In Dope, the complicated lives of Black teens get an overdue spotlight-and we get three new stars.
Writer and director Rick Famuyiwa audaciously flips the script on movie conventions with his rollicking new film, the genre-redefining Dope (opening June 19).
On its face, Dope is the coming-of-age story of Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a high school geek who, with best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), obsesses over nineties hip-hop culture while trying to survive senior year. The film explores all the tropes, from the college application essays and interviews to whether the nerd can win the dream girl and lose his virginity by prom.
At this point you might be tempted to write off the film as a modern take on just about any teenage comedy from the eighties and nine-ties—but here’s where Dope throws in a twist: Malcolm lives in The Bottoms, the roughest section of Ingle-wood, California, where getting through the day means running a gauntlet of drug dealers, gangbangers and thugs in the hallway planning to jack your Jordans. Look out for A$AP Rocky (born Rakim Mayers) making a star turn as charismatic drug dealer Dom.
“In Dope, I’m presenting it through the lens of where I come from,” says Famuyiwa. “Where you’re faced with bad and worse choices and how you’re going to succeed, survive and transcend, especially when you’re a kid like Malcolm, who doesn’t have a safe zone.”
Rather than blend in, Malcolm wears his outsider status like he wears his Big Daddy Kane high-top fade—with pride. Malcolm, Diggy and Jib are also into what their neighborhood dubs “White people” pursuits, such as BMX bikes, punk music, skateboards, studying and Donald Glover. “Malcolm is seen as a geek, but he’s not,” says Moore. “He’s smart, he’s in love with the nineties, and he and his friends have a hip-hop punk band. But they live in Inglewood, where that’s not common, so they stand out.”
This brings the project full circle for Famuyiwa, who 16 years ago made his first film, The Wood. “Kendrick Lamar’s Compton looks and feels completely different from N.W.A’s Compton,” he says. “I wanted to revisit Inglewood and show the point of view of the generation that came up after mine.”
Sharon Boone (@sharonrboone) is a writer and founder of thelushiouslife.com.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.