IN THE LEAD-UP to the Sundance Film Festival back in January, WIRED tapped Dope as one of our most anticipated movies of the winter fest. I waited in a very long line outside the Library Center Theater in Park City and then snaked my way through a sea of obnoxious women saving dozen-seat blocks with their WASP-beige wool coats and tasteful purses. And then I finally got to my seat for the Saturday night premiere. It was worth the wait.
For fear of sounding deeply reductive, Dope feels a lot like John Singleton’s seminal Boyz n the Hood if it had been a more hopeful and uplifting film. But of course, when Singleton made Boyz in 1991, it couldn’t have been hopeful. The Los Angeles riots were a year away from exploding across the city’s public image like an irritated blister. For many, LA in the early 1990s was about Rodney King and Public Enemy and institutional racism that basically made being black and on the street a crime. And despite having an African-American president, we are reminded too frequently by names like Oscar Grant and Michael Brown and Freddie Gray that conversations about true equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal protection under the law are far from over.
So amidst the crushing realities of the 24-hour news cycle and adjacency to the gritty legacies of movies like Boyz, how does an optimistic, energetic movie like Dope get made? The answer comes in several parts: writer-director Rick Famuyiwa, the Internet, and luck. Dope could have been a trite exercise in parading black stereotypes for the delight of yuppie audiences, but Famuyiwa fills his characters with the optimism and possibility of being a young, curious person in the booming digital age.
“A lot of what drove it was that we’re living in this place where anything is possible,” says Famuyiwa while explaining the origins of Dope. “It wasn’t that long ago that I was coming up, but it feels almost ancient that you had to go to the library and you had World Book Encyclopedias. But when you have instant access to everything, how does that shape your worldview? And so that was the driving force in thinking about these characters and their world.”
So, how did a movie with a cast of little-known actors shot in 25 days manage to become the biggest buy at Sundance and score a musical partnership with Pharrell? Here’s a primer on the most crucial information about Dope, out today, in three parts.
The Mastermind: Rick Famuyiwa
The last time we heard from Famuyiwa was his 2010 effort Our Family Wedding, but you might know him better from The Wood or Brown Sugar. Each of those movies focused on adult protagonists reconciling their imminent marriages with the relationships and formative events of their pasts. But Dope goes a different route entirely, following the lives of three high school seniors growing up in The Bottoms neighborhood of Inglewood, California. More specifically, the movie takes us on the journey of Malcolm (Shameik Moore), who, along with his two best friends, must navigate high school politics, crushes, college admissions, and how to offload several pounds of drugs that get stashed in his backpack. He also has to launder money using Bitcoin.
It’s (almost) entirely normal high school movie fodder, even if you don’t live in a place where a kid can get jumped for his sneakers, and telling that kind of relatable, human story was Famuyiwa’s primary endeavor when putting Dope on paper. He cites his own love of John Hughes movies as a catalyst for Dope’s story. “I felt like I was Ferris Bueller. I wanted to be those kids in The Breakfast Club,” Famuyiwa says, before noting he wanted bring those stories into modern times. “I wanted to try and change the idea of what we call mainstream. So many times what we call mainstream is upper middle class white suburbia. And anything outside of that is considered niche.”
I wanted to try and change the idea of what we call mainstream. RICK FAMUYIWA
But in a world of broadband Internet and ubiquitous connectivity, the word niche means less and less over time. As every type of recreational pursuit becomes accessible online, culture is being broken down into smaller and smaller components for people to consume based on their hyper-specific interests. Being able to access those micro-interests is what distinguishes Famuyiwa’s cast in Dope from Singleton’s cast in Boyz n the Hood.
The actor who plays Malcolm, Shameik Moore, at first bears a striking physical resemblance to Hood’s beloved, ill-fated Ricky, played by Morris Chestnut. Both Malcolm and Ricky are determined to escape the death grips of their respective neighborhoods, but where Ricky’s one shot at freedom was his football scholarship, Malcolm’s options are, in many ways, only limited by his imagination and ability to Google.
“You can’t control where you are born, and when you’re growing up, until you’ve seen something else, you’re just living your life. These kids don’t even think of themselves as being in a terrible or bad environment,” says Famuyiwa. “It’s sort of a generation that feels limitless. Harvard and Ivy League schools feel real and attainable to [Malcolm] because he’s connected to a lot of those kids. It opens up a world of possibilities, but it also opens our eyes to what we still are struggling with. I think Malcolm and his friends are dealing with all of that.”
But in the pursuit of writing a bunch of wired teens, Famuyiwa also didn’t want to make some ham-fisted “Hey guys, we use the Internet for stuff!” movie that was going to be dated in five years. The director wanted to make interactions with tech as “organic” as possible. You know, he wanted it to feel like real life.
“It’s how we all live now,” says Famuyiwa. “And I think part of it is juxtaposition, because you don’t really expect it, that technology penetrates everywhere, including the Bottoms in Inglewood. It’s kind of ‘Oh, of course that’s how you track your drugs!’”
