There’s no getting around it: The new movie Dope is dope (I know, but I could not resist). One would expect no less from the writer and director who brought us The Wood and Brown Sugar. Filmmaker Rick Famuyiwa has definitely redeemed himself after his underwhelming last film, 2010’s Our Family Wedding.
“I made a promise to myself after that that I was only going to make things that I truly, truly believed in and truly came from me,” Famuyiwa told The Root at the Sundance Film Festival, where Dope premiered.
Dope is fresh and exciting and features so many well-known black entertainers, it’s amazing to watch. The coming-of-age comedy revolves around Malcolm (played by Shameik Moore), a high school geek who loves ’90s hip-hop music and fashion; he even sports a high-top fade. That geek label is what Famuyiwa told The Root he shares with not only the main character but also one of the movie’s producers, Pharrell Williams.
“I talked to him about this idea I had of making this movie about geeks, and Pharrell said, ‘That’s me, it’s my life. It was your life in Inglewood, it was my life in Virginia.’ So telling this story just seemed like a timely thing,” Famuyiwa said.
The filmmaker said when he took the script to the Hollywood studios, no one was interested. So Forest Whitaker helped get it made as a producer. The two had become friendly while working on Our Family Wedding, which was one great thing to come out of that film. Whitaker also does the narration for Dope.
At Sundance this week, Dope was a huge hit. Everyone was trying to score a ticket, and major film distributors were fighting over it. Famuyiwa told The Root there were at least six studios bidding on his film, to the tune of at least $7 million.
“There were many who, when the bidding got so high, they just tapped out. It was ironic and funny and interesting that some of the same people who read the script two years ago and didn’t get it were now telling me how brilliant and amazing it was,” Famuyiwa said. In the end, Open Road Films and Sony Pictures won out (it will be released in June of 2015).
Maybe if Dope were a remake of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Famuyiwa wouldn’t have had any problems getting his script made. But this film is set in the black-and-Hispanic enclave of Inglewood, Calif., where Famuyiwa grew up (his parents are from Nigeria).
“There’s a perception of who everyone thinks these kids are. You believe what you believe because you have preconceived notions in your head, but we sort of shook that up a little bit, and that was very much on purpose,” Famuyiwa said.
Dope deals with nonwhite teens living in one-parent households who talk about bitcoins, love Donald Glover and want to go to Harvard. There are also plenty of nuanced discussions around black culture that will resonate with a lot of people. After the characters repeatedly use the n-word, Famuyiwa throws in a great scene where they discuss why it’s OK for some people to say it and not others. “To be real with these characters, it’s just something that had to be done,” Famuyiwa said. “It’s just ridiculous to pretend that it doesn’t exist.”
One of the best and most surprising performances comes from rapper A$AP Rocky, Rakim Mayers, who makes his acting debut in the film, playing a multidimensional drug dealer. Famuyiwa said the rapper asked to audition after reading the script and connecting with the character. It turns out that his girlfriend at the time was also auditioning, which is how he got a copy of the script.
“He reached out to me and was like, ‘Look, I feel like this is The Wood for my generation,’” Famuyiwa said. The director sees a lot more roles in the rapper’s future. “He’s an incredible actor. His instincts are those of someone who has been acting for a very long time, and it’s just natural to him.”
The filmmaker is also a fan of A$AP Mob, as well as Future, Pro Era and Joey BadA$$. He said much of the idea for the script came from recognizing how these current performers pay homage to the ’90s through their music. Pharrell also wrote some original songs for the film that are performed by the main character’s band, Oreo.
Famuyiwa told The Root that Pharrell and Whitaker believe as he does, that they made a film that will connect with many different types of people, and the filmmaker and his producers have big ambitions for it.
“We felt that we could be very specific and set the film in Inglewood and make it about these kids, but that people across the country and the world would embrace it,” said Famuyiwa.
So far, they have.