Director Rick Famuyiwa Flips Black Stereotypes with His John Hughes-Influenced ‘Dope'
We caught up at Cannes to chat about teen movies, nerdy menaces to society, and working with A$AP Rocky.
Still from 'Dope' (2015). Photo credit: Rachel Morrison
Any film that starts with a three-pronged dictionary definition of the word dope is clearly not targeting urban teenagers. Let's face it, you'd had to have been living on planet D. W. Griffith to not get the drug reference, the insinuation that someone is a fool, or that something is awesome. With its urban cast, Inglewood backdrop, and 90s gangster-comedy vibe, Dope is a film purporting to be a mash-up of Friday and Boyz n the Hood, but it is really a John Hughes tribute aimed at misguided white folk.
The cinema aficionados who program the sunny Cannes Film Festival rarely take films from snowy Sundance. When they do, they tend to be sensations like drummer drama Whiplash, which went onto Oscar glory. With Dope being the only film to make the transfer this year, it's positioned as one of this year's top American indie films.
Official trailer to 'Dope' (2015)
Where Dope will undoubtedly leave its mark is with its cast. Simply put, this is the freshest crop of young black actors to appear in a movie since the 90s . In the lead role of Malcolm is Shameik Moore, who seems like he was unearthed by taxmen wading through old Polaroids of Wesley Snipes. He has that energy, exuberance of youth, and aura that only comes once or twice a generation. And where would a film paying homage to 90s hip-hop be if it didn't have musicians crossing over to the silver screen? Rapper A$AP Rocky, who just-dropped an album that is at the top of the charts, plays a dope dealer whose thug reputation may not be all that it seems. His femme-fatale girlfriend, the Lisa Bonet-type babe, comes in the shape of Bonet's real-life daughter (with rocker Lenny Kravitz) Zoë Kravitz, in a role that thankfully demands more of her than posturing next to some scantily clad models as a truck tears up and down Fury Road.
It's eye opening that, seven years into Obama's presidency, we still need films whose raison d'être is to explode racial stereotyping. But what with all these young black men dying at the hands of cops, it also seems terribly urgent. Inglewood-born director Rick Famuyiwa has seemingly made it his life's work to disprove the criminal tarnishing of his peers. Previous credits include The Wood (1999) and Brown Sugar (2002), films that dared to show middle-class blacks as ordinary Americans.
Still from 'Dope' (2015). Photo credit: Rachel Morrison
Famuyiwa follows the latest fashion for putting geeks at the center of high-school movies by having hero Malcolm and his best buddies, tomboy Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and wide-eyed Jib (Tony Revolori, arriving from The Grand Budapest Hotel), as a trio of nerdy, computer-savvy, Harvard-applying friends, wise to the dangers of groupthink. Homework is put on ice as they fall headlong into a drug caper. Along the way, they learn a life lesson that living like Ferris Bueller is more fun than being a Menace II Society.
When we met, Famuyiwa was holding court on the rooftop of the Palais des Festivals. It sounds glamorous, conjuring up images of turrets, champagne, and bling—but in fact it's just the top room of a conference center with a fancy name. It seems that when you scratch beneath the surface, there's not that much separating Cannes from Inglewood.
Your three protagonists are fans of 90s hip-hop, despite being pretty far removed from that era. But isn't Dope actually a tribute to the 80s John Hughes films?
Rick Famuyiwa: I grew up on those movies—Ferris Bueller, The Breakfast Club , and Sixteen Candles . John Hughes was a big influence in terms of me wanting to do this as a career. I watched those films, and I could relate to so much of what he was conveying because there was a truth to those characters, even though they were from suburban Chicago, which was as far away from where I was living as anything. The same way I was a kid who grew up in Inglewood loving The Breakfast Club, I feel like there will be kids in suburban Chicago, or Brentwood, or somewhere else around the world, who will relate to the kids in Dope, even though their circumstances aren't exactly the same.
You seem obsessed with the homogenized image of the urban black youth, especially one pushed by cinema in the 90s. As well as being a teen comedy, there is a serious attempt to undercut the black urban stereotype?
I wanted to put a mirror to our perception versus reality. It was really important for me to get some of those ideas out there. I do feel like we all bring our points of view and prejudices and whatever to the cinema when we watch people on screen. So I was very aware of what some of those would be, and I wanted to turn some of those on their head.
You gave the actors some iconic 90s films to watch as preparation, movies like Boyz n the Hood and Belly. Do you try and rip those apart by siding with the nerd?
