simmered as subtext since the opening credits.
It should be pointed out though that Dope is not afraid to descend into occasional silliness, again with great effect. One example of goofiness can be found in the credits. It might be a stretch to say the movie is worthwhile just for that, but it is more that fair that the way it deploys Digital Underground‘s hit ‘The Humpty Dance‘ is excellent as a final touch.
Socially charged without chanting, with laughs aplenty