To make Dope’s narrative relatable yet true to the current cultural climate, it was crucial to Famuyiwa that his characters be specific people and not just archetypes, or as he puts it, “slightly skewed from what you would expect that character to be.”
“I didn’t want it to feel like we’re just populating the world with black characters. I wanted it to be very specific,” Famuyiwa says. “They’re faced with a lot of challenges most people don’t have to face. So I wanted to be very real about that, but also feel like just because it’s not your exact experiences that doesn’t mean you can’t relate to them.”
During the Q&A following its Sundance premiere, rapper A$AP Rocky, who has a small part in the film, said he was attracted to Dope because it offered more than just stereotypes. He had entertained other roles before, and despite the fact that he’s playing a drug dealer on screen, he chose this role to make his acting debut because he liked the adroit twist his character Dom put on the corner thug.
Similarly, Malcolm’s friend Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) is a lesbian, but isn’t hyper-defined by her blackness or her gayness or her femininity—all cultural identifiers worth celebrating—she simply is. And Clemons secured the role when she showed up and reinvented the character in front of him.
“She just brought a realness to it that I don’t know was necessarily there before. You know, a generational realness,” recalls Famuyiwa. “I was thinking of it more in terms of a gay kid growing up in LA was when I was coming up, and she came in and did her thing and I was like, ‘Wow. This is so right. You are Diggy.’”
And with all the other casting pieces in place, his hero was the only spot left to fill, but whoever was going to step into Malcolm’s vintage Air Jordans had to be the most specific of all.
The Star: Shameik Moore
Famuyiwa starting developing Dope in his head back in 2009. He saw The RZA give an interview about his new-at-the-time book The Tao of Wu in which the Wu-Tang Clan founder talked about growing up as a nerd in Staten Island. That got the filmmaker wondering about what it meant to be a “black geek,” someone who, like the eventual members of Wu-Tang, was into “chess and karate films and comic books and Star Wars” but didn’t look like what the aforementioned mainstream recognized as a traditional nerd. “That geek doesn’t look exactly the same as Jonah Hill and Michael Cera,” he says, “even though they felt the same sense of ‘We’re weird. We don’t fit in. So we’re just going to do our own thing.’”
The idea stayed packed away in Famuyiwa’s mind until he started seeing a shift in how up-and-coming entertainers packaged and distributed their art. The Odd Future collective, Joey Bada$$, and the A$AP Mob are all examples the director gives of young people using the digital space to create content, build their brands and even distribute material for free in order to amass devoted followings without conventional label support—or conventional label money. Watching the innovations in how art was born and consumed tipped Famuyiwa off that the time for his Dope movie to hit marketable relevance was finally on its way. “It felt like what I had been thinking about was coming alive,” he says.
And thus we arrive at Malcolm, the star of Dope and embodiment of the movie’s ethos, that connection and curiosity can propel previously closed-off people and communities toward progress by showing them that a bigger world is available to them, and that as disparate people become more visible to each other, we can see that our lives aren’t that different.
Malcolm was the keystone of the movie, and also the very last person to be cast, but when Famuyiwa got Shameik Moore’s video audition he immediately knew he’d found his leading man.
“We met a lot of talented kids but Malcolm had to embody so many different things,” he says. “He had to be confident, but naive at the same time, to be funny, to be serious, and kind of balance it all.”
The fact that Moore looked like Chestnut was obviously coincidence, but it did handily play into the director’s commentary on and homage to Boyz n the Hood as well as his desire to make the movie’s sense of time a little blurry.
It’s appropriate that Moore, who was six when Boyzcame out, is striding onto the scene courtesy of Dope, as he fits into Malcolm’s hi-top fade and Air Jordans so neatly you can’t imagine him playing anyone else. (But for a few TV credits and an appearance in Joyful Noise, he mostly hasn’t.) It’s also easy to feel all the possibility that Famuywia wrote into Malcolm radiating off of him. “I’m imagining myself at 25 right now,” says Moore. “I’ll take it to the next level! Be something the world has never seen before!”
In a movie stacked with memorable characters and charged by a feel-good soundtrack oscillating between 1990s nostalgia jams and custom new tracks courtesy of Pharrell, Malcolm is both the heart and the backbone of the story. For Dope to work, Malcolm has to be charming as hell, and that’s a trait Moore has in abundance.
The actor, 20, is at once humbled by his sudden success and dead certain this is only the beginning for him. He speaks at length about positive energy and being grateful for his many blessings and how inspired he is by the massive influx of creative people in his life. He sings and dances (he’s currently working on an album) and acts, but looks forward to a future writing and directing his own material. He simply is that millennial spirit of do anything, be anything, see everything that Famuyiwa wanted to harness in his film.
