‘Dope’ Revisits the ’Hood, With Joy and Wit

When Shameik Moore got the part of Malcolm, the soft guy in a tough world at the heart of the film “Dope,” he had a problem.

“Dope” is an answer to, a repudiation of, a reconciliation with the streetwise black cinema of the early 1990s, films like “Juice,” “Boyz N the Hood,” “Menace II Society” and more. ButMr. Moore, who is just 20 and spent much of his youth in Christian schools, hadn’t seen any of those foundational films. So for a week before filming began, he embarked on a crash course guided byRick Famuyiwa, the writer-director of “Dope.”

What Mr. Moore found was context, but not, strictly speaking, inspiration. “I think what Rick did, how he shot it and edited it, makes it similar,” Mr. Moore said, “but how we performed is totally opposite.”

That’s because “Dope,” opening on June 19, is a sort of photonegative of those films, keeping their structure while upending their conventions — almost a “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” approach to that era. Winks to those films are sprinkled throughout “Dope,” but the harshness of that era, and its reliance on gangster narratives, is largely replaced with joy and wit. They’re relatives, but ones kept at arm’s length.

“There are some gangsters, but it wasn’t shot from the perspective of a gangster,” said Mr. Williams, the music and fashion superstar who served as one of the film’s executive producers and also wrote and produced its music. “It homes in on the mentality of someone who’s from there but not of there. And it doesn’t exclude the ’hood — it includes the ’hood. It’s encouraging.”

Much like those early ’90s films, “Dope” was made on a relatively small budget, in the low seven figures. After its premiere at Sundance in January, it became one of the most lauded films of this year’s festival circuit, starting a bidding war among distributors (Open Road and Sony won, paying $7 million) and receiving a standing ovation at Cannes.

Part of its resonance undoubtedly has to do with its revision of a world made familiar thanks to pop-culture engraving. What “Dope” does is reinvigorate the milieu with new characters and perspectives. Malcolm and his two friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), fetishize 1990s hip-hop; play in a punk band, Awreeoh (pronounced oreo); and try to steer clear of trouble. They are on the bottom of the high school food chain, largely anonymous except when being muscled by the local hoodlums.

Malcolm aspires to get in to Harvard, and in his quest, an unlikely series of events propel him and his friends into a caper that takes them into the gang and drug underworlds they’ve spent years avoiding.

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