Straight Outta Compton has held for no. 1 three straight weeks now, and it has definitely been for lack of trying. The highest profile release since it came out was the critically eviscerated Sinister 2. Compton barely beat evangelist film War Room last weekend. When a movie’s tagline is as lame as “Prayer is a powerful weapon” and it had, like, no advertisements, and you can only get $2 million over on it, that’s not really something to brag about. The film looks to limp into another first place finish over Labor Day, as the only real movie slated for the three-day weekend is the Transporter reboot with some rapper nobody’s ever heard of taking over for Jason Statham. Wonder how that’ll work out.
Anyway, the time is clearly ripe for something — anything! — new to come out, and Open Road Films is filling that gap by re-releasing their Sundance darling/commercial flop Dope. While most movies that make it out of a festival go straight to arthouses and not many people hear about them, Dope was given a wide release and significant advertising, an honest shot to succeed. However, that wide release was June 19 against the second weekend of Jurassic World and the first weekend of Inside Out, and a director spliced with DNA from Tarantino, Hitchcock and Michael Bay couldn’t have drawn an audience under those conditions. Dope finished its run with a laughable $16 million, barely more than twice the $7 million Open Road paid for its domestic distribution rights in a six-way bidding war, and less than the $20 million it promised for advertising.
Dope is a fantastic movie, and everyone should take the opportunity to go and see it now that it’s back in theaters.
The movie is about Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore), a black kid from a single-parent home going to a poor high school in Inglewood, but whose grades allow for Harvard aspirations. A girl he fancies, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), invites him and his cohorts to the birthday party of Dom (A$AP Rocky), a drug dealer, but it goes south when a rival gang shows up guns blazing. Knowing he’ll be arrested, Dom stashes two kilos of ecstasy and a pistol in Adekanbi’s backpack, sucking him into the world of drugs and violence he’s desperately avoided.
Where many movies approximate quirkiness, Dope is genuinely idiosyncratic. Its twists aren’t telegraphed. There’s no predictably random shenanigans to manufacture an unpredictable feel. Adekanbi is entering into a world he’s unfamiliar with, and the audience is just as unfamiliar.
It’s got a bit of a narration problem. The narrating is used to set tone, but the film later relies on some Scorsese tricks with soundtrack and editing to create the same effect in a much more pleasing way.
Dope’s best aspect is its powerful subtext about the “institutional” in institutional racism. Adekanbi is fighting two battles here — one to get into Harvard and the other to get rid of the ecstasy in a way that won’t get him killed or caught and stuck in the drug trafficking lifestyle. These sets of priorities quickly coincide, because they are in reality the same fight against his own destiny as a black kid from a poor, single-parent home in Inglewood. Adekanbi’s real battle is to not become the gangbanger everyone already assumes he is, and the assumptions strangers make about him figure prominently in driving him toward his fate. The movie has a truly powerful message, but spoils it by getting a little preachy at the end.
This is, I think, the only movie I’ve seen where racism itself is the main antagonist. There isn’t any governor with an over-exaggerated southern accent here, there’s no cop unnecessarily beating anyone, there’s no single character to point to and say, “well, he’s racist, he’s the problem.” It’s everyone. In his every interaction, Adekanbi’s race precedes him. It’s subtle, but this confluence of interpersonal, internal and societal conflict requires expert craftmanship, and writer/director Rick Famuyiwa deserves all sorts of accolades for creating it.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Kanye 2020, why not. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.