Monday, April 4, 2016

Guest Review: Dope (2015)

by tryanmax

Dope is a low-key, coming-of-age comedy about a misfit black high schooler from a bad neighborhood who wants to go Harvard. It’s also a great example of how to squander audience goodwill with a single sentence. All-in-all, it was a decent film which I enjoyed watching, but would probably not comment on except that, with one line near the end, the filmmakers managed to destroy all of the goodwill they had built up over 90 minutes. I’ll tell you what that line was in a bit.

First, about the movie. Malcolm is a geek. So we are told by the film’s opening narration. It’s a bit patronizing, given that we soon see for ourselves that Malcolm doesn’t fit in to his rough, Inglewood, California neighborhood. He’s obsessed with 90’s hip hop and Bitcoin, he gets good grades, and he is picked on by the thugs who run the block.

Malcolm is cajoled into going to a party hosted by a known drug dealer. At the party, a deal goes south and a shootout ensues. Malcolm believes he has escaped unscathed, but discovers the next day at school that someone has slipped the drugs and a gun into his backpack. He wants to dump them as quickly as possible, but he finds himself caught between rival gangs as well as the everyday tribulations of high school.

What follows is a wild goose chase through a series of outlandish scenarios and a few minor twists. Conceptually, it’s all funny, but less of it is played for laughs than one might expect. The vein that runs through everything is the idea that, as an outsider, Malcolm sees the world differently, and so he finds unique solutions to the problems he encounters. This is true to a certain extent and also serves to highlight the character’s darkest moment when, in a decidedly unoriginal move, Malcolm solves a problem by pointing (but not shooting) a gun. It’s a pivotal scene that illustrates how even a resourceful individual can succumb to making base decisions in trying circumstances.
If all the film set out to do was to give audiences a view of different lives, that would be enough. At the point where Malcolm backs away from a potentially ruinous decision, the audience has seen enough of his world to appreciate the gravity of it. Even if the filmmakers wanted to inject a more pointed message, the audience is now primed for it, so long as the message makes sense.

Instead, it goes for an easy zinger.

As loose ends are tied up on screen, Malcolm reads his Harvard entrance essay in voice over. It’s an abstract retelling of the preceding film, which is fine until the closing line: “Why do I want to attend Harvard? If I was white, would you even have to ask me the question?”

Where did that come from?

“If I was white—” is a very loaded phrase. Black audiences may hear a conversation-stopping “gotcha!” while white audiences will hear it as a familiar accusation. It’s quite the sucker-punch, being pulled into caring about someone’s problems only to be blamed for them.
Throughout the movie, Malcolm is keenly aware that he doesn’t fit the mold of what a black man is “supposed” to be. In fact, it’s basically the root of all his problems. But those expectations, stereotypes and problems come from people in his own community, 99% of whom are black like he is. Malcolm doesn’t throw this back in the faces of the people trying to keep him down. Instead, he saves that ire for Harvard, the one entity that is offering him a way out.

Even as a metaphor it’s unclear who Harvard stands for. On one hand, it could just stand for whites. But the whites in the film are mainly props, and the most prominent white character is a friend and confidant to Malcolm. On the other hand, the main representative of Harvard in the film is a corrupt black businessman with drug ties who actively keeps other blacks down. But if this is Harvard, why does Malcolm want to attend?

More problematic still, the answer to Malcolm’s question would of course be “yes,” which opposes the notion of blacks having different expectations placed on them. As a response to a common admissions question, it reinforces notions of blacks seeing everything as racially charged and expecting to be exempt from ordinary requirements.

Like I said, I chalk this up to a desire to end on a sharp note. Unfortunately, it undermines the pathos of the movie and likely reinforces ideas it was intended to dispel. What do you think?


AndrewPrice said...

Excellent review, tryanmax. I see your point exactly. Tossing that sucker punch out at the end would definitely ruin whatever good will the film had created.

More to the point, I agree with your take on the question. They DO ask that very question to all applicants, white black or other. And the idea that this is somehow asked because of his race really shows a bizarre level of paranoia which reinforces the idea that claims of racism should no longer be taken seriously without overwhelming proof.

Anthony said...

Nice review. Never heard of this movie. Sounds cliche and poorly thought out.

tryanmax said...

Anthony, I'd put a little more nuance on it than that. Yes, it deals in and falls prey to cliches, but on balance, the movie has a fairly unique premise. The film suffers from a flawed paradigm rather than weak ideas. Am I splitting hairs too much?

Anthony said...

I think I see what you are saying.

Allena-C said...

Thanks for the review, Tryanmax!
It's always bizarre when film makers decide to use a sucker punch that makes no sense in light of what the film is about.

tryanmax said...

Allena, agreed, but in this case I think the filmmakers believed it made perfect sense. I just can't figure out why that is.

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