Dope is an angry, at times ugly, at times funny slice-of-life drama about life in the hood. This time the hood is the area of Watts known as “the bottoms” where Malcolm, a geek who loves nineties’ hip-hop, makes good grades and wants to go to Harvard, hangs out with his friends Jib and Diggy. In pursuit of a girl, Malcolm and his friends go to a drug dealer’s birthday party, and antics ensue that leave Malcolm dramatically changed.

The movie is choppy and jarring. One “comic” scene, described by Malcolm in voice-over, exemplifies the angry and ugly tone that surfaces too often in Dope. An inconsequential character is standing in line at a burger joint, playing a game on his smart phone, when two armed robbers enter the place, gunning down people at random. The game player is one of the victims, and, though the film doesn’t show the boy murdered, it does show his blood spattered phone with the voice-over lamely saying the real tragedy was that he had just set a record for the game he was playing and he was never going to enjoy his victory. If you think that is funny, maybe you would like Dope after all, but for me such comedy repulses rather than relieves.

The movie begins with a placard, displaying three different meanings of the word “dope”: 1) A substance that is sold illegally on the streets and imbibed to get an emotional high; 2) a slang term for an idiot; 3) a slang term used to express when something is really great. All three emerge in this movie as pointers to the movie’s view of life for someone growing up in Inglewood and trying to break out of the cycle of violence and drugs the place’s atmosphere forces on its children. Drugs form the heart of the Maguffin, which makes the plot go forward. Malcolm is of course the idiot, the “dope”, whose actions regularly get him and his friends in trouble.

The third definition, the thing on the streets that’s really great is harder to discern, and this may be the movie’s greatest problem. Are we really supposed to think Malcolm’s success at the end, at the expense of his own moral fabric, is a good thing? Would his hard working, bus driving single mother approve? Would Harvard be worth it to her? Or are we supposed to think that it is his growing into a man, symbolized apparently—again this is unclear—by his willingness to pull a gun on the boy who has earlier stolen his tennis shoes? If so, the movie’s disdain in other places for those with money, social respect and the “hot girl” is foolish and inconsistent at best, immoral and anarchic at worst; money, respect and sex turn out to be the Holy Grail after all.

Dope’s racial anger, brought in vaguely throughout the film, but made explicit at the end, oddly seems stupid and out of place. Most of the racial references have to do with a white drug dealer/computer hacker named Will who fancies himself to be “black” and wants to use the “n” word when he is around Malcolm and his friends. Malcolm’s black friend Diggy, a lesbian with an attitude, slaps Will every time he uses the word. This joke is overused and underfunny, but the tone of the scenes is not funny and does not seem to be meant to be. The movie gets explicitly racist, when near the end Malcolm turns to the camera and asks the audience, “Would you even ask that question (Is Harvard really worth going to, if you have to become a drug dealer to get in?) if I was white?” To reinforce the racial point, he is standing under a bridge that says “Thurgood Marshall Memorial Walkway”. Why would he think the answer to his question would be “No”? For me it wouldn’t. Harvard is not worth it for anyone, black or white, to stoop so low. It is insulting for the movie to imply that all white people would say this is OK as long as it’s a white person doing it.

Of course the entire argument of the last paragraph is based on assuming a worldview that believes in the rule of law and does not elevate education, money and social status to levels of importance above that law. But Dope doesn’t accept such a view. No, getting into Harvard and getting out of the hood is everything, no matter what you have to do to accomplish that feat.

Dope has its moments, but it generally left me cold and irritated. Avoid it.

Drew Trotter

July 3, 2015

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