Shamiek Moore as Malcolm: Leader of the Geek Squad
Big Ups for the Smart kids
Although this movie is Dope on the real, it could easily have been named “Geeks in the Hood,” or “The Geek Squad” vs “Dope Posse.” And the outcome of this imaginative urban fable would have been just as surprising. Perhaps it is because there is so much competition facing the movie business today that writers and directors are forced to become more creative; to create works that titillate our emotions and stimulate our intellect; movies that shock, entertain and often provide food for thought. This is such a movie.
While the most popular American movies rely more and more on the tricks of the cinematic trade that advances in technology makes possible – endless explosions, giant killer machines that transform themselves before our eyes; the marvelous illusions conjured up by special effects, and the booms and bangs orchestrated to dynamic musical scores composed in popular idioms – other movies rely on thoughtful scripts and excellent actors. Dope falls into the latter category. The script combines thoughtful, clever, irreverent language and ideas with a group of talented young actors that make us believe the zany events in this movie could actually happen.
Set in the same type of dangerous funky inner-city LA urban landscape we were first introduced to in John Singleton’s classic Boyz in the Hood, Dope, which is written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, provides a different view of youths in the Hood. Although written and produced a generation later, one cannot help but notice some similarities between Boyz and Dope, this is because Famuyiwa, like John Singleton, also grew up in LA and studied cinema at the famous film school in the University of Southern California – a school whose illustrious grads have left an indelible mark on American Film. Hence like Boyz in da Hood, this is an insider’s view of life in the sprawling megalopolis of Southern California that keeps it real.
A striking difference between the two films is that Boyz focused on the gangstas and Dope centers on the geeks. Whereas a central character in Boyz dreamed of going to USC on a football scholarship and struggled to make the cut by achieving the minimum score on the SAT, the central character in Dope, Malcom, is something of a computer genius and alternative rock musician who aspires to go to Harvard.
In other words, Famuyiwa has written and directed a film about people like him and his peeps; smart kids in the hood who don’t buy the bogus “real niggaz” bullshit. They know from first hand observation that the decadent nihilistic values which underpin the “real nigga” syndrome are a direct road to jail or an early grave. And they ain’t tryin to go either place. These are young black people who still dare to dream big dreams that can be realized by education and hard work; so they are trying to go to a good college.
The Geek Squad Rocks tha House
Their songs were innovative and musically demanding
Malcolm continues to nurture this dream despite discouraging advice from his black male high- school guidance counsellor who calls him “arrogant” and points out that although he has a straight A average, the neighborhood he lives in, and the high school he attended, will cause admissions people at Harvard to view his achievements with suspicion and pretty much dismiss them. It is a scene that calls to mind the experience described by Malcolm X in his Autobiography, where a white counsellor discouraged his ambitions to become a lawyer as “unrealistic for a Negro” and told him he should aspire to be a carpenter instead.
When they discuss Malcolm’s essay, an analytic history of local cultural icon Ice Cube’s career, which he is intent on submitting with his application for admission to Harvard despite the advice of his academic advisor, the counsellor dismissed it as folly and insisted that Malcolm write an essay about himself. However Malcolm was unpersuaded and pointed out that the essay he had written displayed all of the things that Harvard should be interested in when considering a potential student; arguing the essay was well designed and researched, plus a model of reason and critical thinking. He concluded his argument with the audacious claim: “If Dr. Neil de grass Tyson wrote an essay about Ice Cube this is what it would look like.”
Malcolm’s geek squad consists of two other close friends, a quirky Hispanic guy who proudly claims that according to Ancestry.Com he is 14% African, played by Tony Revolori, and an out butch dyke played by the lovely Kiersey Clemons. The three of them swoop around their LA hood on bikes; constantly making quick detours in order to avoid the gangstas that control the streets. This is such a persistent problem that one of the geeks suggests that somebody should invent a computer App that will allow them to identify where the thugs are congregating and plot an alternative route.
Although not without laughter, the film paints a poignant portrait of the trials and tribulations suffered by bright kids in dangerous inner-city neighborhoods; kids who are trying to prepare themselves for college and are not enamored with Tupac’s “thug life;” kids who are “different,” as they constantly describe themselves. In them we see a self-portrait of the writer and his world; Famuyika tells us:
The thing you gotta understand about L.A. is that everything is suburbia. Los Angeles isn’t set up like San Francisco or New York. People come to L.A. and they expect to see a ghetto like the projects, but that’s not the way it’s set up. Inglewood, in particular, is the furthest thing from a ghetto. It’s a middle-class community, but it’s gotten a bad rap over the years…because of Grand Canyon and Pulp Fiction and other films.” Famuyiwa continues about his hometown, “I would be lying if I said there isn’t a negative element in the city, but I would say it’s no different than any other city. You come across gangs na find trouble no matter what you do. But we were never into that. My group of friends were never into that.”
The Intrepid Bikers
Adroitly navigating the pitfalls of da hood
It was while forced to make a quick detour from their usual route home because the murderous Bloods were shooting a You Tube video, that they became entangled with the local drug lord. One day while riding through his territory the Drug lord stopped Malcolm and pressed him into service delivering a message to a local beauty.
However when Malcolm approached the girl he found her working on a mathematical equation. After conveying the dealer’s message he told her how to solve the equation. She was impressed. During Malcolm’s conversation with the drug lord and his posse the subject turned to Hip Hop, and Malcolm revealed another side of his personality: he and his geek squad are serious student /aficionado of 1990’s rap music.
