The essay below appeared in the Summer 2015 print edition of The Los Angeles Review of Books (17–20). It was republished online, here, sans footnotes, on Oct. 17.
Dope, at the end of its domestic theatrical run, looks poised to become an icon of black nerd culture. The three kids at the heart of the story — Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib — live in “The Bottoms” in Inglewood. They have built up a culture of defense by being interested in what the movie calls “white shit”: being particularly good at school (which we don’t see them do) and playing punk music in a band called Awreeoh (which we do). Despite their best efforts to stay clean, they end up needing to unload several kilos of molly, and the ensuing hijinks are alternately ludicrous and predictable. Chock full of coincidences, band camp flashbacks, discussions with white folks about saying “nigga,” some corporate espionage, and a successful admission to Harvard.
If I didn’t find the hilarity enough to outweigh the flaws, that’s largely irrelevant. This movie was principally touted as a certification of the worth of young black nerds onscreen and off, and whether it works is up to them. Doubtless it has already been through several cycles of backlash and anti-backlash among the teens it depicts and they will settle for themselves just how useful a totem Dope will be as they find and make their culture going forward.
At the same time, the movie is part of our current ’90s vogue — the return of the fade, the deluge of “only ’90s kids will remember” Buzzfeed listicles, and hashtags full of throwback references. The trio proclaim themselves to be ’90s hip-hop geeks, and for a certain generation of reviewers, that is the expressway to easy praise: “How great it is to finally see kids like this get their own story,” by which they mean “my story.”
But in the one sustained discussion of what being a ’90s hip-hop geek might actually mean, Malcolm, our hero, gets shown up by the local drug dealer:
Dom: I be seeing you and your lil friends with y’all flat tops and MC Hammer pants, ridin’ around and shit, lookin’ like y’all came outta a DeLorean or some shit. Fuck is up with that shit anyways?
Malcolm: You know, the ’90s was like the golden age of hip-hop. Everything from It Takes a Nation of Millions to The Blueprint was killin’ it. Guess me and my friends just wish we grew up back then.
Dom: It Takes a Nation came out in ’88. Blueprint came out in 2001. What the fuck are you talking about right now?
Malcolm: Technically. But you know the spirit of the music was definitely still ’90s.
This may be the smartest moment in the movie: it gives us a channel to connect the requisite dealer-on-the corner character with A$AP Rocky, the rapper portraying him. Rocky can be effortlessly knowledgeable; Malcolm can offer a tensed-up, proto-intellectual defense of “the long ’90s,” and as a result, the two of them form an oddly mature love triangle around Nakia, played by Rocky’s real ex-girlfriend Zoë Kravitz.
The underwritten (or maybe just generic) characters onscreen depend for their liveliness on these connections, and Dope is full of them. The women Malcolm falls for are not just Hollywood-beautiful; they are actual models (Kravitz and Chanel Iman). The rich-kid, would-be producer of Malcolm’s band is Quincy Combs — Al B. Sure’s biological son, Puffy’s adopted son, and Quincy Jones’s godson.
At one level, this is simply stardom: you know these folks from somewhere else. But here, the charisma is not just on loan from another movie or another artworld, like music, but from a brand-suffused culture that understands indie films as cred repositories to be exploited in exchange for working capital, and the chance at distribution. The story Dope tells works without being plugged into hip-hop commercial networks; the movie couldn’t have been made without it. The point is not that pulling money and talent from this system is selling out — rather it is that Dope is hooked into a system. The channel that leads from talent to capital to distribution is also the channel that leads from onscreen style to off-screen brand. Dope’s economics and its semiotics go hand in hand.
Indie films only exist because they can draw on some pool of largesse. Rich parents help get some made; film school connections are all but essential; a lifetime of favors are called in. When things go well, the film gets play at a major festival and is picked up for distribution. (Things rarely go well.) The fight against long odds gives us a rooting interest not just in the characters on screen but in the behind-the-scenes struggle to get them there. In the ’90s, Digital Underground would have called such successes the freaks of the industry.
In Production Culture, John Thornton Caldwell describes the relationship between films and their financing:
Because film and television are so capital intensive, a script also functions as a financial prospectus, a detailed investment opportunity, and a corporate proposal […] A fictional scenario is always tied to and considered alongside an economic one.
In the case of indie productions, where the landscape is always changing and where capital is qualitatively scarcer than at a major studio, the economic scenario can be broader than a simple payday. Particular investments are also opportunities to learn what it would take to make successful movies in general — to develop broader executive competence and to generate a moviemaking system. Indie movies may be financed as one-off endeavors, but their makers are often looking for ways to turn those instances into something more.
