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Review: Dope

(L-r) Kiersey Clemons, Shameik Moore and Tony Ravolori star in Open Road Films' "Dope"

When it comes to Black film, there appears to be less and less variety with each passing generation. I’m always hoping that we’re going to get to that point, but it clearly isn’t close to happening. On the surface, Dope looked to be a film that could either head in the same direction as all the others or bring us something different than we’re used to seeing out the few films based on Africa-Americans that we get.

With Malcolm (Shameik Moore) at the center of it all, Dope tells a story of a trio of friends who embrace the fact that they’re a rare breed in the community that they call home. It’s always been rough for the three bright high schoolers who are looking toward their futures, but things get even tougher after they get invited to a drug dealer’s birthday party. As it turns out, getting into college may not be the most difficult thing that any of them will need to try at this point in time.

As I already pointed out, Dope looked to be willing to provide something different from what moviegoers are used to seeing from films that look to target an African-American audience, but in actuality, that’s not what happens. As you’ll find out if you choose to see it for yourself, Dope is nothing more than a hood version of the typical story about a nerd falling for the “hot chick” that we’ve seen a million times. It’s also quite “mainstream” when looking at many of the elements.

What’s seen here in terms of variety starts off with what is all too familiar in “Black” films and that’s quickly followed up with what’s become a very recognizable aspect of film today’s era of American cinema. For example, you have the one non-Black friend who seems to always pop up in movies that are supposed to be about the lives of Black people in America. Including myself, some of us do have friends of different races, but just about every film created with a mostly Black cast contains this worn-out addition. I’m not saying that you can’t have this in some films, but not every person of African descent has a very close non-Black friend.

This is clearly an attempt to “lighten” these films up with the hopes of getting into the pockets of people of every background if possible. I understand that, but this practice seems to be nothing more than a grab at getting a few extra dollars from the paying public. Including Dope, this makes a bunch of these movies seem inauthentic, because most people regardless of race tend to have friends of their own race since that’s who they usually spend most of their time around since birth.

Another familiar feature included here is the often seen gay character. This has clearly been an emerging trend in Hollywood for quite some time now, so having it in this film isn’t a stunner. However, what it does say is that it once again Dope isn’t doing anything different from the rest of America’s mainstream cinema. While these additions are definitely modern, it just simply fits into what’s already being done.

Along with the one non-Black friend and the homosexual character, the film’s protagonist forms a trio that’s supposed to have an obsession of 90’s rap music deep at in their core. Frankly, I can understand how anyone would love that version of hip-hop music compared to most of what’s being released these days, but as the film goes on, you’ll find out that this doesn’t quite fit in the world that Dope is trying to portray as real.

I say that because while they do seem to have a deep love with 1990’s rap music, it’s explained early on that this group of friends is actually an aspiring rock band. With their infatuation with all things rap, why wouldn’t they form some kind of hip-hop group? I may be wrong about this, but I don’t really remember them ever even acknowledging anything having to do with rock n’ roll, but we’re asked to believe that that’s where their hearts lie. How does any of this make sense?

Why not just make them completely fanatical over rock music? That would be perfectly reasonable, plus it would allow them to standout even more since it’s clearly what Rick Famuyiwa is going for. I’m guessing the reason why comes down to the fact that it would make it more difficult to sell to what’s supposed to be its target audience. Maybe there’s a different explanation, but either way, it doesn’t really fit if you’re hoping to make sense of it all.

Anyway, this is supposed to contain characters who represent something that goes directly against many of the negative stereotypes African-Americans have. In a way, that happens and will be applauded by many, but as the film moves along, you’ll notice that Famuyiwa’s script eventually relies on some of those same stereotypes to keep the movie moving forward. Including the stereotype that Black people are against education, there was also a need to have the main character turn to drug dealing and showing off his wide range of dance moves by the time we reach the completely predictable ending.

When done properly, I don’t really have a problem with films having stereotypical elements to their characters, but what’s going on here makes it all appear as phony as Chet Hanks’ street cred. While handling it accurately could have resulted in Dope having virtually the same predictably positive outcome, a lot of what’s featured doesn’t mesh well together, isn’t very believable and is highly repetitive.

Speaking of repetition, Dope also relies on the White guy saying the “N-word” joke that’s also been beaten to death in films that are supposed to be funny. I’m assuming there are some people who find this to still be amusing, because that’s the only reason why they could possibly keep using this tired gimmick over and over again. Is it possible for us to please move passed this eventually? It hasn’t been remotely funny or fresh in ages.

Out of everything that I complained about so far, the most important part of any movie is its entertainment value. One things that helps in making a film entertaining is its story. While this looks to have a clear premise, it actually doesn’t have much structure since it never really settles down and gains a definitive focus. It jumps from place to place and never really puts the spotlight on anything consistently. Add to the fact that most of the jokes aren’t funny and you have something that I found hard to get into.

Even though Dope is supposed to be telling a story about kids being different in a harshly judgmental community, it ultimately falls back on a large chunk of things that we’ve seen and heard before. Placing the focus on drugs, negative stereotypes about the Black community and filling it up with features that have been a part of the Hollywood experience for a good while now isn’t the way to accomplish that.

As a Black person myself, I understand some of the stuff that is being touched on here. The problem is that they never truly take the time to break it down or make it genuinely authentic. By doing it this way, Rick Famuyiwa misses out on a chance to tell a real story with actual meaning. A part of me hopes that’s not what he was trying to do. If he was, he came up shorter than Willie Mays Hayes’ (played by Wesley Snipes) slide into second base in Major League.

While I have spoken about many of the issues that I have with this movie, I have other things that I dislike about it that I don’t feel like talking about since I don’t want to extend this extremely long review much further. I will say that this piece of work represents some of what’s wrong Black Hollywood. It sucks because this is the kind of thing that continues to make it seem like none of them can make anything about our community that goes beyond the stereotypes.

Dope makes it seem as if Black people in America are a monolithic group, but based on my experiences as an actual Black person, I can confidently say that this isn’t true. We don’t get a legitimately truthful portrayal of life as an African-American in this movie even though it does contain a few familiar elements. When I look back at this cliched picture, maybe I should have expected that. Then again, it doesn’t really matter since it’ll soon be forgotten after it falls in line with the rest of the stuff it’s following behind.

Ultimately, what we get with Dope is a wobbly work of fiction that’s either afraid to look at things in a legitimate fashion or doesn’t know how to. Rather than getting that, we get a Saturday morning cartoon version of Boyz n the Hood. Nobody wants that. Whether it’s set in the inner city or somewhere else, what many of us want is something that shows us as the diverse group of human beings that we actually are.

So what’s so fresh about Dope? Nothing.

Rating: R

Director: Rick Famuyiwa

Shameik Moore
Tony Revolori
Kiersey Clemons
ASAP Rocky
Zoe Kravitz
Keith Stanfield
Chanel Iman
Quincy Brown
Kimberly Elise
Roger Guenveur Smith
Forest Whitaker

Film Length: 103 minutes

Release Date: June 19, 2015

Distributor: Open Road Films

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