Editor’s note: Sundance Curiosities is a feature designed to
preview films at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. Entries are
written by members of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism.
In 1996, Rick Famuyiwa was invited to the Sundance Film Festival for the 12-minute short film “Blacktop Lingo.” This year he returns to the festival with a much bigger project, but one that suggests he hasn’t strayed far from his roots.
Famuyiwa’s short, made when he was a student at University of Southern California, involved street ball and its place as a social venue for African American men of all backgrounds can congregate and socialize. Told in vignettes, the film looks into the lives of the players, as they discuss their routine struggles in between various games. The film was inspired by Famuyiwa’s own experience of playing ball at Rogers Park when he was growing up in Inglewood, California.
With an intimate eye, he presents a different aspect of black life than anything found in mainstream cinema, injecting each scene with conversations that transcend racial backgrounds. It’s a refreshing juxtaposition to the stereotypes that were often portrayed in Hollywood at the time, and Famuyiwa quickly landed an agent. Sadly, during the filmmaker’s time pitching ideas around Hollywood, no one wanted to support the idea he was proposing: a story focused on middle-class African American life.
Then Famuyiwa submitted the screenplay to Sundance’s screenwriting lab. That was the first turning point in his completion of “The Wood,” a story about a groom and his friends based in a middle-class African American neighborhood. The locations in the film were real places from Famuyiwa’s life. “It’s a universal script, not something that alienates the audience where you say, ‘That takes place in that part of town, not my part of town,'” Famuyiwa told the L.A. Times.
“The Wood” was eventually picked up by MTV Films and found moderate success in limited release. In the ensuing years, Famuyiwa directed only two more films — “Brown Sugar” in 2002 and “Our Family Wedding” in 2010 — and co-wrote the screenplay for the critically acclaimed “Talk To Me” in 2007.
Now, almost 20 years after completing his short film, Famuyiwa returns to Sundance with his new feature “Dope,” which looks to be his most personal work to date. At the same time, the film suggests a thematic departure for the director, whose last three films included a major emphasis on marriage. This time around, he’s working within the confines of a coming-of-age formula, with ingredients that may appeal to a broader audience than his previous work.
The protagonist, Malcolm (Shameik Moore), is a geek growing up in one of the worst neighborhoods in Inglewood. Intelligent and brimming with potential, Malcolm dreams of attending Harvard. But when Malcolm and his friends wind up caught in the middle of a bad drug deal, they must use their wits to escape their conditions. Though the film is said to adopt on a comedic tone, it also promises an accurate depiction of growing up in a lower class black neighborhood, and the prospects of surviving such challenging conditions through communal bonds.
To make this film, Famuyiwa collaborated with Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi’s company Whitaker Significant Productions, which also produced the Sundance-winning 2013 feature “Fruitvale Station.” Whether or not “Dope” receives similar acclaim is yet to be seen, but for now, there are plenty of reasons to anticipate its arrival in Park City.