In Dope’s case, a constellation of producers was decisive in securing the film’s cultural sway and opening up its narrative to the social life of style. Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi produced, through their Significant Productions banner, a company in the business of making sharply observed stories of African-American life, such as Fruitvale Station. But Whitaker and Yang Bongiovi were surrounded by, and doled out credits to, tastemakers including Pharrell Williams (executive producer), Sean Combs (co-executive producer), and Caron Veazey (co-producer). If these folks really did get Dope made for the reported budget of $700,000, that would only be because everyone famous worked for scale or less. Largesse would have been everywhere.
Enlisting Pharrell and Puffy was not simply about securing their talent and their friends. It was also a way of reaching out to their audiences — something everyone thought would help the film succeed. Both musicians run mini-entertainment empires and have large social media followings. Combs promoted the film (and his son’s acting) on Revolt.tv, the web home of Revolt Entertainment, a company that is trying to squeeze onto cable TV as its own network. Pharrell wrote the Awreeoh songs and “curated” the soundtrack. He also encouraged costume designer Patrik Milani to use clothes from Karmaloop, an imploding fashion retailer he had a stake in, just as it tried to make the jump to cable television.
If black-themed films are going to have a fairer shot at getting made, there will have to be new funding sources and clearer models for financial success. The situation is not going to change simply because someone starts making excellent movies with complex characters, superb dialogue, and formal aplomb — Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) has been doing that for years and the industry is not contorting itself to make sure she has all the work she can handle.
Tyler Perry Studios is one model — it funds itself, it spins off money regularly, and it expands gradually. Stephanie Allain’s commitment to making the LA Film Festival a showcase for cinematic diversity is another model, but while festivals can do a lot to match films to distributors, they have a harder time broadening the pipeline. Harder, but not impossible: knowing that there are, say, a dozen more high-profile festival slots for films may help lower the barriers to getting financing in the first place. (The African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement headed by Ava DuVernay can play a similar role.)
The proto-system Dope instantiates looks like a way to convert the more straightforward indie-moviemaking of Fruitvale or Revolt’s first effort, Lawless, into something more durable. Dope is a way — a new way — of convincing money to follow talent onscreen. The next step was to find distribution.
Dope was a Sundance crowd pleaser and the object of a bidding war. Open Road Films won, paying $7m for the domestic rights and promising to spend $15m–$20m in marketing. Some of the producer’s share paid for music rights to bolster the films’ throwback soundtrack. John Cassidy, Open Road’s chief marketing officer, told Variety, “We think it plays well and is relatable […] We think it can cross over from the arthouse audience and the Sundance crowd and broadly speaking play like a Superbad.”
The usual rule of thumb says that the film would have to make $40m–50m at the box office in order to break even (theaters get the rest), but that rule may not apply here since Open Road is a joint venture of AMC and Regal Cinemas. Dope earned $16m domestically (while Superbad earned $121 million). As a theatrical release, it probably lost its distributor money, but Open Road has been a money-loser for a long time — Sean Penn’s The Gunman from earlier this year cost much more and made even less.
Again, though, Open Road is not your ordinary indie. It is neither freestanding like Weinstein nor the indie label of a major studio like Sony Pictures Classics. It is a loss leader. As Regal explains in its annual report:
Open Road Films was created to fill a gap in the marketplace created by the major studios’ big-budget franchise film strategy by marketing smaller budget films in a cost-effective manner which we believe will drive additional patrons to our theatres and generate a return on our capital investment.
The theater chains would, of course, like to make money on the films Open Road acquires. But what they really want to do is find something to put in theater 14 at the multiplex besides a fourth screen full of Minions.
Open Road’s strategy may or may not be working well enough for its owners to keep it in business. But even if it fails, it will have been a learning experience. Compare Dope with Southpaw. The latter movie distributed by the Weinstein Company stars a frighteningly jacked Jake Gyllenhaal in the story of a boxer’s redemption. Antoine Fuqua, its director, is black, but his career has not, like Famuyiwa’s, been a scramble for small budgets. Instead, Fuqua has a long major studio track record specializing in muscular action movies, with hits like last year’s standout The Equalizer and flops like his compromised production of King Arthur a decade ago. Fuqua is especially good at cross-racial collisions, as in Training Day, or here between Gyllenhaal and Whitaker. And just as Dope relied on Pharrell’s musical curating, Southpaw turned over its soundtrack to Eminem.
