The film, Dope, was released on January 24th, 2015; it was written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa Starring Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons with Kimberly Elise, and is produced by Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi. Dope is a comedic crime drama set in the modern Los Angeles's gritty neighborhood of Inglewood, California within a suburb perceptively named, the Bottoms. It revolves around the escapades of three teenage geeks Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib obsessed with 1990s hip-hop culture trying to navigate the murky lifestyle of gangs, drugs, and music that is so pervasive on their block. Their seemingly benign lives hit turbo charge when they inadvertently become mixed up with a local gangster Dom, who bond's with Malcolm arguing over hip-hop banter. He consequently invites Malcolm and his crew to an underground "Elite" hood party which turns violent when cops charge in forcing Dom to stash his drugs in Malcolm's bag. Dom's arrest leaves a power vacuum in the streets; thus, a rival gang figures out that Malcolm, who is tremendously oblivious of it, has the score. This initiates a series of harrowing albeit funny events as the band of three tries to get the drugs to the right person while avoiding getting their heads blown off. When they finally do track down the Don, who also turns out to be his college interviewer, they come to an impasse as he threatens to undermine his college application as well as harm his family. Malcolm and his friends are forced to devise means of moving the product lest their world comes crashing down. They eventually resort to selling it online through a hacker friend they met at bandcamp, which eventually gives them a break. Concluding in a monologue of the entry essay he wrote to the Don challenging stereotypes and giving an insight into the struggles of African American youth.
To fully comprehend the context and connotation of the films title, it is prudent to explain what the word, Dope, means in slang. It was first used to describe the drugs in white powder form, either heroin or cocaine. Then the meaning transcended to explain how good, pleasant, or euphoric the drug was. Finally, this meaning coupled with the dope man's lifestyle in the hood (nice car, nice clothes, expensive taste) was transposed to mean a quality that is exceptional or nice about something: dope song, dope house and the like. From this perspective, the film capitulates the underlying social perception of the definition of success in an African American neighborhood; a rhetorical question underscored in the films narrative based on the challenges that Malcolm and his crew faces. Whats really dope ("Dope: user-generated definitions", 2016)?
Consequently, this paper intends to show that the social commentary postulated in the film is a progressive take on the anti-hero conceptualization of similar genre films done in the same style in the early 1990s. Furthermore, that this social commentary is indicative of an intellectual awakening of the black community following the resurgence of racially charged incidences in the United States. In addition, that this film along with others such as Spike Lees Chiraq, are targeted at these enlightened individuals as well as the ignorant ones to break the retrogressive stereotypes that perpetuate inequality and reinforce classism.
There is steep cultural change denoted in this film that exposes the reconcilable reality that life is different from the archaic notions of the belligerent gangster coolness. The films protagonists, Malcolm, and his crew, Dom the drug dealer and their white hacker friend Will are pitted in an existential dilemma of how to survive the ills of this world against the antagonists: the neighborhood Crip bullies, the rival gang members, and the Don. The film highlights this difference by showing that the pervasiveness of the internet has made ignorance inexcusable.
Malcom has a white friend, Jib who is just as down with black culture and so is their mixed race friend Dibby who all happen to be best friends. Furthermore, they are not just into hip-hop, they are self-professed geeks who ace their exams, have a punk rock band, and have dreams of attending Ivy League colleges, as was the case with Malcolm, who wanted to get into Harvard. These would be considered decidedly white things to do but such is the state of the modern world. Dom is used very well to show that given the right opportunities, young adults who end up in crime can further their education to heights unknown. As was illustrated in the opening scene where Dom meets Malcolm, their argument about hip-hop endears Malcolm to him as he finds him intelligent, a trait he sees in himself. In his famous ruckus with the bouncer at the club, Doms Slippery slope," speech shows a superior dialectical reasoning although Malcolm could poke holes in his vocabulary. His other Slippery slope, conversation about the ethics of using drones to bomb terrorists and blanket labels of Kill them before they get us, shows an intelligible understanding of attitudes that perpetuate stereotypes. Their hacker friend Will in another scene makes a convincing case that white people enculturated into African American culture do not imply derogatory or racist innuendo with the N word, but rather as a term of endearment as narrated inculcated in a 1990s Q-Tip rap song. This sentiment is echoed in modern hip-hop as well, with Nass controversial Untitled Album, which was actually featured lyrics to that effect when he claimed Eminem to be his N word and sufficed to explain his extrapolation throughout the song (be a N too). It underscores a crisis of identity in that; more progressive-centric African Americans consider those referred by the term as the problem while others like Nas embrace their culture to underscore a different meaning: a debate that still rages on today.
