Flattop haircut; high-waisted acid-washed jeans; thick gold chains worn around the collar of a top-buttoned shirt. If all you saw was the wardrobe alone, you’d think you’d stepped into a time machine set to 1995 — until, shortly into the film, a gangster wields a gun in one hand and an iPad in the other. “Dope” delivers exactly that smooth blend of anachronistic hip-hop culture and modern technology, which manages to accomplish the dual function of setting protagonists Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolori), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) apart from their high school peers and connecting with tech-savvy contemporary audiences.
The movie is writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s fifth feature, following his 2010 comedy “Our Family Wedding,” which starred Forest Whitaker and America Ferrera. “Dope” reunites Famuyiwa with Whitaker, who narrates the story of Malcolm and his buddies Jib and Diggy, a loyal trio of friends obsessed with old-school ’90s hip-hop. They live on the fringes of their high-school social circle, beat up and taunted by jocks and gang members, and have a punk/ska band called Oreo. They adopt the garb and slang of the golden era of Wu-Tang and Tupac, and reject various racial stereotypes. Their defiant attitude is infectious: Why should you have to fight to maintain the right to like the things you like?
Stuck in a crime-ridden neighborhood called “The Bottoms” in the city of Inglewood, California, the three are surrounded by gang violence on a daily basis. It’s on one of these occasions that Malcolm runs into Dom (played by rapper ASAP Rocky), a local and influential drug dealer who thrusts a naïve Malcolm into a twisted drug caper when Malcolm discovers his school backpack full of blocks of MDMA (colloquially known and referenced to as “molly”) following the raid of a deal gone wrong at Dom’s nightclub birthday party.
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It falls upon Malcolm to return the drugs to the appropriate faction, a task that tears him away from his pop culture–immersed existence and forces him to confront an alternate future path, one that veers away from what he imagined for himself and takes him on an exploratory journey of self-identity.
“Dope” explores the convergence of two seemingly mutually exclusive identities: one that panders to socioeconomic expectations and another that’s wholly unique to the whims of self-expression. This central point is echoed in the metaphorical contrast between the trio’s ’90s-aesthetic sensibilities and their mastery of modern technological resources such as Bitcoins and use of the dark web. Malcolm is nerdy and earnest, with a vulnerability to his geeky innocence that begs for corruptive influences. He’s studying for his SATs and applying to Harvard; running around with a backpack full of drugs and getting shot at wasn’t part of his plans. The “dope” itself is less of a symbol than it is a driving plot device, a Mason-Dixon line between racial conformity and role-defying future possibility that Malcolm finds himself straddling.
This recurring theme throughout the film gets clumsy and heavy-handed in its final act, with Malcolm breaking the fourth wall in an address that’s already implicit in the moments leading up to it. “Dope” struggles with its own identity crisis: Like Malcolm, the film is stuck between two personas, trying to be a plugged-in zeitgeist comedy while also supplying a running social commentary on what it means to be relegated to the confines of your racial identity.
It succeeds at both at certain times, with amusing pop culture references as well as wincing moments of pivotal character development, but ultimately devolves into an aggressive and hard-edged conclusion that seems forcibly tidy and resolved. “Dope” provokes a discussion about the dichotomy between societal expectations of the race-defined self, as well as the democratic American right to be who you want to be — but it’s an unfocused and tangential one, limited by the trappings of comedy and the flash of the hip-hop aesthetic.
“Dope” opens in limited release on Friday.