I have to give it credit: Dope has plenty of fresh ideas and is visually one of the more interesting films to come along this year. I mention that upfront because Dope is a largely enjoyable film that buckles a bit when the main plot kicks in.
The film follows Malcolm (Shameik Moore), along with his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori). The three are self-proclaimed “90s hip-hop nerds” who take their fashion cues from Yo! MTV Raps, while also having a rock band and engaging in what Malcolm calls “white” interests like “Donald Glover” and “going to college.” Malcolm also has a crush on an older girl named Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), who suggests he come to the birthday party of a drug dealer. During a shootout, though, he ends up with a backpack full of drugs. In quick order, Malcolm finds himself needing to sell the drugs while avoiding becoming the stereotypical young, black man from his neighborhood.
Dope is at its liveliest before the plot kicks in. Malcolm’s life is something not normally shown in film, and Moore is a strong talent in the role. Malcolm is driven by his intellect, his friends, and his teenage libido. The film sets up a few particular obstacles for him before the drug plot hits. First, his pursuit of Nakia is complicated by her relationship with drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky). Second, Malcolm has an interview for Harvard looming over his head, and he sees the interview as his ticket out of his neighborhood. Dope‘s biggest success is creating a well-rounded character piece for Malcolm.
Once the plot kicks in, though, it drags the film down. The subplot with Nakia is pushed far into the background. The supposed urgency of unloading the drugs also makes some of the later parts of the film seem like a drag, such as time spent with a white hacker (Blake Anderson) who needs repeated explanations for why he can’t use the n-word. That subplot would be more fun in the initial structure of the film, not the restructured plot-centric portion.
Still, the film offers an intriguing case of racial identity and negative expectations. His upbringing in a poor, primarily black neighborhood means he’s saddled with the expectation that he’s a criminal. Merely by going to Dom’s birthday party, Malcolm is swallowed up in a series of events that force him to become a drug dealer. Even when the film’s plot threatens to overstuff the film, it does manage to convey these issues. And…just in case it’s not obvious, it’s spelled out in a montage as Malcolm writes his college application letter. It’s an increasingly used device (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, another Sundance hit this year, uses it too) that weakens the structure of the film.
In spite of some of the issues that plague the film, Dope can hopefully help open up the ways films handle the depiction of black men. Even if Malcolm ends up falling into more stereotypical scenarios, he’s a breath of fresh air. Since Moore is a large contributor to the character’s success, as well as the film’s, this will hopefully mark the beginning of a successful career for him as well.