USA (103 mi) 2015 ‘Scope d: Rick Famuyiwa Official site
This is a film that seems to have gone out of its way to hit all the touchstones of youth culture, a place where television, pop music, the Internet, drugs, race, and sex all come together in the teenage world, where hip-hop is the anthem that blares in the background while kids try to make their way through the minefield that is high school, complete with an entire set of distinctly black social obstacles placed in the way. While ostensibly a coming-of-age comedy, the film delves into a myriad of stigmas and stereotypes about blacks growing up in gang-infested neighborhoods, where the stomping grounds are a return to the mean streets of Inglewood, California made famous by John Singleton’s legendary BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991). But instead of accentuating the contemptuous distrust between the LA police department and the South Central LA neighborhoods, coming on the heels of the Rodney King Incident that took place in March 1991, RODNEY KING BEATING VIDEO Full length footage ... YouTube (8:08), this film seems to have evolved from the Shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, where the life of an unarmed 17-year old black teenager wearing a hoodie was unnecessarily wiped out in an instant, an all-too-familiar headline-grabbing story where guns in the hands of trigger-happy whites are the growing answer to racial fears. While LA has been nicknamed the gang capital of America, home to more than 1350 gangs and 120,000 gang members nearly a decade ago, Inglewood still has a huge gang problem, with close to 50 different gangs residing within the city, where this film seems motivated to change the stereotype by creating friendlier, less threatening characters. “Malcolm is a geek.” These are the first words we hear from the narrator (Forrest Whitaker, one of the film’s producers) about Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a high school senior looking surprisingly like he’s fresh off a 90’s black TV sitcom like In Living Color (1990 – 94), where he might have been one of Theo’s friends from The Cosby Show (1984 – 92), or a featured character in an early Spike Lee film. Despite growing up with a bus driving single mom (Kimberly Elise) in a low-income neighborhood known as “The Bottoms,” Malcolm, a straight A student with a love for 90’s hip-hop and “white shit,” namely getting good grades and going to college, hangs out with two other equally bright and geeky friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a likeable, light-skinned lesbian that dresses as a man, whose parents have tried unsuccessfully to “pray the gay away,” and Jib, Tony Revolori, the lobby boy in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), a multiracial oddball who maintains a bit of his impish personality. Together they play in a garage band known as Awreoh (whose songs are actually Pharrell compositions), while cruising the neighborhoods of the streets of LA on their bikes, often extremely careful about what streets to enter and which ones to avoid, where the prevalence of guns can make these life altering decisions. On more than one occasion we see the results of random street violence, including an unfortunate burger joint customer that is killed while simply standing in line, literally seconds away from reaching a supposedly unattainable level on his Game Boy.
At least initially, the idea of presenting material in a new light feels intriguing, where the intelligence of the characters suggests a film at least attempting to cut through the stereotypes, where three definitions of the entitled word “Dope” are provided: an illegal drug, a stupid person, and something overly cool, each of which at some point or another becomes the focal point of the film. Perhaps most interesting is the notion of a black geek being into the same things white people are into, like good grades, anime comic books, being in a grunge band, skateboarding, riding bikes, and getting into college, where Malcolm has his sights set on Harvard, and has already written an essay proposal (A Research Thesis to Discover Ice Cube’s Good Day) that examines exactly what day Ice Cube was talking about in his gangsta rap classic Ice Cube - It Was A Good Day (Explicit) - YouTube (5:12), arguing “If Neil deGrasse Tyson was writing about Ice Cube, this is what it would look like.” His guidance counselor steers him away from that idea, suggesting he needs to distinguish himself from the rest by revealing personal details about his own life, much of which Malcolm feels is a tired, worn out cliché, another story about a poor black kid from a single-parent family in Inglewood. In the process of discovering himself, however, the film rather circuitously touches on what it means to be black, which has become something of a paradox in the era of Obama, Trayvon Martin, and the Ferguson police Shooting of Michael Brown, where Obama’s 2008 election was accompanied by a multi-ethnic surge of hope, a promise of a better tomorrow, ushering in a supposedly post-racial order, but has instead unleashed a continuing series of violent, racially-tinged incidents that once more remind us as a nation just how far we have yet to go. In the post 9/11 world, terrorism and Islamic extremists raise the public’s ire while twice as many deaths on U.S. soil have been attributed to white