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Monday, July 6, 2015

The Best Movie of the Summer is Dope

Grantland's Mark Harris is an avid spokesperson for "prestige" films (my words, not his)- films focusing on story-telling and characters and art versus big budget epic blockbusters that would rather replace CGI with its script in order to rake in massive amounts of dough. While I do share Harris' love of a good prestige film, I also can't say I share Harris' dislike of big budget actions films as well. I love a good summer movie when it's done well. Most recently we received The Dark Knight, Edge of Tomorrow, and Mad Max: Fury Road thanks to Hollywood's love of capitalizing on the summer season and I don't want to live in a world without those films. The summer of 2015 hasn't given us a shortage of money-making epics leading off with Furious 7, bouncing to Avengers: Age of Ultron, and now leading the pack (and the world) is Jurassic World. But in a season where Hollywood (mainly Universal Studios) is looking at its pile of money like its Scrooge McDuck about to nose dive into a pile of gold coins, the winner of the summer season is a little Indie that could. Well, winner is a relative term. Jurassic World and Chris Pratt are obviously the true winner, but in terms of quality film making, Dope is the best film you'll see this summer.

Dope is a film written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa- a man who's credits before this looks like a grocery list. It premiered at Sundance, and thanks to Open Road films, Dope was released domestically as counter-programming to the big budget action flicks. Considering Open Road bought the film for a little over 3 million and it's already grossed over 14, it was money well spent. And I personally thank Open Road (and Sony) to give me ability to watch a film this good.

Dope follows around high school seniors Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his two best friends Jib (Tony Revolori aka the young Indian boy from The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons)- self-proclaimed Black nerds who love 90's hip-hop and live in the poorest of poor neighbors in Southern California. All three are smart and Malcom has realistic ambitions of attending Harvard and getting out of the ghetto. These three do everything together: they play in a rock band called Awreeo (pronounced "Oreo"), they hit on girls together, they study together, and they get beat up together.

While running away from gang-bangers, Malcolm meets up with Dom (A$AP Rocky) a leader of a local drug crew. Dom invites Malcolm and his friends to his birthday that night at a local club, and thanks to a series of unfortunate events, Malcolm ends up with kilos of drugs that was meant for Dom. The film follows around Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy- three straight-laced kids struggling to unload massive amounts of drugs.

Despite the fact that this plot sounds like something out of a National Lampoon movie, Dope treats this scenario with the utmost respect and shows a realistic depiction (well, as realistic as a Hollywood movie can) of life in The Streets. Dope fully recognizes the the violence that occurs in neighborhoods like the one Malcolm and his friends live in, and doesn't shy away from it. (*) Malcolm gets roughed up at the beginning of the film for his shoes, and Dope even shows a random act of violence at the beginning to set up what a heinous world these characters live in and how surprisingly optimistic they all are.

(*) A story I always like to tell is the reason I fell in love with HBO's The Wire- it ironically came after watching The Blind Side. In The Blind Side, the main character, Michael Oher, supposedly lives in the poor side of town and the film climaxes with Michael dealing with gang violence. The film and the moment is treated with how Hollywood and a studio would treat gang violence and not how it most likely occurs. It's in that moment that I realized how The Wire dealt with gang violence. While it wasn't a documentary, it sure as hell felt like one, and I realized The Wire was really the only medium that treated gang violence as a realistic depiction with potential horrific outcomes versus how other mediums, like The Blind Side, dealt with it. Dope follows more along the lines of The Wire than it does The Blind Side. And while it's true I have never encountered or been a part of a culture that deals with gang violence, I'd like to think I'm smart enough to realize the difference between to know what a Hollywood production thinks of the situation versus how it actually would occur.

It's this duality of violence versus being straight-laced that sets up the themes for the entire film. When Malcolm first meets Dom, Dom asks him why he and his friends always dress so weird (Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy take their fashion stylings from 90's hip-hop artists) and Malcolm responds that he just loves 90's hip-hop and thinks that it was the best era for the genre. He singles out [Public Enemy's] It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and [Jay-Z's] The Blueprint as proof of this era. In a surprising turn of events, Dom, a hard core thug and drug dealer, very eloquently counters Malcolm's argument by pointing out that It Take A Nation came out in 1988 and The Blueprint came out in 2001. Further, the 1990's were also a decade that gave us Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, and The Fresh Prince.

This scene seems like a throw-away scene at the time, but it sets the tone for Malcolm's entire journey. We as the audience feel for Malcolm because very early on we see this sort-of counter culture to what Malcolm lives in versus the gang-ridden life he chooses not to lead. However, the film spends most of the time with Malcolm carrying kilos of drugs and having him try to sell it off over the course of a few weeks. And while we enjoy seeing Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy play together in their rock band and express their moral dilemma over selling the drugs, the fact remains that they have a choice in the matter and they still choose selling drugs over any of the alternatives. We as the audience still choose to see the good in Malcolm just like Malcolm sees the greatness in 90's hip hop, but we as the audience still overlook the fact that our hero's main goal is to sell a copious amount of drugs just like Malcolm overlooks the warts in 90's hip hop like Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer.

The audience is able to overlook any short-comings Malcolm may have because he's doing the best to get out of a bad situation- both in his overall personal life as well as his journey in the film. Malcolm is doing his best to defy expectations, and he even tells a girl he's trying to hook with (played by the great Zoe Kravitz) that she doesn't need to settle for what the world expects of her. Malcolm does his best to defy expectations and Dope does a great job of doing the same thing for its audience. That's another aspect of what made the argument between Dom and Malcolm ultimately so memorable. The only thing we know from Dom is that he's a drug dealer, but he articulates his point against the smarty-pants Malcolm so well just like Dope subverts your expectations about what a poor Black kid selling drugs looks like.

Ultimately though, what really makes Dope an instant classic is the music in the film. Seeing as how Malcolm and his friends are such huge fans of 90's hip hop, we get an excellent soundtrack filled with Digable Planets, Busta Rhymes, Luther Campbell, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B & Rakim and many more. We get to hear the journey of It Takes A Nation to The Blueprint just as we get to see Malcolm's journey. As the Ice Cube character says in the Straight Outta Compton trailer after being asked whether N.W.A's music glamorizes gangs and drugs, "Our art is a reflection of our reality", Dope has become an embodiment of the era of music loves so much. 90's hip hop wasn't just an era of Black power, but it was also one filled with promoting peace and love. The dichotomy of the era fits perfectly with the journey that Malcolm takes in the film.

That being said, probably the best music in Dope doesn't come from any artist you've heard of, but from Malcolm's band Awreeo. "Go Head" is a head-bobber, but the real star of the show is "Can't Bring Me Down". It's played throughout the film and you'll have to restrain yourself from getting up out of your seat to start dancing. It's no surprise Awreeo's songs are so good considering they're written by the hit master (and the master responsible for his own 90's jam- "Rump Shaker" by Wreckx N Effects) Pharrell Williams.

"Can't Bring Me Down" is the perfect embodiment for what Malcolm represents. For as horrible as his life is and his current situation is, you won't be able to bring him down. He'll still look for solutions and see the brighter side of any problem, which happens to include his own life.

This is the same feeling you'll have when watching Dope. The tone may switch wildly from comedy to drama, but it won't be able to bring you down. You'll enjoy the ride that Dope brings you on, and become enthralled within this world. Because even though that are mega-hit blockbusters out there, none of them can compete creatively with the best movie you'll see this summer- Dope.


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