In this (maybe) ongoing feature I’ll talk about a movie that’s currently on Netflix streaming.
At various times in my movie-loving life (read: my life), I have had what I will refer to as a Default Movie. A Default Movie is one that I enjoy so much that I will watch it by default when there’s nothing else new or particularly interesting to watch (hence the name). When I was a kid, my brother and I watched The Lord of the Rings on a near weekly basis for what seemed like several years. In college, I used to carry around my DVD copy of American Graffiti in my backpack so that I could watch it whenever I wanted. Now the optical drive has disappeared from my MacBook, and Netflix has become my primary movie-watching medium. It’s how The Aviator and the The Big Lebowski entered my life, both of which became my Default Movie for the span of about three months apiece.
In the spring of this year, right around the time I should have been studying for my graduate school finals, I discovered director Rick Famuyiwa’s hip-hop infused high school comedy Dope and watched it three times in the span of a week. New Default Movie. Since then, I’ve had a little time to think about why the film stuck with me the way it did.
Dope opens with a definition of the titular word on a black background: it can mean a drug, a stupid person, or a slang term for excellent. All three definitions are explored in the film that follows.
The story centers on Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a young geek who lives in The Bottoms, a gang-ridden neighborhood of Inglewood, with his buddies Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori). The trio enjoy “white shit”, such as Skateboards, Donald Glover, and Applying To College. Being a geek in The Bottoms isn’t easy: Jib suggests that someone should make “an app like Waze to avoid all these hood traps” as they try to navigate home without a run-in with the local chapter of the Bloods, who routinely try to confiscate their sneakers and bicycles.
The kids get roped into attending a drug dealer’s birthday party, where a mix-up during a police raid leaves Malcolm saddled with a huge amount of illegal drugs the day before his interview for Harvard. It’s a modern re-working of Risky Business, except this time the kid actually deserves to go to the Ivy League school.
Dope is the funniest movie I’ve seen all year. The three leads have comedic chops in spades, and the cast of bad guys and weirdos they encounter are just as hilarious. A standout scene occurs when the kids encounter Jaleel (Quincy Brown), a wannabe gangster who lives in upscale Ladera Heights. He’s so obsessed with his imagined status as a Blood that he replaces the letter C with the letter B when he speaks to show his disdain for the Crips, in a case of what Jib labels “criplexia”. It’s ridiculous, but also speaks to the complicated politics of gang-adjacent communities. Jaleel lives comfortably away from the dangers of the gangs, yet still feels a need to maintain an identity that ties him to them.
This struggle between the desire to escape Inglewood and the desire to gain some status within it permeates Dope. Kids like Malcolm are stuck in the middle, wanting a better life but hampered by the reality that gaining one will be seen by many as a betrayal of their roots. This concept runs deep in hip-hop music, but before seeing Dope, I didn’t really understand it.
Bonus Spotify pick: Dope’s soundtrack is of course loaded with awesome 90’s hip hop (you can skip the cringey pop-punk songs that Pharrell wrote).