‘Dope’

Sun­dance fave about In­gle­wood teens. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary or same-ol’?

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - AD­DI­TIONAL RE­VIEWS

The world of the black nerd in con­tem­po­rary In­gle­wood, as de­picted by screen­writer and di­rec­tor Rick Fa­muyiwa in his new film “Dope,” is one I in­stantly rec­og­nize.

Years ago, I was raised in a Har­lem Crip neigh­bor­hood in Los An­ge­les’ Jef­fer­son Park. My poot­butt friends and I played chess, flew model rock­ets in science fairs, stud­ied mar­tial arts, read science fic­tion and se­ri­ous literature by writ­ers of var­i­ous col­ors. We were straight and gay, we were vir­gins and we lis­tened to “white mu­sic,” as well as black.

Fa­muyiwa’s “Dope” is pretty much how it was back in the day for me. The film even evokes mem­o­ries of the Fel­las, my broth­ers’ smok­ing and drink­ing bud­dies, who were ar­rested regularly at gun­point by the LAPD, but broke the thug stereo­type with com­plex con­ver­sa­tions about racism in H.P. Love­craft, de­bates over the Viet­nam War and the space race as they smoked high-grade weed.

It was more the Crips that I wor­ried about than the po­lice. I didn’t want to get stomped to death at a party like some un­lucky busters I knew. I was a kid who wanted to be left alone to read be­cause I knew the score — if I de­cided to chase girls I might get my­self killed. Lucky for me I avoided the bullet the time I tried, but did get the beat-down — noth­ing hor­ri­ble, just a mild con­cus­sion. I never got the girl; in­stead, I got the de­sire to write about what mat­tered to me, what I saw.

Life was com­pli­cated and nar­ra­tively in­ter­est­ing in my neigh­bor­hood, with home­made peach brandysoaked bar­be­cue and good friends who would never make it out of the ’hood.

When I got to col­lege, I found the best rep­re­sen­ta­tion of nerd cul­ture of color in “Love and Rock­ets,” that ground­break­ing comic book from the Her­nan­dez broth­ers. Though cen­tered on Mex­i­can Amer­i­can char­ac­ters in Ox­nard and Ven­tura, it was and still is in­clu­sive — cut from the same cloth as the black poot­butt ex­pe­ri­ence. Junot Diaz emerged to carry the literary flag for as­cen­dant nerd­ness of color, but in my view, Fa­muyiwa now owns it in Hol­ly­wood.

A film school grad from USC, Fa­muyiwa men­tions the in­flu­ences of “The Break­fast Club” and “Fer­ris Bueller’s Day Off,” and how he could vest in those ex­pe­ri­ences of white subur­bia. With “Dope,” he’s said he hopes white film ex­ec­u­tives will dis­card com­fort­able cat­e­go­riza­tions and ac­cept the pos­si­bil­ity that the film could find a broad au­di­ence, not just a black one. It’s ridicu­lous that he would even have to ar­gue that point — and that to get the film made it took pro­duc­ers largely of color, in­clud­ing For­est Whi­taker, who also pro­duced “Fruitvale Sta­tion”; Nina Yang Bon­giovi; Phar­rell Wil­liams; Michael Y. Chow; and Sean Combs.

On the other hand, it’s a good sign that there are enough black power bro­kers to make this com­ing-of-age story of a dif­fer­ent shade.

Still, why is it that Hol­ly­wood’s movie ex­ec­u­tives seem to be miss­ing the chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics of the United States, while tele­vi­sion and ca­ble are mak­ing buck­ets of money em­brac­ing di­ver­sity? The coun­try is browning and all our sto­ries need to be seen.

Maybe this is why I see “Dope” as an in­stant clas­sic that’s more a comic homage to “Pulp Fic­tion” with hints of “The Ma­trix” than to “Boyz in the Hood” or “Men­ace II So­ci­ety,” as much as I’m a fan of those movies.

What I most ap­pre­ci­ate about “Dope” is how Fa­muyiwa presents and val­ues black in­tel­li­gence. The fo­cus is on Mal­colm (Shameik Moore), a bril­liant se­nior in high school who is not jaun­diced or cyn­i­cal. He’s just world weary from the ex­is­ten­tial con­cerns of not dy­ing in some ridicu­lous fash­ion — like his friend killed in the mid­dle of play­ing a video game while stand­ing in line to or­der a burger.

Mal­colm’s as­pi­ra­tion to at­tend Har­vard is laughed at by those who could and should help him. Even the gang­sters in “Dope” aren’t id­iots, and ap­pre­ci­ate learn­ing for learn­ing’s sake while bru­tally im­ple­ment­ing con­cepts such as the slip- pery slope, as the ra­tio­nal for beat­ing down those who aren’t to­tally com­pli­ant in their obe­di­ence.

When Mal­colm’s love in­ter­est Nakia (Zoe Kravitz) stud­ies for the GED exam, he en­cour­ages her to aim higher than com­mu­nity or state col­lege. Har­vard is worth more than crazy money, or even his life as he tri­umphs over Bloods who nor­mally kick his ass, or dis­cov­er­ing that the black man who can open the door to Har­vard ad­mit­tance is as cor­rupt, crazy and dan­ger- ous as any street gang­ster.

Ed­u­ca­tion is the one thing they can’t take from you even if they won’t pro­duce your movie.

Ter­valon is the au­thor of “Un­der­stand This” and “Mon­ster’s Chef.”

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

AU­THOR JER­VEY TER­VALON in his Al­tadena home. He says the film “Dope” brings back mem­o­ries of his youth in Los An­ge­les’ Jef­fer­son Park neigh­bor­hood.

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