A teen com­edy, but with a twist

‘Dope,’ set in In­gle­wood, tells a story about black cul­ture that doesn’t fall into the usual cat­e­gories.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Lor­raine Ali

Drug deal­ers or dorks? Hiphop or punk rock? Har­vard or the ’hood?

There’s no need to chose sides in “Dope,” a com­edy drama that takes plea­sure in re­defin­ing what it means to be young, black and grow­ing up in a tough part of town.

Set in present-day In­gle­wood, nerdy high school se­nior Mal­colm (Shameik Moore) and his equally non­pop­u­lar friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Cle­mons) aren’t like most of their class­mates. They openly dis­cuss their Ivy League as­pi­ra­tions, play in a pop-punk band and have a fix­a­tion with 1990s pop cul­ture that man­i­fests it­self in un­fash­ion­able flat­tops and baggy TLC-wear.

But when they accidentally cross paths with neigh­bor­hood drug dealer Dom (rap­per A$AP Rocky), the naive trio is forced to rely on their geek smarts to nav­i­gate a world of crime, gangs, pro­fil­ing cops and cor­rup­tion. In the process they

come to find who they truly are, or at least what they want out of life, and it’s of course far more com­plex than a Tu­pac song.

Part “Fer­ris Bueller’s Day Off,” part “Boyz n the Hood,” the film doesn’t fit neatly into any par­tic­u­lar mar­ket­ing niche— and that was al­ways direc­tor and writer Rick Fa­muyiwa’s in­ten­tion.

“It’s not a’ hood film or ro­man­tic com­edy or Tyler Perry,” says Fa­muyiwa, 41, the son of Nige­rian im­mi­grants who grew up in In­gle­wood. “It’s like there’s only two or three things black films can be, and it’s none of those.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, Hol­ly­wood didn’t get it.

Af­ter un­suc­cess­fully shop­ping his screen­play around stu­dios, Fa­muyiwa ended up mak­ing “Dope” in­de­pen­dently with the help of pro­duc­ers For­est Whi­taker and Nina Bon­giovi (they’d just fin­ished pro­duc­ing “Fruit­vale Sta­tion”). They helped wran­gle more in­ter­est, bring­ing in back­ers fromthe mu­sic world, in­clud­ing Phar­rell Wil­liams as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and Sean Combs (a.k.a. Puffy) as co-ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, among oth­ers.

Once “Dope” pre­miered to en­thu­si­as­tic au­di­ences at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val in Jan­uary, it was bought for a re­ported $7 mil­lion by Open Road Films and Sony Pic­tures World­wide. It ar­rives in the­aters Fri­day.

It joins a small wave of films, TV and books that are play­ing with and testing tired no­tions of race, es­pe­cially black­ness— “Dear White Peo­ple,” “Black­ish,” “The Sell­out,” to name a few.

The film co-stars Zoe Kravitz as the gang-tat­tooed love in­ter­est and Rick Fox as a sus­pi­ciously smooth banker. L.A. rap­pers such as Casey Veggies pop­u­late the film’s large cast. Whi­taker nar­rates “Dope,” and Wil­liams com­posed four songs for Mal­colm’s band.

“The ’90s were a great decade for mu­sic, not just hip-hop,” says Wil­liams. “The era is de­fined by many unique voices, itwas the per­fect sound­track to rep­re­sent the spirit of the movie. In cre­at­ing the songs for Awreeoh [Mal­colm’s band], I was in­spired by the angst of th­ese char­ac­ters, how they see the­world, their dreams and as­pi­ra­tions.”

“Dope” is a funny and un­pre­dictable ride through Mal­colm’s rough neigh­bor­hood, know­nas the Bot­toms. His jour­ney is fu­eled by teen lust, mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion and sce­nar­ios so ab­surd they could only hap­pen in his cor­ner of L.A. “Ev­ery­thing that hap­pens in the [film] world seems to hap­pen to white sub­ur­ban peo­ple— alien in­va­sions, house haunt­ings, what­ever,” Fa­muyiwa says with a laugh. “When peo­ple see that L.A., they’re only see­ing the L.A. of Judd Apa­tow.”

The film is also meant to up­end pre­con­cep­tions about com­ing-of-age films and race— but done with a light touch.

“You might go into ‘Dope’ feel­ing you al­ready know what this movie is be­cause, all right, there’s kids, they’re from In­gle­wood, oh, it’s drugs,” says Fa­muyiwa on the phone from At­lanta, where he’s shoot­ing his very dif­fer­ent next project, the story of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas for HBO.

“But ac­tu­ally the kid who’s the drug dealer is the white kid from Brent­wood, and the black kids fromthe ’hood go to him to get help be­cause he’s the ex­pert on [sell­ing] drugs,” he says. “I wanted to take ev­ery­thing and sub­vert your ex­pec­ta­tions.”

