Imagine Risky Business transplanted from Chicago's affluent, lily-white suburbs to the black, notoriously troubled Inglewood 'hood known as "the Bottoms," and you have the blueprint for Dope.
Like Paul Brickman's 1983 satire, in which a young Tom Cruise earned acceptance to Princeton by turning his parents' home into a brothel, the new dramatic comedy from Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood) is the story of Harvard aspirant Malcolm (newcomer Shameik Moore), whose path to the Ivy League takes a vice-world detour.
The key distinction between the films – and the crux of Dope's social critique – lies in the differing expectations confronted by their respective leads: for well-off white kids like Cruise's Joel, admission to Princeton is a rite of passage, while the Harvard ambitions of the working-class, African-American Malcolm are met with accusations of arrogance. Around his way, it's assumed, criminality is less likely a detour than the final destination.
Famuyiwa, apparently keen to atone for the bonanza of ethnic stereotypes that was 2010's Our Family Wedding, here seeks to upend those racialized assumptions. Malcolm, along with BFFs Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), is a self-professed geek, and cultivates a passion for what he calls "white shit," including "getting good grades" and "Donald Glover."
The trio play in a garage band called Awreeoh, and concentrate their appreciation for African-American pop culture on the bright, breezy, and relatively palatable music and fashions of The Fresh Prince and his early '90s Yo! MTV Raps ilk.
Like many millennials, their throwback-chic personas are the product of the cultural cross-pollination encouraged by the Web, and they harbour big dreams. To realize them, Malcolm and his friends believe they need to set themselves apart from the tougher elements that have earned Inglewood its up-to-no-good reputation.
That proves easier said than done, particularly once an encounter with a drug dealer (rapper A$AP Rocky) sets in motion a frenetic series of events, compelling Malcolm to broker the sale of a stash of MDMA. That Malcolm's lack of street smarts is as plain to all as his abundance of book smarts makes this a wildly improbable development, illustrative of Dope's loose, cartoonish tone.
But it also reflects Famuyiwa's intent to send up the presumption that all young black men are latent hoodlums. Malcolm's underworld entanglements literalize that notion and underscore its absurdity. The added punchline is that Malcolm's deep-Web distribution scheme is only made possible through the illicit expertise of a white, middle-class hacker friend (Blake Anderson).
Like his protagonist, Famuyiwa, too, has profited from his defiance of traditional labels. Dope is about race, but it isn't defined by the ethnicities of its director or cast, and became the hottest commodity at this year's Sundance Film Festival thanks to its crossover appeal.
Even as Famuyiwa acknowledges the preconceptions that Malcolm's blackness engenders, he invites audiences to identify with the character on the basis of his relatable interests, aspirations and vulnerabilities. Although it shares a setting with Boyz n the Hood, Dope has more in common with Superbad.
And then, of course, there's Risky Business. Just as that film propelled Cruise to stardom, Dope promises to be a breakthrough platform for Moore. The young actor even gets an extended opportunity to bust a move. Malcolm may prefer old-school hip-hop to Old Time Rock and Roll, but Dope suggests that the divide between hard-knock Inglewood and bougie suburban Illinois is far less fundamental than we perceive.