The Straight Dope: Rick Famuyiwa’s Inglewood comedy upends stereotypes

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Rick Famuyiwa is on a roll, and if the first half of 2015 is any indication, he shows no signs of slowing down. The writer-director, whose high-energy coming-of-age film Dope took the 2015 Sundance Film Festival by storm, was starting to gear up for the French Riviera when he jumped on the phone with me in late April, as Dope had just been announced as part of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious “Directors’ Fortnight” program. He was also only weeks away from the film’s U.S. release spearheaded by Open Road Films, who nabbed the film’s distribution rights out of Sundance for a handsome figure. But that’s not all. The news broke in mid-April that he is attached to direct HBO’s Anita Hill movie, Confirmation. Like many burgeoning creative voices and filmmakers of recent years, he now has a foothold in the TV world too.

Only a year ago, none of this seemed within the realm of possibility for Famuyiwa. But he didn’t settle for the bare minimum, an attitude that is fittingly at the heart of his film. Having made three previous features within the studio system, and feeling distanced from his true creative vision, he went the independent route with Dope, with producers Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi through Whitaker’s Significant Productions, which also backed Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station in 2013. “It’s been exhilarating, kind of crazy and definitely humbling,” says the filmmaker, reflecting on the last 12 months of his life. “Because a year ago at this time, I didn’t even know if we would be making the movie, or if we would get the financing together. So to think a year later [we are] where we are is pretty extraordinary.”

Dope tells the story of modern-day high-school senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore in a jaw-dropping performance), a band geek as well as a ’90s and hip-hop enthusiast from “The Bottoms” of Inglewood, California. He has his heart set on going to Harvard, even when a chain of unfortunate events forces him to pull a logistically complex scheme of drug trafficking with his band-mates Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel’sTony Revolori). In the midst of college applications, SAT prep and desperately trying to impress the girl he likes, Malcolm sets off on an extreme, Tarantino-esque journey (with touches of Spike Lee, too). Along the way, the rich, warm photographic palette of cinematographer Rachel Morrison (whose creative collaboration Famuyiwa cherishes deeply) and some stirring original musical tracks written for the kids’ band by Pharrell Williams (also an executive producer of the film) dial up the heat onscreen. And of course, there is the unmistakable ’90s nostalgia that pulsates through the film—complete with classic hip-hop tracks and flat tops—meshing cleverly with contemporary pop-culture references from today’s interconnected, tech-savvy world.

Famuyiwa brings Malcolm’s uplifting tale to the screen from a deeply genuine place. And thanks to that, the story’s tackling of race, class and identity is clear-eyed and authentic. A revisit to his underrated 1999 feature The Wood magnifies at once that Dope is no fluke. It wouldn’t be a stretch to claim that Famuyiwa, a 1997 Sundance Screenwriters Lab alumnus with The Wood, has been making his way to this film, and back to Sundance, ever since. “Those movies are of the same world,” Famuyiwa says, linking The Wood and Dope. “The drive for me was to revisit that world many years later and see what it would look like from the point of view of these kids. There are a lot of young artists today, like A$AP Rocky (who is in the movie); Tyler, The Creator; Earl Sweatshirt; Kendrick Lamar—kids who grew up in the same environment as many of the ’90s icons, like N.W.A. in Compton. They are connected to the world through social media and technology in a way that I wasn’t. You go to a Kendrick or Earl Sweatshirt show [today] and the audience looks like America. It’s diverse and they are all into the same thing. So the idea was putting these kids in the same environment as they were in The Wood, but their adventures, their scope and view of themselves in their own world and how they connect outside of it would be a lot bigger.”

Famuyiwa talks about the film’s vibrant ’90s aesthetic affectionately, and says it represents his own desires to pay homage to both the music and film of that decade that pushed the boundaries of mainstream entertainment. “Hip-hop was exploding at the same time the independent film was having an emergence in the mainstream. So I stylistically wanted [Dope] to feel like the films of the ’90s [set] in present day,” the filmmaker explains, adding that the time is right for nostalgia about that era. “Because we are 20 to 25 years away from the ’90s, we are now starting to look back and understand what [that era] meant historically, in the same way my generation looked back to the ’60s and the ’70s. And that [look back] became a foundation of the hip-hop style,” he says, reminiscing about the emergence of West Coast vs. East Coast style as part of this influence. “Funk sort of became the style of Dr. Dre and DJ Quake and a lot of other folks out here on the West Coast, as well as Bad Boy [Records] and [other] stuff on the East Coast. So these kids [being] in step with ’90s hip-hop and fashion was my way of bringing that in without [making] it feel like a period piece while actually making a period piece.”