Un­ortho­dox paths

The goal of sub­ver­sion in­ter­ested Whi­taker and Wil­liams from the start. Like Fa­muyiwa, both self-iden­tify as mis­fits, and both cut their own un­ortho­dox paths in their re­spec­tive fields.

Be­fore Wil­liams be­came in­volved in “Dope” or launched his now ubiq­ui­tous song “Happy,” he was part of an eclec­tic mu­sic out­fit called N.E.R.D. Need­less to say he also re­lated to Mal­colm and his gang.

“We weren’t the tough­est guys in the world in high school, but we also weren’t afraid,” said Wil­liams in a state­ment about the film. “And we felt like be­ing in­tel­li­gent was not nec­es­sar­ily a neg­a­tive thing. Rick bril­liantly sews that to­gether in DOPE.”

Fa­muyiwa’s ear­lier projects in­clude “The Wood,” an­other com­ing-of-age story set in In­gle­wood that he made straight out of USC film school. He also wrote the screen­plays for sev­eral come­dies and dra­mas geared to African Amer­i­can au­di­ences, such as “Brown Sugar” and “Our Fam­ily Wed­ding.”

But af­ter a cou­ple of decades deal­ing with risk-averse stu­dios and film ex­ecs, even­tu­ally Fa­muyiwa was ready to break loose from cin­e­matic con­ven­tions.

“I was for­tu­nate to write pretty much a year out of film school and start mak­ing movies in the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio sys­tem,” says Fa­muyiwa, still based in L.A. “But with each pro­gres­sive film it be­came more frus­trat­ing not be­ing able to speak and say things I wanted to say. I wanted to re­dis­cover some­thing ar­tis­ti­cally that I felt I was los­ing and say things I never re­ally had a chance to say.”

Fa­muyiwa de­scribes “Dope” as “Risky Busi­ness” for the so­cial-me­dia gen­er­a­tion. Bit­coin, YouTube, iPhone apps, tex­ting, stream­ing and the dark Web are ma­jor play­ers here. Tech­nol­ogy is a large part of what sets th­ese kids apart fromthe In­gle­wood Fa­muyiwa grewup in.

“Ev­ery­one would as­sume th­ese kids from In­gle­wood would form a hip-hop group, but I thought Mal­colm would be into so many dif­fer­ent [gen­res] that they would form a band that played ev­ery­thing,” he says. “Be­cause of tech­nol­ogy, there’s no longer the so­cial sham­ing that goes on if you’re a black kid walk­ing into a record store to buy Nir­vana.”

“Dope’s” teens, how­ever, are still teens— ob­nox­ious, an­noy­ing, fast-food ob­sessed and oc­ca­sion­ally stupid.

To keep the char­ac­ters fal­li­ble, Fa­muyiwa had to fight his own in­stincts. That’s be­cause he was writ­ing “Dope” around the time Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by Ge­orge Zim­mer­man. The way Martin’s char­ac­ter was picked apart by the me­dia and in the court­room af­fected how Fa­muyiwa would por­tray Mal­colm and his friends

“There’s pres­sure as a film­maker to com­bat that [nar­ra­tive] and try and show how great th­ese teens are by pol­ish­ing off all the hard edges,” says Fa­muyiwa, who has a young son. “But I wanted th­ese kids to be as raw and emo­tional and young and mis­take­prone as all kids are, be­cause at the end of the day they are just kids. They have value and po­ten­tial.

“Some­times that po­ten­tial gets nur­tured if you live in a place like Brent­wood and dis­cour­aged and un­seen if you live in In­gle­wood,” he says. “But at the end of the day, the lot­tery of birth shouldn’t de­ter­mine your value to the­world.”

‘You might go into “Dope” feel­ing you al­ready know what this movie is be­cause ... there’s kids, they’re from In­gle­wood, oh, it’s drugs. ... I wanted to ... sub­vert your ex­pec­ta­tions.’ —RICK FA­MUYIWA, ‘Dope’ writer-direc­tor

RachelMor­ri­son Open Road Films

SHAMEIK MOORE stars as Mal­colm in “Dope.”

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

“DOPE” prin­ci­pals in­clude Chanel Iman, Kiersey Cle­mons, Tony Revolori, writer-direc­tor Rick Fa­muyiwa (rear), Shameik Moore, Blake An­der­son, Quincy Brown.

David M. Moir Open Road Films

WRITER-DIREC­TOR Rick Fa­muyiwa with Amin Joseph, who ap­pears as the Voice, on lo­ca­tion dur­ing film­ing of “Dope,” which takes a dif­fer­ent slant from usual by fo­cus­ing on nerds in the ’hood.

RachelMor­ri­son Open Road Films

SHAMEIK MOORE as Mal­colm in a scene with Zoe Kravitz as the gang-tat­tooed love in­ter­est in the un­pre­dictable “Dope,” ex­ec­u­tive-pro­duced by Phar­rell­Williams, Sean Combs and oth­ers.

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