Dope is a present-day black coming-of-age tale set in Inglewood, CA, but you could also consider it a millennial’s updated version of 1999’s The Wood. The two films have a few things in common: Both were directed by Rick Famuyiwa; both feature De’Aundre Bonds as Stacey, now as a reformed gang-banger and security guard at the high school attended by the film’s protagonist, Malcolm; and both tell the story of the good kid in a mad city. Aside from those connections, Dope is, well, dope in its own right. It contains almost innumerable pop-culture references and intersections, racial implications, conversations about sexual orientation, political jabs, and more. These elements would be dizzying were it not for the delicately struck balance between lightheartedness and seriousness. The film doesn’t leave much unaddressed, but won’t leave you with lumps from being beaten over the head.
Most of the film’s pop-culture references center around hip-hop, and the allusions manifest in so many ways that it seems omnipresent. Malcolm and his friends are self-proclaimed “’90s hip-hop geeks.” So the score utilizes many boom-bap classics: It opens with Naughty By Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray,” features Eric B. & Rakim’s “Juice,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Buggin Out” and “What’s The Scenario,” Nas’ “The World Is Yours,” Digable Planets’ “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” Gil Scott Heron’s (Kanye-sampled) “Home Is Where The Hatred Is,” Public Enemy’s “Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic,” and credits roll to Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance,” to name more than a few.
Malcolm’s knowledge of the “golden age of rap,” his flat-top, Fresh Prince-esque fits, and Jordan retros get him noticed by the neighborhood drug dealer, Dom, played by A$AP Rocky. Rocky does a decent job, and is clearly the best of the “rappers-turnt-actors” including YMCMB’s (RIP) LA rep, Tyga, Long Beach up-and-comer Vince Staples, and Inglewood’s own Casey Veggies. Rocky’s Harlem accent is a bit out of place, but he is natural in an in-depth convo about the good and bad of ’90s hip-hop with Malcolm, and doing what drug dealers do. There are lingering, stalled moments when too many rappers are on screen, but these are minor impediments. Their presence does bring the soundtrack into the present-day with Rocky’s “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2” banging in the background at a party, and Veggies performing his verse from “Circle” off of Fresh Veggies in his credited role as (surprise) “the rapper.” The most notable non-hip-hop musical influence is Malcolm’s fucking awesome punk project, Awreeoh (a take on Oreo), with friends Diggy and Jib. Executive producer and soundtrack contributor Pharrell Williams found the N.E.R.D. left in him for the trio’s tracks “Don’t Get Deleted” and “Can’t Bring Me Down.”
Hip-hop’s domineering influence and the film’s setting interact with the “white shit” that Malcolm loves and aspires to like “punk rock,” “skateboards,” “manga,” “Donald Glover,” and “going to college,” and this leads to some hilarious hybrids — like “Will’s Craft Malt Liquor,” “SevenBucks Coffee,” Malcolm and his friends rocking fits suitable for Urban Outfitters mannequins, a goofy discussion of US and Middle East relations between Tyga and Rocky likening terrorists to Bloods and Crips, and an analysis of the Blood habit of replacing hard Cs with Bs. Different cultures also traverse through social media with viral videos and hashtags galore. And as with any coming-of-age story, there are plenty of awkward moments with girls (mainly Zoë Kravitz), which are easily relatable. The jokes don’t always land, but when considering the broad range of influences and the difficulty in tying them together in a believable way that embodies Malcolm’s sensibilities as a misfit, it’s excellent.
The many blithe moments offset the grave reality of Malcolm’s circumstances and environment. Gunshots and violence are jarring, sobering reminders from an impoverished community where it can sometimes be difficult to live a normal life. Malcolm has high hopes to attend Harvard, and a good chance of being accepted with his 4.0 GPA, perfect SAT scores, and extracurricular activities, but his environment threatens to deter his progress in a pivotal test of nature versus nurture.
I was born in Inglewood, and developed sensibilities similar to Malcolm’s, so I can say authoritatively that much of the film is authentically on point. Dope navigates a complex situation in a way that doesn’t deflect from underlying issues without alienating anyone, and still manages to make a bold statement.
Dope is in theaters nationwide on 6/19; listen to the soundtrack below.