Explaining how he broke Malcolm’s layered story down to its facets while playing with different genres, Famuyiwa says he thinks of Dope’s characters as a reflection of himself and a lot of the kids he grew up with. “[These kids] feel like their voices don’t necessarily get heard. Because of where they were born—whether it’s Inglewood or the south side of Chicago—they feel they are defined by that. There is the idea that the lottery of birth in so many ways defines how people see you, what your opportunities versus your challenges are. So I really wanted to start there. There is a lot that being young in this country means today in terms of pop culture, technology, race and class, especially if you are a person of color,” he continues. “We live in a time where we consume so many different bits of information from many different places, and I didn’t feel like [the film] needed to be a play to [only] one genre.”

Famuyiwa acknowledges he also had certain interests while he was growing up that were considered unusual, but unlike Malcolm, he didn’t identify himself as a geek. “I was into a lot of different things that made sense for some and didn’t make sense for others,” he recalls with a brisk chuckle. “My friends and I were riding skateboards and building quarter pipes in the neighborhood. People looked at us like we were crazy.” Touching upon the heart of the film, Famuyiwa delves deeper into his perception of social and racial identity today. “When you don’t quite fit into a certain box, you get labeled as a geek,” he states. “If you are black and obsessed with hip-hop, no one would say, ‘Oh my God. He’s a geek.’ But if you are black and obsessed with Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana, then it becomes something different. It’s all about perception.

“I’ve always just been into what I’m into. I don’t think I had the same kind of confidence Malcolm has. But I guess I would like that, so I put that into his character. But how he sees the world is the way I see the world,” he proclaims, adding that the drug-dealer character Dom (played by rapper A$AP Rocky) is loosely based on people he knew growing up. “I would see these guys on the corners, and whether they were banging or selling drugs or up to no good, some of them were just really charming, smart, charismatic guys. Years later, I’d look back and I’d say, ‘If that guy was born into different circumstances, [his] life would be completely different, because he’s sharp. He’s smart. And he has a natural gift that doesn’t get a chance to get used.’”

For Famuyiwa, finding the right Malcolm was crucial. “Malcolm was tough to find, because he had to [convey] the many different layers of what the story had to be. He had to be funny. There are times he had to be serious. He had to feel confident, but at the same time not cocky. I’d find kids that could embody two or three of those characteristics. But many couldn’t understand the fine line Malcolm had to draw between being very confident and being cocky. When I first saw [Shameik Moore’s] tape, there was a realness and sweetness to him that, even in all his confidence, you still felt this young kid is really trying to find his voice. I was like, ‘Wow. This is the kid.’”

With a charming laugh, Famuyiwa recalls how nervous Moore was in his initial in-person audition, before turning things around quickly and landing the part. “I don’t think he [at first] quite got that he was that close. One of the really gratifying things in the process of working with Shameik was seeing how he really grew into this young man right before my eyes. When the movie comes out, the world will see that he is genuinely a star.”

Expanding our conversation beyond Dope, Famuyiwa talks about the state of the film business in and outside of Hollywood. Asked about lack of diversity in the industry, he chooses to look on the bright side. “That’s an obvious and real challenge when you’re a person of color or a woman trying to make film in Hollywood. And in the independent world as well, because I think people assume that it is easier than the studio system. It’s just as challenging in many ways. But we are approaching [somewhere],” he adds with a hopeful tone. “While other industries have understood what’s going on and tried to change and adapt, I feel like Hollywood—because it’s so much about profit and because it’s been around for so long—is slow to recognize the changes that have been afoot in the country for a while. But there’s starting to be some small recognition that there is a diversity in the country and it makes sense that you would make films that go to that larger world.”

Looking toward the future, Famuyiwa hopes to see more films like Dope get made, and personally aims to tell authentic stories that feel like mainstream entertainment, while redefining what mainstream means. “I think everyone has an idea or image in their mind when you say mainstream. In my mind, that looks a lot different,” he asserts. “Experiences aren’t [limited] to just one culture or one class. I think people want to see unique and authentic experiences. And that is, in many ways, what makes this country what it is. We’re a nation of immigrants. And the reflection of that onscreen, both big and small, should make perfect sense, because it’s the most American thing you can do.”