supremacists and right-wing, anti-government fanatics, creating large-scale public misconceptions of what “terrorism” looks like in the United States. Like derogatory racial epithets, the word “terrorist” has been spewed as a piece of propaganda meant to dehumanize dark-skinned Muslim people while the white killers among us are allowed complex psychological profiles. Much like that premature elation, this film promises more than it can deliver, where racial identity is so much more complicated than how it’s portrayed here, but the director appears to be drawing from the Trey Ellis 1989 essay The New Black Aesthetic, where “a black individual possesses the ability to thrive and successfully exist in a white society while simultaneously maintaining all facets of his or her complex cultural identity.” While that goal is evident at the outset, the film is eventually bogged down in familiar Hollywood cliché’s, resembling a black version of RISKY BUSINESS (1983). When Malcolm accidentally gets pulled into a serious discussion about 90’s hip-hop with a reputable drug dealer on the street, Dom (A$AP Rocky), what starts out as a humorous aside becomes an unexpected side trip into nostalgia, where hip-hop groups like Biggie, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Tupac, and Dr. Dre are being named with the historical importance of former presidents, where these are the cultural icons of contemporary black history, yet these are also the same rap lyrics that started calling women bitches and ho’s while revitalizing the use of the N-word, becoming an expression of endearment among brothers, but a controversial word when used so conventionally in a breezy and nonchalant fashion. When Dom involves him in a message game with a sultry girl down the street, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), inviting him to his birthday celebration, she quickly becomes the girl of his dreams, helping her get out of the party safely after a police raid with guns blazing. While indicating “Those other niggas” stepped right over her to get out of there, Malcolm replies, “Guess I’m not one of ‘those niggas.’”
Only afterwards does Malcolm realize his backpack has been stuffed with drugs and a gun, where in no time he’s dealing with the criminal element he’d been avoiding all his life, becoming part of his daily routine alongside taking SAT exams and interviewing with the visiting Harvard college representative. While he’s a total novice in dealing with drug lords, he suddenly finds himself on the speed dials of rival gang leaders, or perhaps an impersonating FDA agent, receiving mixed instructions that he somehow needs to sort out. While Dom insists that he deliver the merchandise to the upscale home of a business associate, but when he’s not there, he’s instead lured into a bizarre labyrinth of wrong turns, led by two dysfunctional children, a wannabe rap producer Jaleel (Quincy Brown) and his half-naked, stoned-out-of-her-mind little sister Lily, high fashion model Chanel Iman in her film debut, the object of every teenage boy’s sexual fantasies, who makes quite a lurid impression before doing the utterly unthinkable, captured, of course, on YouTube video that streams on all the local news broadcasts. Perilously close to missing his college interview, Malcolm is even more amazed to discover the Harvard man he’s being interviewed by is the same man he was supposed to deliver the package to, turning the interview into a skewed discussion spoken entirely in code on the merits of Ivy League meritocracy versus the crass, often contemptible conduct of unfettered capitalism, where exploring his options afterwards is not easy. Drawing upon the knowledge of a former friend he met at band camp named Will (Blake Anderson), a white, all-purpose stoner with an affinity for drug dealing and calling people “niggas,” a social miscue that is eventually discussed at some length, they explore the best way to move the merchandise without being detected, using cyber thriller techniques seen in espionage movies. While this is all in good fun, it’s also borderline ridiculous, drawing inferences from an early flashback that reveals the only gift he ever received from his long absent father, a VHS copy of SUPER FLY (1972), identified as his Dad’s favorite movie, leads the viewer into a myriad of Blaxploitation references. Stripped to its barest essential, however, this is actually the story of a boy who likes a girl, where visions of Nakia are everpresent in his all too vivid imagination, where he agrees to help her with her schoolwork, hoping it will lead to more. Both Shameik Moore (in his first lead appearance) and Zoë Kravitz are excellent, where their flirtatious dynamic has a sweetly underplayed naturalness about it, like it’s only just beginning, where both are seen as evolving figures, vulnerable and compelling, mutually exploring the hazards of the territory needed to cross to get to that next destination in life, whatever it may be. Part of what works best is the brashness of the young trio of friends, never underestimating themselves or their futures, where the film has a different kind of trajectory in exploring the black experience, vibrantly energetic with a cranked-up musical soundtrack (iTunes - Music - Dope (Music from the Motion Picture) by ...), even if it does have a somewhat preachy and by-the-numbers Hollywood ending.