dope

“To accept one’s past -one’s history- is not the same thing as drowning in it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.” So read the words of the formidable James Baldwin, American novelist and social critic in his famed book The Fire Next Time. Poignant are they not?

It is a graceful, all-embracing statement which bears repeating. Notice now that I did not refer to Mr. Baldwin as an African-American. This may seem trite, unless one considers our unconscious points of reference in relation to race that permeate our language and our modes of thought. The question we must ask ourselves is this; do the words take on a different meaning for us knowing that the author is indeed black? I believe the answer is an irrefutable “yes”. We will see how they pertain to director Rick Famuyiwa’s Sundance breakout, Dope, very soon.

In it we follow three offbeat high-school seniors living in the drug laden, gang-infested Bottoms district of Inglewood, California. Each of them resents the world in which they have been raised and hopes to escape a life of poverty (economically, artistically, ethically) by attending college after graduation. We’ve seen similar urban prisoners trying to turn the latchkey of social internment in outings such as Boyz ‘n the Hood and Menace II Society. Though the similarities end there. In fact, Dope shares more in common with the bouncy teen comedies of the 1980’s ala John Hughes.

Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are self-proclaimed “geeks” who enjoy what they reluctantly refer to as “white stuff”. This includes ’90s Hip-Hop culture, punk bands, high SAT scores and the online currency Bitcoin. Herein lies the dark undertone of the entire film. They are routinely harassed by classmates and hoodlums alike for identifying with a culture so far-removed from their own.

What follows is a rather predictable plot, touring us through the ghetto as our threesome figures out how to sell $100,000 worth of Ecstasy forced on them by local dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) after his birthday party turns into a backroom shoot-out. All the while employing their wits, ever wary of becoming criminals themselves.

The many-hued, lurid photography of Rachel Morrison is a welcome change to the dirty detail of so many inner-city pictures and Lee Haugen’s nimble cutting helps deliver the somewhat clumsy script from ever feeling too contrived. But this film ultimately belongs to the diverse cast that Mr. Famuyiwa has assembled. The youth of today is tired of being judged by the prejudice of their forebears in this country who are unable to concede that racism is, by and large, no longer the result of inherited bigotry but rather an extension of the overwhelming poverty and economic disparity that plagues America to this day.

What we have here are rebels with a cause and a dire one at that. This is clearly an important movie, though not without its flaws. These can be overlooked, however, as the theme far outweighs the story and the devices used to tell it. White and black are not standards of being-one does not rise or fall to meet the other. We are to be judged by our own merits and failures, not those of our community. That’s Dope. That’s life.