Enculturation is a heavy theme in the film; there is cross-cultural enculturation all over the place. As alluded earlier, there is a clear perception of white people inculcated to black culture and vice versa, as well as an upper-middle-class young adult Jaleel wanting to identify with street gang culture used as a pun for comedic effect throughout the film. It exposes that human beings are dynamic and as such absorb what makes sense to them in their environment, whatever that may be (Levine, 1990).
Another recurring concept in the film was cultural relativism. The film illustrates that everyone has the right to ascribe to their own unique culture without the fear of ridicule or discrimination. The protagonists seemed to be on the wrong side of the fence in all the parts of their identity. Excelling in academics, forming a band, made them the soft' kids around the block because compared to earlier perceptions in movies like, "Menace to Society," and "Boyz in the Hood," that is not considered Gangsta. The drug dealer Dom is shown to find Malcolm as a breath of fresh air to the conformist agreement of those under him and the ignorant rants of his peers. Again, Will Shepard argues his perspective: his Dopeness," even as a white person should merit him the privilege to say the "N" word. The entire movie culminates in a monologue where Malcolm makes his case of why the circumstances, experiences, and subsequent achievements he has made afford him as an asset to the Harvard student body rather than a charity case (Donnelly, 1984).
Another theme that becomes abundantly clear is globalization and modernization; the whole movie is pegged on the age of instant and worldwide communication. The hypothetical portrayal of the rise to fame of their drug, Lily, coming to replace Molly, as a staple drug of choice among urban adults is an understatement of the scale of connectivity nowadays. A central component of the plot, the geeks using their internet acumen to set up anonymous dark web markets to move their product underscores the reality of websites like the Silkroad, which did exactly that. As a testament to modernity, even the rival gang chasing Malcom and his friends around in the film used a mobile application to track their location despite their vilification as the belligerent criminals. In a world where information is ubiquitous, anyone can acquire the skills and knowledge to accomplish spectacular things. It hints at the summary judgments of a persons ability based on prejudiced ideas.
Enculturation and Cultural relativism are used in this film to bear that the hopes and ambitions of all races alike are the same: to excel in whatever endeavors they so choose in life. They serve to bridge the gap in cultural understanding to dissipate the problems of social stigma and the lack of self-esteem; they empower the minds of the audience relating that some feats even though difficult are yet still achievable. They do so without any reference to the President Barrack Obama, which in itself has been stereotyped of the black community. Rick Famuyiwa was applaudable and justified in avoiding the angle to lend to the purity of his ethos in the film. Globalization and modernization is the Set, to borrow from theater terms. It is the underlying context of the film that makes the themes accessible and relatable to others elsewhere: the projects of New York, the slums of Soweto, the Favelas of Rio De Janeiro, or anywhere its relevance suffices.
This film is more than a coming of age story infused with hip-hop showing the new typical hood life. It, in a sense, makes a case for the underlying problem of stereotypes and biases fostering a deep understanding of cultural perspectives. As such, it is a veiled form of activism, orchestrated in a non-invasive manner that provokes the relevant thoughts or questions necessary for a paradigm shift in cross-cultural relations.
This film is a school in cultural sensitivity that has afforded me a new insight into how to deal with racially charged conversations. It has fostered cautious optimism and the value of the benefit of doubt in cultural exchanges. It eliminates subtle resentments based on nonexistent dissent among the races; it shows simply that all people bear aspirations of living better lives. It has underscored the need for the African American community to portray what is right with their culture and not just the pessimistic vices. This film has awakened my perception of shows like Blackish, and the exceptional Carmichael Show as cut from the same cloth.
Donnelly, J.. (1984). Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights. Human Rights Quarterly,6 (4), 400419. http://doi.org/10.2307/762182
Dope: user-generated definitions. (2016). Urban Dictionary. Retrieved 10 May 2016, from http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Dope&utm_source=search-action
LeVine, R. A. (1990). Enculturation: A biosocial perspective on the development of self.
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