Wanda pictures bankrolled Southpaw’s $24m budget, becoming the first Hollywood film financed entirely by a Chinese company. The Weinstein Company, which handled development, agreed to spend $35m on marketing. In a press release touting its involvement, Wanda declared that Chinese cinema “badly needs industrialization” and that its involvement with Southpaw was a “rare experience.” David Glasser, president of Weinstein, told Bloomberg Business, “We really did this movie together […] We went through a lot of modeling, education of the process, how the business works. They were involved — it wasn’t just a silent investment.”
Critical reception of Southpaw was mixed, so it too will probably lose money, although, again, the deal is semi-opaque. But the aim in making it was to try to see, close-up, how an indie production and distribution model works. For Wanda, which bought AMC Theaters in 2012 and, as a result, owns half of Open Road — a company which is intent on becoming an international producer, distributor, and exhibitor — such “rare experiences” are worth the possible losses.
Early on, Malcolm explains that after his father returned to Nigeria all he ever got from him was a picture and VHS tape of Super Fly. The rest of the movie does follow a torqued dreams-from-my-father logic, complete with a victorious escape from the fatal logic of the “one last deal,” but Dope is no contemporary Blaxploitation movie. As Wesley Morris contends in one of the few negative reviews: “The movie never crosses into the complicated self-preservation of blaxploitation. Super Fly is a punch line courtesy of Malcolm’s missing dad. Dope is just black exploitation.”
Blaxploitation may have been a complicated form of self-preservation for black audiences, but it was also a complex form of self-preservation for the studios before the neoclassical system took shape in the mid ’70s. A wave of black exploitation followed.
In January 1977, just two weeks before Roots would be broadcast, What’s Happening!! aired an episode called “The Incomplete Shakespeare.” The high school troika — Rog, Dwayne, and Rerun — are hanging out at Rog’s house. He reads in the paper about Central Avenue, an upcoming series about the lives of three black teenagers (just like them) who live in South LA on Central Avenue (just like them). Rog, the aspiring writer, sets out to write a script for the show, but his bratty sister shoots down the boys’ initial ideas by explaining that however real they are, she’s seen them before on other shows. Rog finally settles on a story in which the three boys find a bag full of money and jewels and struggle to figure out what to do with it. He writes the script, sends it in, and eventually receives a form letter explaining that the production company does not read unsolicited, un-agented material.
Flash forward a few weeks to the premiere of Central Avenue. The boys gather round to watch and discover that the episode is exactly their story. They go down to the production office to confront the producer and demand payment. The (white) producer explains that “heroes find a bag of loot” is an evergreen conceit, that his company has made that episode on different series several times before, and he has the scripts to prove it. Still, the producer is happy to hire Rog to work on Central Avenue as an “ethnic consultant.”
Once on the job, Rog discovers that they only want him to provide dashes of instant authenticity; he objects, and the producer knuckles under, vowing to do it “your way.” The episode — and all this transpires in less than 22 minutes — has a doubly ironic tag. First, Central Avenue is cancelled due to low ratings and Rog is let go. Second, the next time the boys gather, they read about the premiere of the producer’s new Western, in which our three heroes find a bag of loot in a canyon.
“The Incomplete Shakespeare” waffles half a dozen times in its final four minutes. When motivations and tone don’t cohere, it’s tempting to regard them as the artifacts of some kind of struggle or bad faith, particularly when the story must answer to a form as rigid as a multi-camera sitcom. What’s Happening!!, created by Eric Monte, who wrote Cooley High and Good Times, and produced by Norman Lear’s former partner Bud Yorkin, has no idea how to think about its industrial formation. The onscreen producer is a hack, but he is also a pro, but he is also a basket case. He keeps Rog around to exploit him, only to turn sheepish as soon as Rog refuses to go along. The producer is demonized but redeemable, while Rog is unsophisticated but clear-eyed about the complex circulation of ideas. His brush with the industry leaves him $20 richer, slightly more savvy, but back where he started. (No one even imagines that Rog should be kept on to write for the Western.)
Dope is not this sort of flat-footed allegory, but it is nearly as incoherent in its final act. The movie has, as many critics noted, too many endings: victory over the drug lord, getting into Harvard, scoring a date with the girl of his dreams, a pan-LA dancing montage. In one of these endings, Malcolm tosses out his Harvard application essay, an academic inquiry into determining the exact date of Ice Cube’s “Good Day,” and writes an aggressively defensive summary of the story we’ve just seen. It’s ideological, not scholarly; it’s supposed to be more personal; it definitely is not.
As the film “climb[s] up on its soapbox,” according to Odie Henderson, it turns into Paul Haggis’s Crash, “a pander, a congratulatory pat on the back for audience members.” Wesley Morris agreed, arguing that the movie’s black characters “are crammed into a box that Famuyiwa lacks the imagination to think beyond.” The audience loves it, but “he’s feeding them black shit white people like.”
