Getting back to basics sounds kinda boring. (We tried everything else, now let’s do what worked the first time!) In the case of director Rick Famuyiwa, though, it means returning to a personal mode he’d all but abandoned, and emerging with his most dynamic movie yet–a Sundance sensation that’s been building hype and critical consensus all year long before finally opening to a strong box office last weekend.
Famuyiwa was 23 when he made his debut feature, The Wood. It was a semi-autobiographical film set in Inglewood, California, where he’d grown up, and populated by characters who, like their creator, chafed against the gang culture the area became famous for in Dr. Dre songs. Famuyiwa worked on the script at the Sundance Director’s Lab in the late-’90s, eventually teaming up with MTV to produce it. Released in 1999, The Wood was a hit, and he followed it up with others. Then Famuyiwa just seemed to stop for a while.
Dope, out in theaters now, is his first project in five years. One of the most buzzed about films at Sundance, it boasts a 90% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and is on track for a very respectable box office take based on its opening weekend. But Dope is actually three movies in one–an illuminating treatise on being a black geek, a gripping take on the dark web drug trade, and perhaps most importantly, it’s a contemporary-set return to characters coming of age in Inglewood, where they don’t quite fit in. In terms of Famuyiwa’s filmmaking, though, the fit has never been tighter.
That tripartite theme is stylishly woven through the character of Malcolm, an odd bird in Inglewood, where his bouillabaisse fashion sense gets him stuck with the geek label, although many in the audience will see a striking dude with a Kid ‘n Play-level hightop fade and apparel distinct enough to go Golf Wang with and franchise out. The stockpile of drugs Malcolm and his friends discover, though, might either help him escape to college, or it might prevent that from ever happening. Along the way, there’s a trip down pseudo-Silk Road, with a heavy emphasis on meme culture. Despite the utterly trill ’90s hip-hop soundtrack, it’s a very now movie. It was also apparently the movie Famuyiwa needed to make right now.
“When you’re young, you sort of have an idea that this is how it’s always gonna be as a filmmaker,” he says. “And then you have the ups and downs of trying to get your art created in an industry that doesn’t traditionally make films with you and people that look like you behind the camera. Each project you can get your hands on, you try to find your voice in. And films like [2002 hit] Brown Sugar, I felt like my voice could connect with the studio world. But by the time [most recent film] Our Family Wedding came around, things had gone to such a place of pure genre without any nuance, it was hard to fit into that world. It was clear something needed to give. I was at a point in my career where I needed to take back my voice and redefine what I was doing.”
The idea of making a film about a black geek, and all that entails, had been with the director for years. In his post-Our Family Wedding state of disenchantment, though, the time had arrived. Famuyiwa didn’t come upon a stash of supercharged molly like Malcolm, the head geek in Dope, nor did he come of age any time recently, but there is indeed some metatextual autobiography in Malcolm’s search for authenticity.
“I was sort of venting my own frustrations about perceptions of me, perceptions of my work, and perceptions about the audience that could accept my work,” Famuyiwa says. “All of that fueled the things that ended up being Malcolm and his friends and their feeling of being geeks and feeling like they weren’t understood but ultimately feeling like they are connected to a larger world. So I felt like I just wanted to tell a story selfishly that I wanted to tell for me, and then hope that it connects on a larger level because I’m just being honest with myself.”
The characters in Dope who are meant to be geeks, though, are different than the geeks of yore. Just as the word ‘nerd’ has taken on new meaning since some of the nerdiest entertainment properties have become the most lucrative, being considered a nerd in high school is no longer the social death sentence it once was. The difference is technology, which fractures what’s considered in and out quicker than costume changes in a Nicki Minaj album cycle.
“Part of my approach to Malcolm is that he and his friends are cool in their own world and they can find like minded people who they can connect to in a way that I couldn’t and my generation couldn’t,” Famuyiwa says. “So he is confident in his otherness, in his geekness, in a way that I think defines this generation. Even though among his larger peer group, they look at him as weird or, like, ‘What’s he doing?’ among his subculture he and his friends are the coolest kids on the block. That’s where they get their ambition from, that ability to connect outside of their own community.”
Connectivity also informed the plotting of the movie. The dark web, with its bitcoin-based exchanges, became a topical solution to how Malcolm and his friends would get rid of their narcotic bounty, while viral memes and social media illustrate why the plan just might work. True to form for a movie that rides high atop the cresting wave of an ever-changing culture, even as Famuyiwa was writing the script, Silk Road had been taken down, causing him to model the dark web drug-exchange after Atlantis. Then Atlantis got taken down. These are the kind of issues bound to arise in a film meant to occasionally recreate the feel of a typical day on the internet.
Another area of the movie that technology had a philosophical effect on is its soundtrack. In additional to the wall-to-wall throwback hip-hip, there are a number of original songs produced by Malcolm’s band, Awreeoh. (Sound it out aloud and you’ll get a certain racially fraught cookie.) While those ’90s hip-hop jams were hand-picked by Famuyiwa, who fought to clear the rights to as many as possible, the duty of creating the Awreeoh sound was left to music supervisor Pharrell Williams. Sure enough, the notes the director gave Williams on original songs like “Don’t Get Deleted” reflect his thoughts on how today’s black geeks jams out.
“Pharrell and I talked about this notion of these kids who, because they have so much access to every genre of music at different periods of time, would be pulling influences from everywhere,” Famuyiwa says. “And so they could be obsessed with ’90s hip-hop, but also with ’80s punk, and also with ’90s grunge, but also with contemporary Chris Brown and everything in between. So, basically, what all of that would sound like, with the basis of it being this band, as opposed to a rap group.”
The resulting songs, like the clothes Malcolm wears, blend old-school elements with an unmistakably modern twist. So does the movie itself. It’s the return of the prodigal geek.