As Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope begins, it feels like the start of something quite remarkable. The sun-tinted, vibrant aesthetic of the California suburbs, the pounding, mesmeric sounds of old-school hip-hop and the retro flamboyance of the outfits – all making for an indelible, ineffably cool atmosphere. However for all of the style on show, it’s the substance that is left compromised.
Malcolm, portrayed by Shameik Moore, has an affection towards the early ’90s hip-hop era, and while set in the present day, you wouldn’t be able to tell as he ebulliently circles the area on his bicycle, with a flat top haircut and a colourful shirt a couple sizes too big for him. Though wishing to immerse himself in the romanticised era, not wanting to shadow the more aggressive side to the streets of Inglewood is his main priority, as the self-proclaimed geek, along with his two best friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), have managed to shelter themselves from the more violent side of life, despite living in area where’s it feels impossible to do so. But then when Malcolm unwittingly bumps into the local dope dealer Dom (Rakim Mayers) and proceeds to pass on a message to the local, elusive student Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), this kickstarts an unfortunate set of events that throws this endearingly blissful teenager into the deep, dark criminal underbelly of the LA streets.
While the themes are pertinent and at times, profound, particularly in how Famuyiwa casts his eye over the treatment of black youths in contemporary society, presented with limited opportunities and instilled with less hope and ambition for their futures, Dope carelessly deviates away from the harsh realities of life and the severe implications of the ongoing gang wars (which tend not to feel threatening nor ominous). The talented filmmaker sets this narrative in fantastical universe of sorts, with an effervescent, and almost ethereal ambiance.
Malcolm is an N.W.A enthusiast, so let’s look at Dr. Dre himself; his distinctive, killer beats are matched by his sharp-sighted, percipient lyrics – but this film is all beat. It looks and sounds great – but beneath that lies a melodramatic narrative that becomes a challenge to adhere to. Too much occurs, and though the set up offers so much promise, with a series of distinctively likeable characters placed in this dynamic landscape, it all becomes too convoluted and needlessly farcical as we progress towards the finale. Though Malcolm, Jib and Diggy are a victim of circumstance, with an endearing naivety, there’s an out-of-character inclination to fall deeper into this web, at odds with their personality traits, implemented only to drive the story forward in an all too contrived manner.
Nonetheless, Dope remains an engaging watch, and may just be worth catching as part of a double bill with the recently released N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton. The latter being the film that defined this generation and culture, while the former portrays those now caught up in it, in a nostalgia infused dream, living it out in front of our eyes in an entertaining, if flawed drama.