Beyond its obvious pandering, the tonal inconsistencies of the movie have been read as signs of Famuyiwa’s incompetence, or as after-effects of the “we only get one shot at this” mentality. But all these readings seem partial and only raise a further question: if the film loses coherence, why didn’t anyone step in to fix it? Certainly no one has suggested that the Act III troubles could have been fixed by meddling executives. At this point, we have all seen much bigger movies with too many endings and wildly seesawing third acts to believe that the studio system is the answer.
Morris argues that pandering is the short route to a wide release: “The movie permits itself to make the geek a gangsta because it’s an expedient route to a distribution deal,” and the price of the deal is that Dope can’t follow through on its realistic conclusion. “Would that distribution deal for Dope have been as rich,” Morris asks, “if Famuyiwa actually showed Malcolm on a college campus instead of dancing in the streets of Los Angeles, as Moore does over the closing credits?”
Probably not, but then the movie would also risk leaving behind Malcolm’s big contradiction — that he is both geek and gangsta, that he is, as Nakia smilingly puts it, “complicated.” The credit dancing is supposed to be proof that the badass Malcolm has become can pull back inside the multicolored shell that has hidden him for years. When that shell cracks late in the movie, Malcolm lashes out, pulling a gun on the school bully and punching his illicit Bitcoin buyer to show that he isn’t a punk. When the movie is over, the gangsta enters remission. Malcolm dances, all elbows and knees, to Digital Underground’s “Humpty Dance.” The energy that drives him — like the energy behind Awreeoh’s sing-song lyrics — draws on the bottled-up rage that saw him through Act III.
Part of the reason the movie’s inconsistencies stick out is that otherwise Dope is about as classical as can be. Its dialogue is delivered in standard ping-pongy over-the-shoulders shots. Its establishing shots of the “Thurgood Marshall Justice Center” skybridge, or of a colonnade of palms on the way to the druglord’s mansion are all perfectly balanced. Even its “deviations” from the classical model — the party montages, the split screens, the tiled online video windows and the time-stutters when the action rewinds — are off-the-rack and built for narrative economy.
It fobs off its implausibility on the spirit of comedy, and justifies its comedic limitations with appeals to realism. That is less a criticism than a description: such schizo deniability is the backdrop to the peculiar sincerity of contemporary US culture. When the deniability drops out, the sincerity is on full display, as in Awreeoh’s songs or Pharrell’s work for the Despicable Me franchise. In Dope, the hip-hop geeks dress in a De-La-Soul-meets-Kehinde-Wiley palette and play sunny LA punk — not the spit-on-the-crowd, “just-to-get-aggression-out” punk of Decline of Western Civilization, and not the lyrically hyperclever hip-hop they love.
American independent cinema took a baroque turn in the ’90s with the arrival of digital tools for editing sound and image. Nonlinear and offline editing suites gave indie filmmakers willing to wear multiple hats the opportunity to fiddle with things — indies lack money, but they often have talent and time to spare. (This is one of many reasons why caper movies are ideal indie vehicles. At their core, they are about underemployed specialists in need of capital, which is another way of describing the filmmakers who create them.)
The resulting look of the indie cinema of the ’90s (indie both inside and outside the studios) was graphic, both in what it depicted and in its intense commitment to a cinema of significant marks. Everywhere one turned, indies displayed a fascination with signs — corporate logos, symbolic codes, and mathematical equations. This commitment spanned the racial divide — it was as much part of Boyz N the Hood and Dead Presidents as Pulp Fiction and ∏. But Dope is not particularly interested in that sort of quasi-lexical semiosis, in building a vernacular of its own out of signs and images. Instead, Dope’s aesthetic commitments are in sync with its dependence on open channels to real world brand dynamics. When Pharrell writes, and Awreeoh sings, “Life is surrounded by signs / If you’re connected you’ll know,” they are, they think, telling it like it is. They are full of post-post-structural confidence that when you say something is a sign, you’re jumping into a network of knowledge, rather than ironically and endlessly piling sign upon sign.
Dope casts off the ironic baroque and makes a play for sincerity in order to begin asking its fundamental question — a question as applicable to its story-world as its production story: what do you owe the people who have made your success possible, even if that success depended on your own relentless dedication and drive? And how can you hope to determine the balance of agency in such a complex equation? As it gropes toward answers and toward a new black independent cinema, Dope proclaims itself — its makers, its funders, its audiences — a freak of the industry and, ideally, something more.