'Dope' director on his love for Inglewood and John Hughes films
Rick Famuyiwa has crafted a visual love letter to Inglewood in his coming of age movie “Dope,” the indie hit from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It opens at the L.A. Film Fest on June 10 (schedule) and hits local screens on June 19.
Described as “Nerds In the ‘Hood” and listed by L.A. Weekly as one of the 10 Movies to See at L.A. Film Fest 2015, “Dope” follows high-school senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), who bond over '90s hip-hop culture, their studies and the music they play in their punk band. A chance encounter with a drug dealer lands Malcolm and company at the dealer's birthday party. When the scene turns violent, they flee—with the drugs the dealer secretly hid in Malcolm's backpack.
The writer/director sat down with The Frame’s John Horn after an advanced screening that took place in Baldwin Hills on June 7, sharing how Inglewood led to him finding his creative voice and why he thinks that a film set in the historically tough part of Inglewood known as the Bottoms is not so different than the white suburbia prominently featured in John Hughes’ teen films of the 1980s.
Growing up in Inglewood, America
Famuyiwa grew up in Inglewood, between Ladera Heights and the Bottoms.
“I had a lot of friends in Ladera and throughout Inglewood, so it was important to me to bring this area to life because Inglewood was really where I found my voice and my core group of friends that I still have today,” he said.
“I was at a point in my career where I really wanted to revisit and redefine what I was doing as a filmmaker. And I felt that Inglewood, being the place where I found my original voice, would be the place where I would re-find my voice.”
Though locality plays a large role and the city of Inglewood is ever-present throughout the film, best friends Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy— kids a little too smart to be cool and not quite cool enough to be cool— could be from anywhere.
“I wanted it to be very specific in terms of these kids and that world, but I also feel like what they were going through was something that everyone goes through and there’s no one way to tell that story,” said Famuyiwa.
The space between teen film & 'urban' cinema
Growing up on a steady diet of John Hughes films including “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Weird Science,” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” Famuyiwa recalled instantly relating to these coming of age stories even though they were mainly set in middle-class suburban Chicago.
“My friends and I would quote lines from the movie and act off of these films and I thought, ‘Well, if we were able to connect to these kids in a way then why couldn’t these kids from suburban Chicago connect with Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy in Inglewood?’”
Famuyiwa said that was part of the motivation of making the movie, to redefine what we consider mainstream.
The writer/director said that when we talk about what’s normal in cinema, it always looks one way— white and suburban— and that talking about blackness and living in the Bottoms and similar neighborhoods bring on a different type of filmic language altogether.
“When we talk about kids of color who are from Inglewood or the South Side of Chicago, we call it 'niche' or 'other'. We have all these labels for it, like 'urban film,' which always kind of tripped me out because any film set in a city is an urban film. All these labels seem to come about when you’re talking about people of color."
A multiethnic mainstream
Famuyiwa was hopeful, however, saying that audiences are moving into something that he called the “new mainstream.”
“It’s what this room looks like,” he said of the multiethnic audience present in the Baldwin Hills theater. “It’s what America looks like. And I think film needs to start reflecting that or it’s going to become a dinosaur.”
New approaches, however, can be obstacles to studio funding, said Famuyiwa, even with big-name producers Pharrell and Forest Whitaker on his side.
“We had a great script, and nobody said yes,” said Famuyiwa, “at least not to the script as I wanted to make it.”
Studios were unhappy with the violence and drug use in the film, Famuyiwa said, and were unwilling to deal with the harsh reality of the lives of kids from the Bottoms. So Famuyiwa and his producers decided to go the independent route, to great reward.
After "Dope" premiered at Sundance, there was a fierce bidding war, which ended when Open Road Films and Sony Pictures Worldwide reportedly bought the movie for $7 million.
Now that the film will be distributed to screens, Famuyiwa said that an audience that studios and networks often ignore will make their presence known at theaters, something he even kept in mind whilst drafting the initial script.
“We are a multicultural and multiethnic country and I firmly believe that there’s a shift that’s been happening for several generations but has finally been manifesting itself now that people from different walks of life can connect,” he said.
And our common language? Pop culture.
“Now you can have a joke about the Bloods and Crips play here and also in France. That’s hip hop. That’s how hip hop has become the common language that we all speak.”
The film spoke loudly to many in the audience at the advanced screening.
"It means a lot to see a coming of age story with people who look like yourself" said one audience member during the post-screening Q&A session.
Another chimed in, saying "I was born and raised in Inglewood, so when I was watching this I was like, 'Oh my God, this is my life!'"
“When you’re not a person of color or a minority,” Famuyiwa responded, “you don’t quite understand what it means when you see that. Those images really mean something.”
Will it mean something to you? You’ll just have to watch the film to find out. And Rick Famuyiwa wants to hear what you have to say (#MyDopeReview).
You can find more info about "Dope" at the film's website. The Frame, KPCC’s daily arts, entertainment and culture program, airs weekdays at 3:30 p.m.