Director Rick Famuyiwa is responsible for “The Wood,” “Brown Sugar,” and is currently helming the HBO movie “Confirmation,” starring Kerry Washington as Anita Hill. His new film, “Dope,” a coming-of-age movie set in a modern-day Inglewood, Calif., is now in theaters.
“Dope” starts out as a movie that reinforces the stereotype that black kids self-police the performance of blackness. Diggy, Malcolm and Jib are positioned as outsiders, in part, because they don’t hew to a definition of blackness centered around criminality. In a school where metal detectors and police presence are the norm, Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib are able to skirt through — when a contraband-toting Malcolm walks through a metal detector and it goes off, the guard waves him through and assumes its broken because Malcolm has this reputation as a goody-two shoes.
Malcolm doubles down on the idea that he’s not like those black people, namely the Bloods who torment him after school. He and his friends have a punk rock band called Awreeoh (pronounced “Oreo”). But he’s living in a world where there are many ways to be black, all valid, all accepted, all real, where even the neighborhood gangster, played by A$AP Rocky, is still particular about idioms. So why have Malcolm position himself in this way that feels oddly retrograde?
“Malcolm did not want to be defined in the way that his guidance counselor of an older generation was used to defining things,” Famuyiwa said. “He was very much about — I think to a fault, early in the movie — wanting to define himself against things, and by the end of the movie, comes into a realization that all these things do define him and it’s up to him to figure out who he is … I think for a lot of kids who grow up in places like this, the pressure is still there but at least now there’s more of an outlet for people than there was before.”
Director Famuyiwa talked to the Post a few weeks before “Dope” opened.
On why this was the perfect time to make ‘Dope’:
“I felt like the time felt right for a film like this because we have several generations go through hip-hop being the common pop cultural language and technology that connects us all, that these barriers and boundaries of who you should be or who you shouldn’t be, or notions of who you are based on race, class, where you’re born, your economic position in the world, has sort of been blurred and shattered,” Famuyiwa said. “I felt like Malcolm and his friends reflect this generation’s feeling of being limitless and they don’t want to be defined by anything other than their own personal interests and their sense of who they are and they connect to people who feel the same way and find like-minded people. I felt like Malcolm’s world, and this generation’s world has opened up in a way that my generation’s wasn’t.
“Kendrick Lamar is from Compton, but his Compton and how he expresses that is completely different than NWA and Eazy-E even though they were from the same environment. It’s not that Kendrick Lamar doesn’t have or hasn’t seen the similar kind of things … his point of view on the world is completely different because it’s opened up in a way Eazy, Cube, and [MC] Ren were not. The way he expresses himself, who his fans are, the music that’s out there, is completely different. The same could be said for Future and Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, who grew up in and around Inglewood, A$AP Rocky from Harlem. Rocky is an example of someone who is very much of this generation, who’s not defined by how he should be dressed, or how he should look or what he should rap about. He doesn’t have a style that’s West Coast or East Coast or Southern. He sort of samples from everything because he’s been exposed to everything.”
On why nostalgia is a recurring theme in his movies:
In “The Wood,” the characters are looking back on their adolescence as one of them is about to get married. “Brown Sugar” has its lead gaze romantically at the early days of hip-hop. And in “Dope,” Diggy, Malcom, and Jib, high school seniors in modern-day America, are ’90s hip-hop obsessives.
What is it about examining the past the he finds so appealing?
“Now being 41 and looking back on my career … It became natural for me to revisit Inglewood and to revisit the coming-of-age movie, but not wanting it to feel like a period piece completely about nostalgia but wanting it to feel like something that was relevant today and also forward-looking,” Famuyiwa said. “I felt like revisiting some of the same themes of ‘The Wood’ was something that I was really interested in doing and I wanted to reintroduce myself in terms of what I want to do moving forward as a filmmaker. It felt like this was a good place to do it, to reintroduce my first movie but with the perspective of someone who’s a lot older and wiser and much more in command of his craft than he was at 23.”
On the role technology plays in “Dope”:
“Dope” is one of the few films that gets technology right, both in the way it’s shown on screen, in terms of hacking, and also in the role it plays in the lives of its characters. Like “Silicon Valley,” it’s not afraid to show that hacking and coding look fairly unremarkable. It offers an explanation of how bitcoin works that actually makes sense — a big part of the storyline involves the Dark Web. Understanding this strength, Open Road elected to promote the movie by making it the first film you could purchase tickets for with bitcoin.
“To me, it felt natural,” Famuyiwa said. “I’ve always been, like my characters, a geek in that way. How we interact with the world is done through our mobile devices, through our computers, through black screens that we touch and black screens that we watch and so it felt natural to use that as a story-telling device.”
“I know in about five years it will look quaint and obsolete,” he added. “Even as I was writing the script, these sites were getting shut down every other month. It went from Silk Road to Atlantis and then finally I was like, ‘I’m just going to stop, and wherever we end up at a year from now, we’ll say that’s where it is. That’s the one drawback of trying to keep up with technology, is that it changes quicker than films can come out.”
On the possibility of the “Dope” cast becoming this generation’s Brat Pack:
“I think they’re amazing,” Famuyiwa said. “When I was putting this cast together, it felt so alive and energetic and these faces were new and fresh. It reminded me of films like ‘Kids,’ when that came out and a whole group of young actors were introduced to the world. ‘The Breakfast Club,’ obviously. I guess, in my mind, I always had those sort of parental ambitions for my ‘actor children,’ that they would grow up and become these big stars, and I feel like they can do that and take the baton that’s being passed to them by the actors of the generation of Taye [Diggs] and Omar [Epps] and go beyond that.
“I feel like — I hope — they will have opportunities even beyond what we were able to push for and I feel like each generation of filmmakers, especially filmmakers of color and filmmakers that are women, push the envelope in terms of what’s mainstream and who become mainstream stars and I feel like these kids are of a generation where the possibilities are limitless and Shameik Moore can be Spiderman.
“These actors who were in “Dope” are the actors I want to continue to collaborate and make films with from here on out. … I truly do feel like I’ve found the cream of the crop of this generation and I want to continue working with them as long as I can and before they become too big that they stop returning my phone calls.”