A Geek's Guide To Growing Up In Inglewood In 'Dope'

Jun 18, 2015
Originally published on June 20, 2015 9:43 am

'Dope' is out in theaters this weekend, and if you need to know more about the film, check out my story that aired on Morning Edition earlier this week. Five minutes and 16 seconds wasn't long enough to showcase all of writer and director Rick Famuyiwa's reasons for making the film, or what inspired the main characters. So here's some of what hit the cutting room floor.


Interview Highlights

When and why Famuyiwa started writing Dope

About three years ago. I'd had the idea in my mind about this story of three geeks that are growing up in a tough neighborhood for a while because I'd been thinking about this concept of 'geekdom' as it started to become very popular in the mainstream; what that means in relation to black kids and kids of color that are growing up, and thinking about my own childhood and adolescence.

To be black and to be a geek was so different, in many ways, from the depictions that you normally see on television and in the movies. And you know for a kid like me growing up in Inglewood, my existence was a lot different than the kids in The Breakfast Club.

It felt like I had to do this and there were a lot of things happening in society and in pop culture that made me feel like it was a good time.

On growing up where poor and middle-class black neighborhoods are close

The communities that we live in are very connected. So Ladera Heights, which is sort of an upper-middle-class part of L.A., is in very close proximity to poorest parts of Inglewood.

And all these kids end up interacting with each other. The proximity of the haves and the have-nots in these communities is close. So these kids, who are black and who come from money, are still living in an environment where they see the rules and expectations of what is black and what isn't black surrounding them all the time.

I was always fascinated by how many kids like Jaleel [a character in the film] that I knew who were from middle-class homes and stable environments still ended up in gangs and in trouble and I would always go, 'How? You've got everything.'

So...part of the drive in making the movie was thinking about...all these folks I grew up with, and the two dozen or more situations we got ourselves into where if they had gone one way or another, it would have completely impacted and changed our lives for the negative.

When you're in these types of environments...often times, you're not balancing good and bad choices, but bad and worse choices. So how you navigate through that impacts who you become in life. And those are the decisions that the kids in Super Bad don't necessarily have to face. It's just a bad day for them: a ride home in a cop car and your parents are upset that you wrecked the car.

Not for dopes: Famuyiwa on making his characters complex and layered

Growing up, there'd be doctors in the barber chair and drug dealers sitting right next to them and they're all talking about [something like] the Affordable Care Act, and the pros and cons of it, having really intense, layered and nuanced debates.

And so, I think a lot of what I was dealing with in the movie was perception versus reality. There's a perception of who these kids are, Malcolm and his friends, who Dom is, about who Nakia is, who Jaleel is, and all of those perceptions are shaded by media, pop culture, our own stereotypes, and prejudices.

I wanted to use the expectations that people have of characters like these and the conventions of the genre that I think people are familiar with when they think about films like this, whether it's Boyz n the Hood or Menace II Society or Friday.

We've been trained in a certain way to assume how these characters will interact with each other, how they live and who they are. I wanted to play with those expectations and take you in a place that I think you felt was very familiar, and then hopefully, turn it, so by the end of the film you go 'Oh wow, I didn't realize that these kids were just like my kids, or this kid is just like me.'

I really wanted to take that notion of what people expect from characters and flip it on you. I hope by the end of the film you're thinking about these people a little bit differently.

Once you've seen the film, weigh in and let us know if you think Famuyiwa flipped the script, or if 'Dope' is just another Hollywood 'hood flick. I'm @RadioMirage.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Next, we hear about a new movie called "Dope." It features three nerdy high school kids who end up with a drug dealer's Ecstasy and have no idea what to do with it. It's a comedy, set in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Inglewood, a city here in Southern California. Shereen Marisol Meraji from NPR's Code Switch team paid a visit.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: The film's title - "Dope" - has a few meanings. I asked high school kids in Inglewood for their definitions.

MIGUEL LUPIAN: Oh, that car looks dope, then that car looks tight. Like, it's just the way you use it in a sentence.

KEVIN RAMIREZ: Usually, when you hear dope, it's, like, kind of hearing, like, yeah, a drug, you know? It's like (laughter)...

NAYELI ADAN: You want some dope?

RAMIREZ: Yeah, like...

MERAJI: Miguel Lupian, Kevin Ramirez and Nayeli Adan say dope is slang for cool or drugs. "Dope" the movie opens with those two definitions on screen and one more - dope, noun, a stupid person. You'll find all three in this caper, where college-bound seniors obsessed with '90s hip-hop have to figure out what to do with a local drug dealer's stash. Director Rick Famuyiwa grew up a geek in Inglewood and says he wrote it based on some of his own experiences.