I’m gonna create greatness. I’m going to affect history in a positive way. SHAMEIK MOORE
“I’m gonna create greatness. I’m going to affect history in a positive way,” he explains. “The kind of person I am, I just like to learn. Right now I feel like I’m in college. You know? I get to learn from the best and apply that to my own life, and become who I want to be.”
While Moore is in spirit very similar to Malcolm—even if distinctly more ebullient—the two had very different childhoods. Moore grew up outside of Atlanta, and up until sixth grade attended private school. The transition into public education by no means put him in the Bottoms, but Moore learned in his new environment how to skirt the rougher elements around him while staying adept at navigating various cliques.
“When I heard people talking about guns or selling drugs or getting this or doing that or robbing this place—nah,” says Moore. “I know when I’m supposed to talk and when I’m supposed to be quiet. I know when to leave. From my perspective I can relate to Malcolm in that sense, just being a little different than the people in his environment.”
But as much as Moore is Malcolm, he and his director both agree the character’s DNA is undeniably Famuyiwa. “I think he’s based on me, now, today. Not me when I was his age,” says Famuyiwa. But Moore goes a step further in explicitly tying the character to its creator.
“I did a really good job—not to toot my own horn—with Malcolm, but Malcolm is Rick,” Moore explains. “I watched him. I got to see him doing business. I got to see him smile and laugh and I got to see him with his family and his wife. You know, I got to see a lot of emotions with him, and I was able to really fold that into this character.”
The (Musical) Good Luck
So Famuyiwa had the idea. He knew the timing was right, and knew he could “scrape the money together somehow” to bring it to life. But as much as any human being in the film, the music is a character. The classic hip-hop tracks from acts like A Tribe Called Quest and Rakim establish the rich ambiance of a Rick Famuyiwa production, and set the aesthetic tone for the movie’s trio of protagonists—Malcolm, Jib (Tony Revolori), and Diggy—each of whom is obsessed with hip-hop culture of yesteryear (particularly 1994).
The director knew that he wanted the kids to be in a band, but he didn’t know what he wanted them to sound like until he met master-producer and ageless being, Pharrell. The two happened to share an agent, and during a meeting one day the agent told Famuyiwa that Pharrell would likely be interested in his project. Famuyiwa responded the way any person would, which is to basically say “Cool story bro. Yeah I’ll just call Pharrell up right now…” But that’s pretty much what happened.
“I didn’t know how the music would come together and then that meeting happened and we sent him the treatment and the look book and Pharrell really responded to the world,” says Famuyiwa. “He connected to these kids. He said, ‘Look, that was me. You were doing it in Inglewood. I was doing it in Virginia. But I was the only black kid wearing Vans.’ And so he dove in.”
Famuyiwa talked to Pharrell about creating a sound for the in-world band, Awwreoh, that was reflective of what these kids would listen to. Yes, that meant Eric B. and Naughty by Nature and A$AP Rocky, but also Dead Kennedys and TV on the Radio—aka “white people shit” in the parlance of the film. So Pharrell left the conversation and came back with four original songs that feel delightfully reminiscent of the artist’s N.E.R.D. days, but also speak to the specific characters that sing them in the movie (Moore, Clemons, and Tony Revolori recorded the actual vocals).
“We’re in the studio and he’s like ‘Tell me about Malcolm.’ Shameik was there too, and we just all started talking about the character and who he is and his ambitions and so he’s like ‘OK. I got it,’” says Famuyiwa. “Then he goes off for half an hour and he’s in the courtyard pacing up and down and talking to himself. He comes back in like 30 minutes later and he starts going into the lyrics of the song.”
Dope now had its sound, and a week before production started, landed its star. But this was happening in June of last year, and the Sundance submission deadline was Aug. 29. So Famuyiwa and company shot the movie in 25 days, got a month extension from the festival, cut the film in four weeks, and then turned it over to the submission committee at the end of September. If you saw Dope in Park City back in January, you’ll be delighted to hear additional music in the final cut premiering today. The movie was mostly done for its first public screenings, but Famuyiwa didn’t have time to clear rights for all the songs he wanted.
So that’s how it happened. In just under a year since the start of production, Rick Famuyiwa took the idea that had been kicking around his head since 2009 and brought it from look-book to Sundance smash. Famuyiwa’s next project is the HBO original movie Confirmation about the hearings leading up to Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court amidst salacious allegations of harassment from Anita Hill. White House political drama favorite Kerry Washington will star.
As for Shameik Moore, he’s just looking forward to his next challenge, which will be a chance to break bad as a character named Shaolin Fantastic in Baz Luhrmann’s new Netflix series The Get Down. And he promises that just like he put his “whole heart and soul” into Dope, he’s going to do the same for Luhrmann. When that’s done, he’s ready to work until he seizes up from exhaustion, because now that Moore has seen what’s available him, he’s ready to dive in.
“I don’t want any downtime until I need downtime, until I can’t process anything else anymore,” says Moore. “It’s a bigger picture than I was thinking. It’s just starting right now, but I already see it unfolding. We’re writing the future just now, I want you to know.”