“James Franco begged for tickets.”
Just one day removed from a heated, all-night bidding war between indie film luminaries The Weinstein Company, Fox Searchlight, Focus, A24, and Open Road Films, with the latter emerging victorious, scooping up the film for $7 million with a guaranteed $15 million print and advertising commitment, filmmaker Rick Famuyiwa’s remarkably fresh coming of age flick Dope has cemented its status as the most crowd-pleasing, au courant movie at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
Upon exiting the theater amid a veritable blizzard of applause, Franco's desperation was relayed to me by a giddy flack closely associated with the film (don’t worry, he got in). Now, hype at Sundance should always be treated with the utmost skepticism. The seductive mélange of enthusiasm, thin mountain air, and stars in parkas and beanies can send even the most cynical of cineastes into fleeting Oscar talk-in-January hysterics. For every Half Nelson or Winter’s Bone there is a Hamlet 2.
But I’m pleased to report that Dope is the real deal; a kinetic blast of hip-hop, bitcoins, and teenage swagger that is nothing short of intoxicating.
Like his movie The Wood before it, the film focuses on a trio of ghetto fab geeks into “white shit” like “Donald Glover” in Famuyiwa’s native Inglewood, California. There’s ringleader Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a Harvard-aspiring ‘90s hip-hop head rocking a flattop and vintage Jordans who looks like the long lost cousin of Boyz in the Hood’s Tre Styles; Jib (Tony Revolori, the mini-concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel), an Indian kid who’s 14 percent black, according to Ancestry.com; and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons, Transparent), a snarky lesbian with Bible-thumping parents. When they’re not practicing funk-rap tunes for their band Oreo, the clique is busy dodging sneaker thieves in school hallways and bike-jackers on the streets.
After helping him pick up neighborhood fly girl Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), local drug dealer Dom, played by rapper A$AP Rocky, invites Malcolm and his underage pals to his birthday party at a nightclub. But before you can say “Puffy and J. Lo,” the lounge is riddled with bullets and cops. The next day, Malcolm opens his backpack to find several kilos of high-grade ecstasy and a handgun—all stashed by Dom amid the melee. With Dom in jail, the enterprising high school seniors must find a way to push all the dope and get the money to its rightful owner, all while avoiding Glock-toting gangsters after the stash.
According to Famuyiwa, who previously helmed The Wood, Brown Sugar, and Our Family Wedding, the film was inspired by rap groups like Odd Future, A$AP Mob, and Pro Era, whose music pays homage to the energy of the halcyon ‘90s. It was also a very personal film for Famuyiwa who, like Malcolm, was a nerdy, Nigerian-American kid in Inglewood heavy into skateboarding, video games, and schoolwork.
“The Wood was based on a lot of stuff that happened in my life between me and my friends, but in a weird way, I feel this one is more connected to me—more personal to me—even though the story of Malcolm and his journey is nothing like what I did growing up,” Famuyiwa tells The Daily Beast. “Malcolm is more me than any of my characters, and I wanted to make a statement for these kids who were like me growing up; I wanted to give a voice to them.”
Dope not only boasts vibrant lensing courtesy of DP Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station), but is also laced with sharp wit—take, for example, a hilarious scene where Dom and his fellow drug dealers try to unpack the definition of “slippery slope.”
And, while so many “hip” films tend to incorporate technology in cloyingly obvious ways (see: tweets on the screen), Famuyiwa’s done an ace job of making his vision seem timely. Take for instance a gonzo sequence where Malcolm ends up at the fancy house of a drug dealer, only to be met by his Malibu’s Most Wanted son, Jaleel (Quincy Brown, the son of Diddy who served as one of the film’s producers) and nympho, oft-naked daughter, Lily (supermodel Chanel Iman). After snorting some of the ecstasy, Lily goes insane and ends up on the evening news peeing in a bush outside a Starbucks—thus becoming a viral meme. Or how the trio enlists a hacker they knew from band camp, Will (Workaholics’ Blake Anderson), to help them set up a black market online store to push their ecstasy—which, after the viral episode and a crazy party, is dubbed “Lily”—and be paid in the non-traceable cryptocurrency bitcoin.