RICK FAMUYIWA: There were these drug dealers on a corner that I would try to avoid all the time. And one day, one of them saw me and was like, come on over here.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOPE")

RAKIM MAYERS: (As Dom) What's your name, little [expletive]?

SHAMEIK MOORE: (As Malcolm) It's Malcolm.

MAYERS: (As Dom) Look here, Malcolm...

FAMUYIWA: There's this girl over there. Can you go tell her I want to say hi, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOPE")

MAYERS: (As Dom) There's a nice little piece over there. I want you to go up to her and tell her that Dom wants to talk to her.

FAMUYIWA: And that was the first scene I wrote in the film, was sort of a similar encounter that Malcolm has with character Dom.

MERAJI: Malcolm is the protagonist. When he's not doing well in school or working on his Harvard application, he's chilling with his two best friends, Jib and Diggy. They duck and weave around the obstacles of the hood on their BMX bikes. But the choice Malcolm makes to engage with Dom, the neighborhood drug dealer, changes their fate and at one point tests their friendship.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOPE")

TONY REVOLORI: (As Jib) Look, I don't want to go to jail. I want to go to college. I want to get a good job. I want to help my mom.

MERAJI: Famuyiwa says even the best kids from Inglewood have a hard time dodging all the negativity.

FAMUYIWA: When you're in these type of environment, I always say oftentimes, you're not balancing good and bad choices but bad and worse choices.

FRANCISCO MARTINEZ: Sometimes we have to, and then nobody sees that.

MERAJI: The high school students I spoke with in Inglewood, like Francisco Martinez, Annette Valenzuela and Kevin Ramirez agree.

ANNETTE VALENZUELA: I have family members that feel like they had no way out. And they got into gangs and selling drugs and all this other stuff.

RAMIREZ: It's just more obstacles in the way.

MERAJI: Famuyiwa says it was a challenge to put that reality on film without bumming out an audience.

FAMUYIWA: Showing the complexity of that is - with humor and with fun - is what I wanted to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIP-HOP HOORAY")

NAUGHTY BY NATURE: (Singing) Hip-hop hooray, ho, hey, ho, hey, ho...

MERAJI: A lot of that fun - at least for someone like me - was that the soundtrack to my youth is the same soundtrack for these characters. And for those not in the know, the film has a narrator as guide.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOPE")

FOREST WHITAKER: (As Narrator) Malcolm, Jib and Diggy are all deeply obsessed with '90s hip-hop culture, submerging themselves in the music, watching old "Yo! MTV Raps" episodes for fashion tips and using the slang.

MERAJI: They say dope and whack. Malcolm has a high-top fade. Diggy, a girl and out lesbian, wears super-baggy overalls. Jib, the ambiguously Latino friend, rocks a bucket kangol. They run from rival drug dealers and hide from the cops to Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCENARIO")

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Singing) Here we go, yo. Here we go, yo. So what's - so what's - so what's the scenario? Here we go, yo. Here we go, yo. So what's - so what's - so what's the scenario?

MERAJI: Famuyiwa says he had '90s nostalgia but didn't want to make a period piece. So when he saw kids in New York walking around with boom boxes and high-top fades a couple years ago, he knew the time was right.

FAMUYIWA: Taking inspiration from these kids I'd seen walking around New York City felt like, OK, I can have this group of kids that are obsessed with the '90s but living today and tell a story that was a marriage of both worlds.

MERAJI: The new world is represented by technology. You see a party scene through a series of vines, tweets and Instagrams posted during and after the debauchery. Malcolm ends up using an online black market to sell the drugs for bitcoins. There's a lot going on here, and Famuyiwa says it's meant to be complex.

FAMUYIWA: A lot of what I was dealing with in the movie, too, was perception versus reality. And there's a perception of who these kids are and all of those perceptions are shaded by media, pop culture, our own sort of stereotypes and prejudices.

MERAJI: Inglewood native and high school student Miguel Lupian says he's ready for Hollywood to stop stereotyping his hometown.

LUPIAN: They put Inglewood, Compton, Watts, whatever - they put it in the movies as bad, like in "Boyz N The Hood," the killing, gang-banging and all of that. But they don't show the true version, where people actually try to get along.

MERAJI: Lupian hasn't seen the film yet. I can't wait to check in with him to find out if he thinks it's just more of the same or something dope. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCENARIO")

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Singing) Powerful impact - boom from the cannon... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.