DOPE tells the story of Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a high-school senior who lives in a tough Los Angeles neighborhood. He is hoping to go to college — Harvard, no less — though first he has to get through the academic interviews and ace the SATs.
As a teenager, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa never imagined that his own experiences growing up in a sketchy Los Angeles-area neighborhood high school would someday be made into a feature film. But that’s exactly what happened with the development of DOPE, which was filmed on location in and around the area in which Famuyiwa grew up: Inglewood, Calif. “Growing up in Inglewood was pivotal for me in terms of shaping who I am,” he says. “For better or worse, your environment defines you, so for DOPE, it was really important for me to revisit that world.”
He continues, “DOPE is like Risky Business for the social-media generation. Through a series of crazy circumstances, Malcolm and his friends have to figure out a way to get out of a bad situation. He does it very much the way a kid of today would think and he comes out on top at the end because of his ambition to succeed.”
DOPE’s producers, Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi also felt a personal connection to the film’s story. “We really connected with the material,” says Bongiovi. “I grew up in an urban neighborhood myself and only a few of us made it out of places like La Puente and Pomona and East L.A. For me, it was refreshing to see that kind of environment depicted in present-day form. We’re always looking for things that stand out, and Rick’s screenplay for DOPE was something we hadn’t seen in the marketplace. Some studios might be afraid of or shy away from a project like this, but as independent producers, we loved the fact that the script was authentic and original and different.”
Whitaker adds, “These guys don’t really fit into the environment the way it is, and there’s a lot of people like that. As a kid coming up in South Central, I was like that myself in some ways. But then I found my way, just as other people find their way.”
For executive producer Mimi Valdes, DOPE finally brings to the big screen a new type of hero, one not usually found in Hollywood storytelling. “It’s a simple idea: black nerds in the hood,” she says. “Why hasn’t anyone shown that part of the culture before? We see it all the time in real life, so here’s an opportunity to show a black kid who is super smart, trying to get into Harvard, acing his SATs, liking tech stuff and hip hop music and rock bands and grunge. We’ve never seen that character in the movies. I think it’s genius.”
Famuyiwa says, “I see DOPE as a throwback to when you went to the movies and had a blast, not because there was a dinosaur or a talking teddy bear or whatever but because there were some really interesting people that you were going to live with for the next hour and a half of your life. Ultimately what you’ll walk away with from seeing DOPE is that it’s a fun film with great music.” At the same time, DOPE aims to stretch expectations, just like the black geek at the heart of its story. “What is a coming-of-age story?” Famuyiwa muses. “What is a teen comedy? We’ve seen those kinds of films before. I wanted to give this a unique perspective that we haven’t seen before.”
DOPE is available beginning Oct. 13 on Video On Demand. Check your cable system for availability.
© Open Road Films Credit: Rachel Morrison