Dope follows Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a self-proclaimed black geek with an amazing flat-top who has his sights set on Harvard, yet is told he’s hindered by the fact he lives and attends school in the hood. Malcolm’s nerdiness merits bullying from black peers, but his perceived softness also merits him a significant lack of suspicion that he could be guilty of a crime. This latter trait works in his favor when he is slipped several bags of dope at a party and is given no other choice than to sell it himself. Despite the dark overtones and a small handful of rote plot points, Dope is a rare teenage misadventure that still feels fresh—it’s insightful, engrossing, and frequently funny. Perhaps most importantly though, Dope gives us Moore, who is absolutely phenomenal. Seriously, even if dark comedy is not your thing, check it out just for his performance—I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about a new star.
There’s so much political and racial commentary in Dope, it’s amazing to me that it still turns out to feel lighthearted. That is, it was impossible for me to watch Dope and not be reminded of my whiteness, which is a necessary self-reflection that manages to make the film even better. It takes a colossal amount of cognitive dissonance to ignore the longstanding racial climate in this country, and even the white people who prefer to live with their heads in the sand can’t argue against the fact that people of color are disproportionately and severely sentenced for crimes that white people often never get arrested for in the first place. This fundamental injustice is crucial in Dope, as Malcolm shows incredible determination to get out of the hood without it consuming him (and thus being way more deserving of a Harvard Acceptance Letter than Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods ever was), but he is essentially forced into the role of a drug dealer in possibly the worst location a black man could be. As a result, the stakes are much higher for Malcolm than any white kid on the streets, and it plays a key role in his decisions and development across the film.
In a nutshell, for any white person to watch this movie through a lens of colorblindness is to miss much of the deeper meaning of the film. I really encourage this audience to see the racial disparity here, even if some feelings of discomfort, anxiety, and/or indignation ensue. Frankly, Hollywood needs to make room for many more films like this. And about 300 more films with Shameik Moore.
Watch it When: You’re in the mood for a fresh comedy that spends more time documenting the resilience of its main characters rather than idiocrasy.
While You Watch: What would change in Dope if the storyline focused on a cast of white characters instead, and why?