Malcolm is in fact an authority on the artists of that period – Public enemy, NWA, Wu Tang Clan, et al – which he calls “the Golden Age of Hip hop,” and when he begins to discuss the relative merits of the various rappers the dope dealer and his posse are impressed. When he sends Malcolm, who he refers to only as “Little Nigga,” back to the young lady to carry an invitation to his birthday party, she says she will only come if Malcolm can also come. When Malcolm tells the geek squad about the invitation to party with the gangstas he had no intention of going, although he was tempted because the young fox would be there. However his two fellow geeks were intrigued and saw it as a once in a lifetime adventure, and reasoned that since they would be the guest of the leader of the pack they would be safe.
So they went to the party and it changed their lives. At first they were having a ball with an unending supply of liquor, weed; the Spanish kid got blasted and Malcolm was on cloud nine rubbing bellies on the dance floor with his heart throb. But while the guest boogied their brains out a big dope deal was going down in a back room. It was not until the deal went bad and the drug lord came backing out of the door firing his guns wildly that the hard partying guest had any clue what was going on.
Suddenly a posse of cops entered the club with guns blazing. The geeks’ dream party became a terrifying nightmare as the revelers fled into the night dodging bullets. But there was a special twist for Malcolm, as the dope dealer had stuffed his backpack full of Molly and stashed his gun in with the drugs. It was not until Malcolm and the Geek Squad arrived at school the next day that they discovered the dope and the loaded Roscoe. This discovery and their subsequent attempt to get rid of the dope takes us on a fascinating journey into the world of cybercrime – a kind convergence of “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Boyz In the Hood.” On the way we meet a fascinating array of strange people, most of whom are out to do Malcolm and the Geeks no good.
As the Geeks wonder what to do with the dope – scared shitless by their sudden predicament which in the nature of things was very dangerous – a cell phone begins to ring in the back pack. To his amazement the voice on the phone not only knows he has the dope, but also knows his name and present location! The voice tells Malcolm when and where to deliver the dope and he will be able to live a “happy life” with and interesting tale to tell. Should he fail to show up with the dope he and all of his friends would get iced. Malcolm quickly agreed ti the caller’s demands and was happy to do so; he couldn’t wait to be rid of the dope. However a series of madcap events follows that prevents the delivery and Malcolm and the Geeks end up with a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of dope.
The story of how they disposed of the dope is the heart of this fantastic tale, and it begins when the dyke points out that this is not heroin or cocaine they were trying to move but Molly. “So all we have to do is find the white people,” she said. As much as I’d love to go on discusing this story line, I feel that I would do the reader a disservice by denying you the joy and wonder I felt as I witnessed the film unfold. Suffice it to say that you will meet a fascinating array of characters that will make your liver quiver with delight. It is smart, sexy, stylish, adventurous, and entertaining the way all good and successful movies must be. It is no accident that I say “good” and “successful” because they are not always the same thing. There are a lot of good movies, films that I like a lot, which are great artistic achievements but cannot attract and audience.
I think with the proper promotion this film could be a smash!!! It is a paean to modern urban life and an elucidation of how Hip Hop has helped shape the culture proclivities of all Americans of the ir generation –especially in providing the beats that defined what the great Afro-American writer and cultural critic Albert Murray called “The velocity of celebration.”
Of course Murray was talking about the music that animated the club scene in Kansas City during the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Like the plays of Shakespeare, which literary critics have firmly implanted in some exalted place in the “western canon” – although he was trying to write popular entertainments that a largely illiterate audience would pay their hard earned coin to see – Jazz has been similarly sanitized and canonized to the point that we forget some of the greatest patrons of jazz artist were gangsters.
For instance, the great Earl “Fatha” Hines tells fascinating stories about his relationship with Al Capone, who regularly came to hear his band at The Grand Terrace in Chicago. Hines was glad to see him in the audience because he always spent a lot of money, and the musicians that played the clubs and dance halls of Kansas City, a wide open boom town in the middle of America where every variety of vice flourished, recall regularly seeing “Pretty Boy” Floyd and “Machine Gun Kelly” out on the dance floor. So contrary to what some anti-hip hop old heads may say: Gangers have always been part of the music scene. For one thing they owned most of the night clubs. It was no different with Hip hop, especially in the early days.
Although hip hop began as a musical phenomenon, spoke words over musical “beats,” it quickly inspired other art forms: break dancing; graffiti art; videos; new hardware for spinning records; sound sampling; fashion and feature films. This movie is the latest contribution to the genre and it shows in poignant fashion the extent to which hip hop was the soundtrack of a generation’s lives in a way that Blues, Jazz, or Rhythm and Blues could never equal because none of those musical genres directly address the broad range of issues that determine the life’s chances of their listeners the way rappers do. Like comedy, hip hop is an intellectual art; the rapper must tell a story or make a statement that not only addresses issues that are often quite complex, but they must do it with high style and originality while chanting over beats. The artist must keep it real while spitting rhymes with a seamless flow.
In other words rappers must be so skilled at combining rhythm and rhyme that they can convey their message while the listeners are grooving to the beat. And the way hip hop music is utilized in this movie clearly demonstrates the role it has played in shaping the consciousness of a generation – whether it is the rapid fire sermons of Chuck D; the parodic voice of Flava Flave; the prophetic admonitions of Nas declaring “the world is yours,” or Digital Underground calling people to celebrate life by getting down with the “Humpty Hump.” Malcolm reveals yet another side to his character as he becomes a dancing fool really getting down to Digital Underground, after having won the girl, dumped the dope and won admission to Harvard.
One thing is clear: Rick Famuyiwa is a gifted film maker with a very bright future. This movie represents the kind of masterpiece that can still be culled from the realities of the gritty urban environment when smart black people are in charge. The thing that validated my conclusion about the importance of this film was the response from an 18 year old college bound young lady who was taking tickets in the Magic Johnson Theater. When I asked her if she had seen the film and what she thought of it, she said she had seen it three times and “It gave me a feeling of hope.” You cannot ask more of a film that that in these troubled times