Smart and sophisticated, this indie crime comedy/drama charms as it hustles its way through a solid and effective narrative. Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, Dope deftly tells the personal story of Malcom Adekanbi (Shameik Moore) against the backdrop of drug trafficking in “The Bottoms” section of Inglewood, California. While the narrative sputters and slows somewhere in the middle, the film ends with such a rousing and emotionally fulfilling ending that one can’t help but embrace this wonderful work of art.
Complete stories consist of four Throughlines: Main Character, Overall Story, Influence Character, and Relationship Story. Malcom is the Main Character and experiences personal conflict through his status as the child of a single-parent household and a 90s hip-hop afficionado “geek” stuck deep within modern day hood culture (Main Character Throughline of Situation). Drug trafficking—a matter of concern to everyone involved in this story—is the subject matter of the Overall Story Throughline. Some pursue the means by which to sell illegal drugs, others seek to prevent others from doing the same—both through violent and dangerous means (Overall Story Throughline of Activity).
Both Overall Story and Main Character Throughline suffer from a pessimistic process of determining certainty: everyone knows where they stand and what options they have for surviving (Main Character Problem of Deduction & Overall Story Problem of Deduction). When Malcom’s essay on “Finding Ice Cube’s Good Day” is met with resistance, the young boy cries foul at the hint of racial and societal stereotyping (Main Character Symptom of Certainty). Deducing without a second thought as to what his guidance counselor suggests, Malcom responds with the positive drive to seek out his true potential as a Harvard undergrad (Main Character Response of Potentiality).
Likewise drug-traffickers Dom and Austin Jacoby (A$AP Rocky and Roger Guenveur Smith) allow their deductive thoughts of reasoning lead them to warn of the “slippery slope” awaiting those who allow transgressions to go unanswered (Overall Story Symptom of Reduction). As Protagonist in the Overall Story, Malcom answers the call by setting up his own shop (Overall Story Response of Production) as he strives to learn all he can about the drug trade (Overall Story Goal of Learning).
Lisa Hayes (Kimberly Elise) steps in and provides the alternative prospective to Malcom’s point-of-view, satisfying the role of Influence Character. Driven to assess the boys she meets at face-value (Influence Character Problem of Evaluation) her thoughtful appraisal and apparent attraction to “complicated” men challenges Malcom to change his ways (Influence Character Unique Ability of Appraisal and Influence Character Concern of Contemplation ).
Unfortunately, with the change of the 2nd structural Act into the 3rd (often referred to as the Midpoint) Lisa’s influence disappears…and with it, the emotional heart of the story that rests within the Relationship Story Throughline. Complete stories require a relationship between Main Character and Influence Character—in this case, a budding romance between Malcom and Lisa that centers around the notion that they could even be together (Relationship Story Concern of Conceiving an Idea). As the 2nd Overall Story Signpost wraps up its examination of Learning with the revelation of Austin Jacoby’s true role in running his “Boy’s Club” (Overall Story Signpost 2 of Learning) and flows into high-school drug trafficking (Overall Story Signpost 3 of Doing), the film loses its emotional center—and risks alienating the audience.
The film thankfully finds its way back with the return of Lisa—a reacquaintance that eventually pushes Malcom into adopting a new perspective (Main Character Resolve Changed). Summed up with Malcom’s brilliant monologue of “re-introducing” himself, the boy posits two versions of himself—the geek everyone knows and the entrepreneur driven to do whatever it takes to survive. This “complicated” and matured perspective allows Malcom to confidently infer racisim on the part of the Harvard admissions status—would they ask why he would want to go if they didn’t know he was black? (Main Character Solution of Induction).
This brilliant ending sequence cannot be underestimated, for without it the film would have been lost in the logistical concerns of teenagers selling drugs. The disappearance of the Relationship Story Throughline results in a cold and dispassionate second half that loses the warmth and charm of the first. Malcom’s monologue and eventual loss of angst (Story Judgment of Good) grounds the film.
Many films fail to effectively develop a Relationship Story Throughline. Dope at least introduces this relationship and develops it enough to center and balance the narrative. This is a supremely inventive and admirable narrative; spare no effort to make it a part of your life’s experience.