Rick Famuyiwa was attending high school in the rough and tumble neighborhood of Inglewood, California in the early Nineties when a teacher he respected tried to cut him down to size. "When I was an aspiring kid and talking about my dreams, he called me arrogant," he says. "'Who do you think you are?' It was during a parent-teacher conference, and he went on to say how I always answer the questions correctly in class and made the [other] students feel bad." Famuyiwa pauses, then laughs. "My mother went off on him."
It was that particular exchange that laid the initial groundwork for Dope, a wild-ride tale loosely based on the writer-director's youth that became one of the break-out hits at this year's Sundance. The story of a nerdy black high-school senior named Malcolm (newcomer Shameik Moore) who's obsessed with Bush I-era hip-hop, the afro-punk band he's formed with his fellow campus misfits and the girlfriend (Zoe Kravitz) of the local bigwig drug dealer (played by A$AP Rocky), the movie combines coming-of-age conventions, teen-comedy tropes and Pulp Fiction-style set pieces into a tale about thwarting expectations. And yes, that exchange about "Who do you think you are" did indeed make it into the script.
"The perception of people of color — young black men — was very much on my mind making this movie," Famuyiwa says. "You get to the point where you have 12 year-olds getting killed and the police officers that kill them say their lives were threatened. You sort of go, 'Where does this shit come from?'" The Trayvon Martin case had just started to make headlines when he sat down to start working on a story about a teen negotiating his way through the neighborhood. But rather than go the somber, handwringing route, the 42-year-old filmmaker decided to keep things lighter; the first person he namechecks as an influence in terms of social criticism is Richard Pryor. "I was a huge fan of Pryor's as a kid, and always felt that his approach of tackling issues of race and class through stand-up was brilliant. Comedy opens you up to ideas that a straight-up drama doesn't. You resist those messages when they come to you earnestly or dramatically. I was feeling a lot of what's been in the air and in the newspapers when I was writing the script."
For Famuyiwa, the style and substance of Dope is a distinct departure. While early efforts like The Wood (1999) and Brown Sugar (2002) were modest hits and helped establish him as reliable mid-level director, Famuyiwa says it was experience on 2010's rom-com Our Family Wedding that made him realize it was time for a drastic change. "I was coming off a film that was so formulaic in its construction that was impossible to find my voice in it," he says. "I've had so many conversations in my career about genres and conventions, how on this page this should be happening and during the act break we should have that. I sort of got frustrated. We live lives that aren't broken into neat three-act structures. On any given day anything can happen, from the hilarious to tragic. So why can't my movies be like that?"
He also wanted to get more personal, infusing a lot of his experiences and ambitions into Moore's character, a brainiac kid aspiring to escape the hood via getting into Harvard. (In real life, Famuyiwa's ticket out of Inglewood came in the from of getting accepted into USC's prestigious film program.) "It helped having someone who'd gone through this guiding me," claims Moore, who's currently in the midst of shooting Baz Luhrmann's Seventies hip-hop series The Get Down for Netflix. "Rick has an ability to bring out the best of you even when there were a lot of crazy situations; he pushed me to focus on the art and feel of the character."
To steep the young cast in the characters' time-out-of-step feel, Famuyiwa also gave the young cast a crash-course on Nineties-era pop culture, ranging from films like Tupac Shakur-starring cult classic Juice and Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket to music. "They probably got 200 tracks from me," the director claims, describing a playlist that spanned from vintage rap to punk bands like the Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains. The point, he says, was not only to immerse his actors in a wide variety of old-school obsessions (in addition to what Malcolm calls "stuff white people like" ) but also to get them in mindset of disaffected youths with something to prove. "There are so many instances where kids who have talent and intellect have to navigate the world of low expectations and resources," Famuyiwa adds. "We have to nurture those gifts more."
After Dope was accepted into Sundance, the cast and crew figured the movie might make a modest splash; once it premiered, however, they quickly realized they had a bona fide hit on their hands. "I knew this was gonna be really great and widely accepted or that people were going to talk a lot of shit," explains actress Kiersey Clemons, who plays Malcolm's resourceful bandmate/sidkick Diggy. "It was a relief when it turned out to be the first option." According to Moore, "We knew we made a great movie, but after it screened . . . I was a situation where I had to pinch myself and make sure I wasn't dreaming."
As for the filmmaker, the immensely positive reception confirms that going down the road less traveled was the right path for him to be on. "I want to not care about structure and page counts and do what feels right," Famuyiwa says. "For me, I think of Dope as an album. There may be a love song and there may be a party song, but it's all coming from one artist."