What do you get when you take one critically acclaimed director, a handful of virtually unknown (albeit very talented) actors, a sprinkle of Hollywood cool kids, a dose of the flyest things about 1990s hip-hop culture and a smattering of Molly? You get one dope movie… literally. Dope—premiering tonight at New York City’s American Black Film Festival—is the latest offering from Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar), which follows a group of misfit kids indoctrinated in ’90s hip hop culture who walk to the beat of their own drum.
Malcolm, Diggy and Jib are just trying to get through their high school years, while navigating the rough streets of Inglewood, California, and rocking out in their own punk band when a chance visit to a hot party for one of the neighborhood “D Boys” sets them on an unforgettable journey.
Dope became a darling of the Sundance Film festival this year, starting a bidding war that launched major buzz around the film. But none of this was a shock to director Famuyiwa, who says he knew he had something good.
“I felt confident in the script from the very beginning, even when there was a lot of people who thought this was really crazy and didn’t get it,” he says. “So for me it was always about, if we can get it made we can get it out there and get people watching it, I felt like we were doing something that people were ready for and wanted to see. But personally, I felt it was me. I wanted to express something and honestly didn’t care whether it was widely received, because I just felt it was something that needed to be said, or I needed to say.”
Famuyiwa may have known he had a great story to tell, but without the right cast and producing team in place, this little film could have ended up being buried during the summer rollout of superheroes, dinosaurs and talking teddys.
Enter producers Forest Whitaker with his Significant Productions and Pharrell Williams with his i am Other Entertainment, who joined forces with Famuyiwa and took careful time finding the perfect cast and music for the project. Williams not only co-produced the film, but also was on hand to produce and track all the original music for the kid’s band, Awreeoh.
“In terms of the cast, I knew it was going to be a mix of or pretty much just new faces,” Rick Famuyiwa explains. “Because it’s a young cast, number one, and because of the fact that there’s not a constant stream of films that have Black and brown characters in them. There’s not sort of a stable of established names to go to, and the established names that were around when I was making The Wood, still some of them, it’s the same names!
“So I knew it was going to be all new faces. And whether those faces came from directly the world of acting or music or modeling or whatever, I knew it was going to be just finding the best talent out there.”
So for that sake, he went about casting newcomer Shameik Moore in the lead as Malcolm, and Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori as friends Diggy and Jib—actors who’ve pretty much only done bit parts on TV. Rounding out the cast is a menagerie of fine sexy things from the worlds of music, catwalks and everything in between: folks like Quincy Brown, rapper A$AP Rocky, top model Channel Iman and Zoë Kravitz.
The idea behind this cast is that Famuyiwa wanted the film to have a fresh energy, and felt like Moore, Clemons and Revolori (as well as Rocky and Iman and Kravitz) are this generation’s movers and shakers. “They’re going to be the ones that are kind of taking the baton from the Morris Chestnuts and the Taye Diggs and the Denzels and Wills,” according to Famuyiwa. “This is going to be the generation. So I wanted to find those faces.”
In telling his Dope story, Famuyiwa wanted the teenage language to feel as authentic as possible. That meant using the N-word (a lot… almost, one might say, to ad nauseam). It’s also a major, yet hilarious, topic of discussion in the film, with one White character trying rigorously to get his Black friends to explain to him why he can’t use it in this day and age, where it seems to have lost its negative connotation. It was interesting, the cross-generational takes on the use of the word in the film and in everyday life from producers and cast of Dope.
Producer and film narrator Forest Whitaker says, “I come from a different generation, so I associate it historically with the subjugation of Black people and really the subsequent torture and abuse that’s been put upon them. So as a result, I can’t really utilize the word myself in my own personal life.
“I’ve never been able to, and I never really have because of the way I perceive the word,” Whitaker continues. “I can understand that words change and redefine themselves throughout history, so I try to keep some open mind to it when I watch the new generation coming up. And perhaps if they want to use the word as a term of endearment like ‘my homie’ or ‘my buddy’ or ‘my friend,’ then there’s something to be said for understanding that.”
Whitaker goes on to liken the use of the N-word to the title, Dope: “It’s like the title of the movie. The movie itself is about perceptions, about looking at one thing, seeing another, and understanding the difference. I mean the title of the movie Dope. Dope could be like somebody who’s stupid. Dope could be like a drug. Dope could be like something cool. It transforms and morphs itself. But still I think we have to maintain some historical understanding of what it entails.”
Kiersey Clemons has a different opinion. “I always say, you decide what you’re going to be offended by. You can get in my face and you can call me a whore, a bitch, a slut, the N-word with a hard ‘R.’ But I decide if there’s truth to that or not. And at the end of the day, if you ask a group of people ‘what does the N-word mean to you?,’ some are going to be offended and be reminded of the history and others are going to be like, ‘It just means you’re my homie. And in Dope, you see that. You see everyone’s point of view and why they like it and why they don’t, and who gets to use it and say it, and why they can’t.”
Like the lingo in Dope, ’90s music and culture was just as important, almost like another character in the film. Songs by A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Digable Planets and Nas can be heard laced throughout the soundtrack, giving the oxymoronic feeling of new nostalgia. Some in the audience will definitely be transported to a time in their lives, where hip-hop was on the brink of becoming one of the lead influencers on current American culture the way it is today. Younger audience members might feel a new connection to music they previously may have only referred to as “throwbacks.”
Quincy Brown, whose comedic timing in Dope is definitely on point, put it this way: “I think the generation that’s going to see this movie today, they really weren’t in the ’90s like that. But they know about it because they hear about these legendary songs. So to actually see it, and see a message behind it, I think they’ll be drawn to it. I’m sure record sales of Tribe Called Quest and all these songs are about to go up after this movie, just because all these new young-comers are about to be exposed to this music in a direct way now, instead of, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a classic. I hear this on the radio.’ ”
So what is Dope? Is it a comedy, a drama? A coming-of-age story? Forest Whitaker sums it up: “I guess I see it as a universal film, because the themes in the movie are so strong. It’s about trying to feel a sense of self, trying to get out of circumstances and get a life that you choose. It’s hard for me to imagine hardly any culture not relating to the internal messages of the movie.
“And then you have at the center a character who’s a little lost, trying to find himself, trying to say something. He meets a girl, he wants her to like him, he’s a little off. And then he goes on a journey to find himself. If I told you it was a Latin story you’d say, ‘Oh, okay.’ If I said it was a White story, if I said it was a Filipino story, it fits all those things. So I think they’ll love it.”
Dope premieres tonight at the ABFF and opens wide in theaters Friday, June 19.
Crystal Shaw King is a seasoned TV, radio and online entertainment writer. She's also a contributing editor for a social justice foundation in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @crystalamberbam.