Sydney Film Festival Review: Dope (USA, 2014)

Dope film still

Those classed as ‘Hood Films’ really made an impact on commercial cinema back in the 90’s. Classics like Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, and Juice were met with critical acclaim and appealed to both a crowd that likes intelligent, well-written cinema rife with thoughtful social commentary, and a crowd that just wants an entertaining movie. In the 21st century, movies that deal with similar topics addressed in ‘gangster rap’ seemed to fall flat, despite admirable pieces like ATL and Hustle & Flow. Enter Dope, the best ‘hood film’ since the late 90’s from Director Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Talk to Me), a playful and boundlessly energetic project full of spirit, not at all lacking for laughs, and clever in it’s approach to identity, expectation, and gang violence.

Bouncy and colourful throughout, the cast, led by the talented Shameik Moore as Malcolm, thrive in the fast, off-the-wall pace of Dope. Malcom’s high school reputation as a geek who loves “white-people stuff” (like TV on the Radio) and spending his time obsessing over 90’s hip-hop culture with friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori; Zero Moustafa from The Grand Budapest Hotel) places him in a zone between the rough and tough scene of Inglewood and the hopeful pool of Harvard potentials. Having him somewhere in the middle gives Dope ample opportunity to tackle where the idea of identity is at for kids of this current generation, and all the bells and whistles that come with millennial culture are thrown into this process. It’s a fun watch and really wild, raunchy ride.

Harlem emcee Rakim Mayers, better known as A$AP Rocky, finely guests as drug-dealing catalyst Dom, who takes advantage of Malcom’s naivety and throws him deeper into the gang and drug culture by planting on him the drugs he seemed destined to avoid. It’s from here that drugs (dope) quite literally weigh on Malcolm, who constantly carries them around in his backpack, free of suspicion because of his clean-cut, doughy-eyed reputation. His attempt at finding the actual owner of the drugs (and gun) spirals him and his friends into an almost cartoonish cascade of events that take him all the way from the streets to the office in a somewhat flimsy attempt at connecting the drug trade with the higher ups from Harvard admissions.

Lust as a weight in the lives of young teenagers also enjoys an on-the-nose address. Attraction is a factor in almost every bad decision Malcolm makes on his unlikely adventure, burdening him just as much as the drugs in his backpack. It also leaves space for Dope to really earn it’s R18+ rating and once again find a way of balancing a message with mass appeal.

A wide range of viewers will have an absolute riot following Dope as Malcolm & co. speed through viral memes and the dark web, exploring the zeitgeist of today as efficiently as questions of semantics, racism, and societal expectations.

Incredibly fun and witty references to 90’s hip hop are peppered throughout both dialogue and costume design, making this as stimulating for a rap nerd as Chris Rock’s recent Top Five. Pharrel Williams even jumps on board to curate original music for the film alongside a healthy soundtrack of Nas and A Tribe Called Quest. This original music is worked into the story via a garage band in which Malcolm and his friends create catchy left-field tunes not unlike Williams’ own N.E.R.D.

Though the story can feel a bit excessive and hyperactive at times, there’s no shortage of creativity in Dope, placing it as one of the most refreshing films so far this year. It’s not hard to see why the film sparked a heated bidding war when it premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.


Running time: 105 minutes

Dope screened tonight as part of the Sydney Film Festival, and will screen one more time on Saturday 13th June. More information can be found HERE. The film will be released through Sony Pictures on 20th August 2015.


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Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.