"Dope" Review

"If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me?
Or see me to be, the innocent Kendrick you seen in the street
With a basketball and some Now-and-Laters to eat,
If I mentioned all of my skeletons, would you jump in the seat?
Would you say my intelligence now is great relief?
And its safe to say our next generation maybe could sleep
With dreams of being a lawyer or doctor, 
Instead of a boy with a chopper, that hold the cul-de-sac hostage?"

That verse from Kendrick Lamar's "mAAd city" shows off the inescapable duality of the black youth--the one that allows us to be viewed through one set of eyes as the "good" or "safe" kind of black through our personalities or manner of speech, while an entirely different pair could see us as merely gangsters or thugs just for our clothing choices, even though more often than not we all have similar backgrounds, and any of us could be forced at any time to do less than savory things in order to survive in our surroundings.

It also shows off the incredible versatility of the characters in the film "Dope".

"Dope" is the story of Malcolm Adecombi, a geek...and a bit of a hipster.  He's awkward, and wears clothes twenty years out of date because he's obsessed with the nineties.   He wears a high-top fade, and spends his free time in music shops buying albums on wax and watching old episodes of "Yo! MTV Raps". He even owns a Super Nintendo, even though a kid his age would've been born two years after the Playstation-era would've started. His friends--an Indian kid named Jib and tomboyish lesbian named Diggy--are the same way, which leaves them ostracized and bullied.  After a chance invite to the party of a drug dealer named Dominique (played by rapper A$AP Rocky), the three find themselves in over their head when a drug raid leaves them escaping the party with a backpack full of MDMA (or "Lily", as its come to be known later in the film)...which they're forced to sell to avoid "accidental" death by the drugs' owner.  The rest of the film consists of the hijinx involved in getting rid of  the backpack full of "Lily", all while Malcolm prepares for a potentially life-changing interview in order to get into Harvard.

What I liked most about "Dope"--aside from its excellent soundtrack--is its refusal to adhere to stereotypes.  Though the film is ostensibly about a trio of geeks, they're all street smart (and actual smart) enough to avoid being caught (or killed) by the cops, or by the seemingly endless amount of gangsters and/or drug dealers found in the film.

And while the film is meant to be a coming of age story, most of the major tropes that would be found in a coming of age film are downplayed to a degree that they're barely noticeable, or turned on their head.  There's a love interest, but she isn't the driving motivation for every single change the main character undergoes in the film.  They don't magically gain the respect of everyone in the school after some "heroic" moment that makes their senior year "legendary"--though they do gain the respect of some Piru gangsters after a night that could very well have gotten them all killed.   Make no mistake though, this is absolutely the story of a boy becoming a man...it just takes some unfamiliar paths and a few detours to get there.

That said, the film isn't without its flaws as its an incredibly "busy" movie.  Characters are barely introduced before they're shuffled off-screen, which becomes amusing when so many "coincidences" cause characters to be re-used in so many different parts of the film.   It's also a bit too light-hearted--the laughs are still coming long after their lives are put in danger multiple times.  The only one with a proper character development arc is Malcolm.  And the film runs a small risk of being a bit too modern--the crux of the film centers around Malcolm having people buy the drugs off him using the highly volatile cryptocurrency Bitcoin, and claims that the currency will eventually take over the global economy.   The claim's a bit farfetched, and to be honest I kept waiting for the film to take a hard right on the guy and tell him that the bottom fell out on Bitcoin and all the "currency" he'd gotten from selling drugs was suddenly worthless.

And since the movie's tone was basically all over the place, even after he'd figured his way out of the predicament I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and see one of them get killed or something.  Fortunately that never quite happened, and the film gets a (mostly) happy ending.

But despite all that, Dope still stands a chance of being my favorite movie of the year.  Definitely my favorite so far.  The soundtrack mixes classic 90's hip-hop, old soul tracks and even some catchy punk rock tunes in a way that always seems to fit perfectly.   And the film is extremely topical.  From multiple discussions over white people's increasing familiarity with the n-word, to the duality I was talking about at the beginning.  By the end of the film, Malcolm has been forced to make a number of questionable decisions.  He's got known ties to drug dealers and other people of shady professions, he's still the teenager with the straight A's, trying to make it into a prestigious college and bring his mother out the 'hood. So which is the real Malcolm?

It's this question, being posed at a time where blackness itself seems to be coming under fire in America (figuratively and literally), that makes this film for me.  Dope's closing speech questions the idea of "good" or "bad" blackness--dragging the absurdity of the notion itself into question.  And there's a very purposeful choice made during the speech that resonates with some of the more unfortunate treatment of black youth lately that tied the whole thing together for me.

"Dope" is what one might call a flawed masterpiece.  It's by no means perfect, but it deserves at least one, if not multiple, watches.


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