In Which We Try To Decide If We Like ‘Dope,’ Sundance’s Hottest Movie

I’m glad I didn’t write an initial reaction to Dope — perhaps Sundance’s hottest title – right away. I walked out of the Eccles auditorium on an adrenaline-fueled high, even tweeting something to the effect ofDope is awesome” (which is the kind of carefully crafted film criticism that people like me get paid for). I’m still pretty high on Dope, but I wonder if I should be.

Director Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope is the story of a “nerdy” kid named Malcolm (Shameik Moore), who, truth be told, isn’t that nerdy. Sure, he’s really into ‘90s hip-hop – even sporting a mid ’90s style haircut – but on the scale of “things a person can be nerdy about,” ‘90s hip hop is a lot closer to “cool” than, say, collecting Star Wars action figures.

(Dope has been bandied about as “the ‘90s hip hop movie,” which isn’t altogether accurate. There is a lot of ‘90s hip-hop music played – I hope you like Digital Underground! – but the film is set in the present day and this just happens to be what Malcolm likes. It’s more about the notion of being obsessed with something than it is that actual something.)

There’s a lot going on in Dope, which almost distracts you from the film’s problems. During some confusion in the midst of a nightclub shootout, a large amount of MDMA is placed in Malcolm’s backpack, unbeknownst to Malcolm. The rest of the film is about the various forces trying to get that MDMA – this is when Dope pretty much becomes a heist movie. I mean that as a huge compliment.

About halfway through Dope, I remember thinking to myself, I really relate with Malcolm. Now, this is a weird thought because Malcolm is an African-American teenager from inner city Los Angeles and I am a white dude who grew up in the suburbs of the Midwest. I remember then thinking, “This movie is for people like me who went to college when all of these songs were popular.”

After watching Dope, I read Wesley Morris’ scathing takedown. Like all of Morris’ writing, it’s incredibly well written and includes insight that I had not thought of before. But, boy, he hated this movie. Morris ends his review with the sentence, “[Famuyiwa]’s feeding them black shit white people like.” It really doesn’t get more vicious that that.

I’m not convinced that’s entirely true, but there’s certainly some truth there. I am 11 months younger than Famuyiwa (who is African-American), and the ‘90s were when suburban white kids really started listening to hip-hop – so white kids and African-American kids were, for the most part, listening to the same music. So, when I hear the songs featured in Dope, it sparks probably a similar level of nostalgia that an African-American person my age might feel. Not necessarily the same kind of nostalgia, but nostalgia nonetheless. At least, that’s my best guess, because listening to Famuyiwa speak before the film, it’s obvious how personal this story is to him. He made a movie that appeals to him. So, I really don’t think Famuyiwa’s master plan was “I want to make a movie for white people who were born during the 1970s.” But, having said that, Famuyiwa did make a movie that will appeal very much to white people born during the 1970s.

I started out this piece asking myself if I should like Dope. And I’ve decided that I do like Dope — quite a bit, actually. And, yes, I do fit the demographic of the type of person who will probably like this movie more than others – which, even though I don’t totally agree with Morris’ point, probably goes a long way to strengthen his point.

Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.