I didn't want to pinpoint that collection of films as good or bad. I definitely wanted to bring a different point of view to telling that kind of story and use some of those things from those genres that have now become so ingrained. [I wanted to try] to flip them and say, "Let's give you another point of view," or "let me as a writer go on a certain journey and then turn it into a different journey," and hope that you understand what the flip was about.
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Yes, but a lot of people when they watch Scarface, they just see the drugs and the lifestyle, and don't take in the message. Is there a danger that this film, viewers will see some of the misogyny and criminal antics, and want to ape that, rather than take in the message of the film?
Maybe that happens. Look, I want the film to stand on its own feet as what it is, a sort of comedy-adventure story about these three kids from this very specific part of Los Angeles who go on a journey that takes them to a lot of different, crazy places. I just want to be real with it. I think so many times when we see films, especially comedies, you want to walk away thinking, those kids are so cool , and we had such a good time, and you forget about the problems that exist and the reality of the world that they come from.
'I was thinking about Malcolm and what black masculinity means and how that would be. How if you were a kid from this part of the world, you could be looked upon as a menace and a geek at the same time.'
Why do we need a film with this message seven years into Obama? Or do you think we need a film with this message because it's seven years into Obama?
I feel like the Obama presidency allowed us to stop talking about race because that became what defined you as a person. Whether you voted for Obama, or you didn't, we still are living in a country that has a black president. So that means that [you think] you are progressive and cool and it just sort of froze things in a way. We stopped engaging. I think once that happened, you have elements that sort of arise. Race and the history of race in America is a part of its founding and will probably never completely go away. There will always be films that will deal with that in one way or another. This just comes at a time when, in the United States, we are reexamining race, especially in relation to young black males, in a way that we haven't had in a long time. And it does feel a lot like the 90s when I was growing up and we had hip-hop—Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and NWA—where we are screaming about things going on [and yet] nobody really knew about it.
How does that sense of race politics and art promoting social justice relate to Dope?
I think that now with social media we are seeing things that have been latently living under the surface for a long time, and so this just happened to come at that time. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about that as an influence. I was thinking about Malcolm and what black masculinity means and how that would be. How if you were a kid from this part of the world, you could be looked upon as a menace and a geek at the same time. [I wanted to explore] what that means.
Hip-hop has a prominence on the sound track. You have tunes from A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Pharrell, Nas, Naughty by Nature, but what really stands out is the choice of Gil Scott-Heron?
I always like to use music in my storytelling, and I use actual songs as score in many cases. The Gil Scott-Heron I thought connected a lot of the dots in that he was sort of an originator of hip-hop. He was sampled recently by Kanye West on one of his albums; from the younger crowd's perspective, when they hear that, they think of Kanye and not Gil Scott-Heron. I felt like there was this transition that Malcolm was taking at the time of sort of realizing what going home meant and how he's been defined by his home and how he wants to escape it. I felt like "Home is Where the Hatred Is" embodied that.
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Can you tell me about writing the women in the film? You made Diggy, played by Kiersey Clemons, a masculine tomboy figure, and this is juxtaposed with Nakia, who is super-feminine.
I just wanted to reflect different sides of characters. It was mainly about Malcolm, and it's hard when you have so many different ideas and you want to balance them all. You have one main character whose journey you have to service. I didn't have a specific idea that I wanted one woman to be like this and the other like that and to comment on anything about the women in the film, except that I wanted them to all feel like they were subverting part of expectation. I felt like [the role of] every character in the movie is to subvert expectation—whether it's Dom talking about Obama's drone policy, or the kid who is actually knows how to sell drugs being the white kid from Brentwood and not the black kid from Inglewood.
Is that why you cast A$AP Rocky, since he would go against the expectation that he's built up around his image. Yes, he's playing the drug dealer, but he doesn't have the journey one would normally expect ?
Look, I grew up with a lot of guys like the Dom character in the movie. There was a certain intelligence and charm that these guys would have, and I'd be fascinated and think where would this guy be if he wasn't born in Inglewood, California, if he was born in Brentwood, California? A$AP Rocky is so smart and such an intuitive actor, and I knew that sort of unexpected casting would play into how I wanted Dom to be perceived. You want to initially think of him in a certain way, but as you get into how and what he is, [you see] he isn't quite that.
Rick Famuyiwa's Dope opens in theaters June 16.
Kaleem Aftab is on Twitter.