What does it mean to be black? It’s a constant discussion. Ask Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP president in Spokane, Wash.
Like much of America, Hollywood builds such a narrow box around what it means to be black. And despite the current narrative in our country, black youths aren’t all a bunch of scary thugs with guns and drugs.
“Dope,” a Sundance Film Festival hit coming to theaters Friday, smashes those stereotypes. It’s funny, layered and quirky. And though it’s told through the lens of black youth in Inglewood, in Southern California, this is not a black movie any more than “The Breakfast Club” is a white movie. Too often “black films” are labeled as such, as if the narrative can’t be universal.
“I don’t like the term ‘black film,’ and I am proud to be black. It’s part of who I am,” says “Dope” writer and director Rick Famuyiwa, on the phone from Los Angeles. “But when a white filmmaker makes a film, they don’t categorize it that way. It’s seen as mainstream. Why is that version normal, but when it’s coming from people of color it is called black or niche? Why is it when a woman makes a film or a movie stars a female cast it is labeled women-centric because it is not white, male and middle-class men?”
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There’s a reason “Dope” created a bidding war at Sundance and was bought for $7 million plus a multimillion-dollar marketing deal: It transcends labels. You don’t have to be black to connect.
In the movie, three teen nerds — Malcolm, Diggy and Jib — are surviving their senior year in a neighborhood where gangs and drugs are an everyday struggle. The title is a triple entendre. The movie takes on dope as in drugs, dope as in dumb decisions and dope as in ’90s slang for cool.
As Famuyiwa developed the lead characters, he wanted to delete racial tropes. They are 2015 teens obsessed with the ’90s. They want to go to Ivy League schools and party like rappers. They are hip-hop and punk. Literally, they are a punk band: Awreeoh (as in “Oreo”).
Like most of us, they are a little bit of a lot of different things.
“The struggle to fit in the world is universal,” Famuyiwa says. “This is not specifically my story. But the idea of finding your voice and trying to fit in is something I hope anyone can connect to.”
Famuyiwa has long delivered diverse films (“Brown Sugar,” “Our Family Wedding”) with universal messages. His 1999 movie “The Wood” is also set in Inglewood and tells the story of three friends since childhood navigating the ups and downs of adulthood. It was inspired by his life growing up in Inglewood. He wanted to do the same thing with “Dope” for the younger generation.
Kiersey Clemons, who plays Diggy, is thankful to star in a film that she herself has been waiting to see.
“It’s weird because I have been talking to my actor friends and wondering when another movie like ‘Superbad’ was going to come along,” she says. “A movie we can quote and relate to as a generation like ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Napoleon Dynamite.’ It’s been a while, and I get to be a part of this film that I have been asking for. I get to be part of a film that is starting conversations and can start a revolution.”
She’s right. “Dope” is more than a nerdy, comical thrill ride in an urban backdrop. Without getting preachy, it starts a dialogue that makes the viewer push beyond typical notions of young people and young black people. Because quite frankly, there is nothing unusual about being black from the hood and wanting better for yourself. It’s actually not rare to like both “The Big Bang Theory” and Kendrick Lamar.
“We need to have a conversation about the things we don’t want to talk about,” Clemons says. “There isn’t a rule book to life and ways in which you can do things. We are all different. Diggy is a lesbian, but she doesn’t have to look a certain way or act a certain way. When people say someone looks like a lesbian or acts black, they have to think about what shapes their idea. What have you been limited to?
“‘Dope’ challenges people to look deeper without shoving it down their throats. This is a big big world. If we were all clones of each other, the world would suck. We need all of those different people to survive because everyone plays their part.”
For those reasons, Shameik Moore, who plays Malcolm, the main character, believes “Dope” will become a classic.
“I feel blessed to be the face of the film and the voice of a movement,” he says. “I feel chosen. You are constantly fighting how people perceive you and how you really are. This is a film that encourages people to be happy, be open-minded and comfortable with yourself. As Malcolm, that is how he lives, and his message to the people is to follow your dreams and be yourself.
“This role taught me to keep growing and be OK with being me. How I felt filming this is basically how I want people to leave the movie feeling.”
It’s definitely how I felt. To be yourself is to be dope.