“There’s no rulebook any more for what a ‘geek’ is—that’s been shattered by the connectivity and progress of the world,” says Famuyiwa. “When there’s a handful of magazines and channels where young people get their information, you can really dictate what’s cool or not, as opposed to having everything everywhere at all times. They think they’re cool because they have other people who believe in them.”
He pauses. “I felt this film could connect with a wide swath of people because we have generations of people who’ve grown up on hip-hop, which has gone mainstream, and multiple generations of people who are connected to each other. People can think Malcolm’s cool and like the way he dresses even though he’s from Inglewood, and a kid from the bottom like him can be friends with a hacker from Brentwood. That larger world is what drives the ambition for these kids to say, ‘I can be me, go to Harvard, and do things I want to do because I see there’s a path, and I see other kids like me that have done it.’”
The music also plays a large role in the film, including ‘90s hits from groups like Naughty By Nature, Nas, Biggie, the list goes on. Dope’s eclectic soundtrack was composed by none other than Pharrell, who also penned 4 original songs for the kids’ band in the film, Oreo. Pharrell was attracted to the project because he, like Famuyiwa, grew up geeky and black.
“We vibed on Malcolm,” says Famuyiwa. “Pharrell said, ‘That was me in Virginia,’ and he was able to take everything—‘90s hip-hop geeks in a punk band that skate—and create. We talked about the music for a while and what that would be, and talked about stuff we liked at the time, from the obscure like Watch the Duck to Bowie, Nirvana, Biggie, and Big Daddy Kane. We realized that kids today would be into everything. My daughter is 14 and, because she has access to everything, me and my wife will be discussing a Marvin Gaye song and the next thing you know, she’s pulled it up on her phone.”
Even with the presence of Pharrell, as well as Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker onboard as a producer, making Dope wasn’t easy. The studios had trouble wrapping their heads around this strange brew of nostalgia and contempo stylings.
“Me and Forest had done stuff and had people we thought would get this, but we took it to a lot of studio partners—many of whom, incidentally, were in the room the other night—and at the time, I think it was so different from what they were used to seeing that they couldn’t wrap their brains around it,” says Famuyiwa. “‘Wait… these kids are dressed like the ‘90s, but it’s set now, and they’re into bitcoins but they’re from the ‘hood?’ It was too much for them to process, and they didn’t have the imaginations to get it. So it became clear that it was something that was so different that we had to do it outside the system.”
Whitaker and his producing partner eventually raised a small amount of money to make the film, which made Famuyiwa reduce the scope of the script. But with just a few weeks until shooting was to begin, he hadn’t found his Malcolm yet. Several big names were circling the role, but none of them were the right fit. Then Famuyiwa stumbled upon an audition tape from Moore, a former backup dancer in rap videos who’s best known for the Cartoon Network sketch comedy series Incredible Crew. He was immediately sold, and flew Moore out to Los Angeles for an audition. Moore, then 18, was unseasoned, and totally bombed his audition. So Famuyiwa called his manager in Atlanta and asked him what the hell happened. The message got to Moore, who was given one more shot and knocked it out of the park. It’s a good thing he did, too—he’s a revelation in the film, capturing Malcolm’s intriguing mix of hormonal anxiety and courage.
Dope was shot in just 25 days on location in Los Angeles, and then brought to Sundance to sell, igniting the aforementioned bidding war. It’s a strange, full-circle moment for Famuyiwa, who first came to Sundance in 1996 with his 12-minute student film Blacktop Lingo, and the following year was invited to hone his craft at the Sundance Director’s Lab.
“Look, it’s crazy and exhilarating,” says a euphoric Famuyiwa. “This is the first time people have seen the movie, and I had a good feeling about it in the cutting room, but you never know. To come from the nervousness of, ‘Oh my God, how are they going to react?’ to people standing up and cheering is something else.”