With his debut film, 1999’s The Wood—set in his native Inglewood, Calif., in metro Los Angeles, about three childhood best friends, one on the brink of getting married—screenwriter-director Rick Famuyiwa added a refreshing twist to the hood genre largely defined by such films as 1991’s Boyz n the Hood and 1993’s Menace II Society. Several movies followed, including 2002’s Brown Sugar, but it’s been five years since his last film.
The geek-themed, coming-of-age hood film Dope is built around Malcolm (newcomer Shameik Moore), a high school senior dead set on attending Harvard, who, along with his two BFFs, unwillingly gets embroiled in a drug transaction. Speaking with The Root, Famuyiwa discussed the film, his celebrity producers, the Silk Road Internet kingpin, his hip-hop obsession and the legacy of The Wood.
The Root: How did Forest Whitaker, Pharrell Williams and Sean “Diddy” Combs become involved?
Rick Famuyiwa: Forest I knew before. We worked on a film [2010’s Our Family Wedding] together. When I was thinking about producers after I finished the script, he’s someone who came to mind. He had just finished Fruitvale [Station], and he had formed this company [Significant Productions] with Nina Yang Bongiovi, and so it just felt like this is the perfect place to go.
Pharrell I met through my agent, and when I was conceiving the idea, even before the script, Pharrell came on board. I had a meeting with him. We talked about the kids, the world. I think he felt a kinship to these characters. I think they felt very similar to him growing up, in his own point of view, with his music and his company and his own persona of, sort of, not necessarily fitting in and having a unique voice. So he came on board as executive producer and did four songs for the movie, and it was a great creative partnership.
And Sean Combs came on near the end of the process. We needed financing for post to finish, and he came in with his company and provided some help financially to get the film finished when we were in postproduction. So that’s how they all came on board.
TR: Is it fair to call Dope a more millennial The Wood?
RF: Yeah, that’d be fair. I wouldn’t argue with that. It’s definitely not a sequel to that, but it definitely lives in that same world, and the connection to The Wood is what I wanted to bring to this film. But yeah, it was really trying to redefine that experience, the coming-of-age film, for a new generation, for this generation, to hear the voices that are coming from it.
TR: Were you aware of the Silk Road Internet drug kingpin Ross Ulbricht before writing the script?
RF: Yes. I’d been following that story for many years now, and it’s a sort of different element to the dark web. … I just felt that the world that these kids lived in, that they would be plugged into all this stuff, and so it just felt like a logical way of moving forward the plot.
TR: The Wood’s De’aundre Bonds is in this film.
RF: That was my moment to connect this film to The Wood and kind of give a hat tip to that film and what it did. And hopefully, for this younger generation, it might be that for them the same way that The Wood was for me and my generation.
TR: Could you have ever envisioned the impact The Wood would have?
RF: No. It still surprises [me] how many people know that movie and love it and quote it because it was a small movie when it came out. It did well when it came out, but I was kind of like, “OK, I made my first movie.” Some folks got into it, but it didn’t really get out in a big way, but it’s really found an audience over the years; that’s been amazing to see.
And it’s really connected to people in ways I didn’t expect, just because it was just kind of from my life. So I’m happy, but I hope it’s because it was authentic. But, yeah, I had no idea [almost] 20 years later, people would get into it and young kids would still be into The Wood, so it’s exciting. You just never know when you put art out there what will happen.
TR: More than any other filmmaker with a mainstream career, you’ve made documenting the cultural phenomenon of hip-hop your mission.
RF: Yeah, I guess so. I think it’s just because [it was] a part of who was I growing up. The music, the culture, is just who I am, so it comes out in what I do. So I guess I’m documenting it because I’m just expressing myself.
TR: Are you pleased with the progression of your career?
RF: Yeah. I get to make films for a living. Does that mean that there haven’t been challenges and times [I wanted] to re-evaluate? No, of course not; that’s any endeavor you take. Bottom line is this: I’ve directed and written film, and there are folks who don’t get an opportunity to do it. So the fact that I have maintained a career is something that I am proud of. … This is what I wanted to do when I was young. It was my major in college, and the fact that this ended up as my career, I cannot complain.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.