Austin Jacoby: If you order a Rick Ross or Macklemore CD…
Malcolm: I would not order a Macklemore CD. That wouldn’t happen.
I’m not sure how I feel about Dope, a movie that seems to resist categorization as strongly as its protagonist. Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is an idiosyncratic, black high school senior who exists uneasily in an Inglewood neighborhood where gangs and the drug trade loom threatening between the 90s hip hop geek and traditional (read: “white”) avenues of success, especially his desired admission to Harvard. The movie is about who Malcolm really is, but my question is what the movie really is. Is Dope a quirky, colorful teen comedy about the trials and tribulations of a young man and his fellow outcasts? Is it a sincere portrait of the difficulties in navigating the traps and pitfalls of the black experience? Or is it a bitter satire about a “hero” who applies white collar skills to the black crime world, thus proving that nothing succeeds like compromising your values? Dope might argue that it’s all of those things simultaneously, just as it argues that Malcolm is a complicated, flawed human being with both virtues and vices. But just as Malcolm crosses real lines in his quest to improve his position, so too does the film commit itself tonally in ways that make it difficult for me to follow it later on. This is The Screening Room. Welcome.
Dope starts out well enough, as these things often do. A crackerjack first act introduces Malcolm, his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons as a profane, tomboy lesbian, by far my favorite character and the film’s true heart) and Jib (Tony Revolori, not nearly as successful here as he was in The Grand Budapest Hotel), and the world they live in–schools with metal detectors, high school bullies who aren’t just bullies, they’re Bloods, neighborhoods where the hottest women and the coolest parties both belong to dope traffickers, streets where motherfuckers try to steal their bikes as they ride home after school. It’s a hard knock life, but like its protagonist, the film has unique interests and aspirations. Malcolm is in a hilarious punk band (they rebel by being square, like the old Simpsons joke about “Canadian Graffiti”) and writes his college admissions essay about Ice Cube. Between the film’s willingness to break the fourth wall, its color and energy, the music and pop culture references, and the film’s youthful embrace of technology and new media, Dope feels in the early going like it could potentially be the black Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe.
But then the film’s story proper begins, where a complicated set of circumstances leaves Malcolm literally holding the bag in a drug deal gone wrong, ordered by every true authority in his life (the dealers who could kill him and the community leader who could save him) to step up and deal with an errant load of Molly. It’s not a bad concept, but the execution is lacking, due to the aforementioned tonal shifts (from the gross-out comedy of a naked woman puking and pissing while high all the way to “gosh the social forces arrayed against this nice kid are upsetting and sad”) and, perhaps worse, the increasingly annoying passivity of its protagonist. More than any main character I’ve seen in film in a while, Malcolm’s default verbal mode is the JRPG hero’s “….” By the time he really starts standing up for himself and taking an active role in the plot, it’s pretty late in the game for me to start caring about him again–especially once he goes back to floundering when he tries to apply the lessons of the main plot to his (underwritten) romantic side-story. It’s not a totally fair complaint; the story is, after all, about Malcolm growing up into somebody willing to take charge of his own destiny. But that doesn’t stop his habit of shutting down in unfamiliar situations from being an annoying drag in a film built on putting him in exactly those situations.
I don’t want to be too down on this movie. It’s smart, funny, and perceptive, presenting a nuanced view of the modern black teenager in a lower-class area, from drug dealers discussing Obama’s drone policies to a hilarious bit about whether it’s okay for a white friend to use the n-word affectionately. It says some troubling things about society as a whole and what it takes to get ahead, and it does so with a refreshing willingness to try a variety of filmic and narrative techniques, many of which work. It has a host of memorable characters and a great soundtrack. But although Dope has a lot of good moments, I feel like the movie’s broad effect is undercut by its lack of consistency. Much is made late in the film of the question, “How do you signal authenticity?” It’s an important one for Malcolm, who ultimately learns that he can send different signals to different people (acting tough/”black” to his aggressors, smart/”white” to his allies), but it’s an even more important question for Dope itself. In the end, even though the movie is worth watching, it’s disappointing that a film with deep appeal for a specific point of view tries too hard to be something for everybody.