Talking Dope with Writer-Director Rick Famuyiwa

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In the buzzworthy Sundance film Dope, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa introduces us to Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a sort of geeky outsider in a tough Los Angeles neighborhood. He’s obsessed with ’90s hip-hop culture and has a punk band with his equally ’90s-obsessed friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) called Awreeoh. It’s a story that hits a little close to home for Famuyiwa.

“Growing up in Inglewood was pivotal for me in terms of shaping who I am,” says Famuyiwa. “For better or worse, your environment defines you, so for Dope, it was really important for me to revisit that world.”

This isn’t the first time Famuyiwa has explored his L.A. upbringing. In 1999, he brought us into his world with The Wood. He also showed us his love for hip-hop music in the 2002 Taye Diggs vehicle Brown Sugar. Dope seems like a culmination of these movies. Paste had the chance to talk with him about his unofficial trilogy, how the Hollywood landscape has changed since he started, and the hot-button topic of the n-word.

Paste: Dope seems like the final installment of an unofficial trilogy made up of The Wood and Brown Sugar. Do you see it that way?
Rick Famuyiwa: Yeah. They’re all kind of connected. This is definitely sort of coming full circle to The Wood in many ways, both in terms of redefining and thinking about my neighborhood, but from a perspective of this generation. Thematically I wanted to revisit the idea of these transitions, identity and what they mean. Then, of course, my love of hip-hop. It was a time when the music was really exciting and dangerous, but also commercially viable. I think that’s why there is sort of a through line between the three movies.

Paste: Why do you think now is a good time for this kind of movie to come out?
Famuyiwa: I feel like we’ve—especially with this sort of post-Gen X and every other generation that comes in—sort of pushed for a different kind of mainstream in every sense of that word. Whether that’s marriage equality, gender equality, or how we’re dealing with race, I think we’re at the point where we’re trying to redefine the mainstream and just hear different voices. I felt like if I wrote this and got it out there then there was a sort of new majority that would connect to it, that would look at these kids and feel like that’s related to them somehow. I don’t know if I could have made it and referenced it in the same way 20 or 50 years ago, but it felt like today, with the emerging voice of the younger generation combined with others, there was a pool of like-minded people that would understand this movie.

Paste: One of the major scenes that stands out is the discussion of the use of the n-word. That issue is always a hot-button topic—like with Tom Hanks’s “rapper” son, Chet.
Famuyiwa: It always pops up every now and then [laughs].

Paste: But in the scene, one of the white characters felt like he could use it, but one of the black characters didn’t agree. It was very well written, funny, and addressed it in a way that’s really never been seen before. What was your thought process going into that scene?
Famuyiwa: When I wrote this script, I was just trying to capture the voices of how these kids speak. Me, growing up in Inglewood, [it’s] how I spoke and still speak to my friends. It’s how these kids speak now. Just in staying true to that meant that you were going to hear that word. It’s just a part of the environment, but I did feel that there would be that conversation that comes up because hip-hop culture has sort of shaped the way we all interact. This word is out there. It’s prevalent. It’s not being hidden and it’s been sort of generationally introduced—especially through music—for such a long time that there have been written and unwritten rules of that word. I just felt like it would get to a point where you would need to address it. That’s where that scene came from—the realities of how we all deal with it. It does always pop up like every now and then. Someone, whether it’s Gwyneth Paltrow or whatever, would say it in the context of saying, “I’m rapping. I love rap!” Then people react to it. It just became an interesting thing that I felt like these kids would explore.

Paste: The scene is straightforward and lighthearted about the use of that word, but at the same time it’s thoughtful.
Famuyiwa: Also, it’s a word. I did feel like at first people are going to hear it and they are going to go, “Whoa!” Every time you hear it you cringe, but then it just gets to a point where it’s part of their language and you don’t react anymore. That’s just where they’re from.

Paste: One of the funniest parts of the movie is when we see Quincy Brown as Jaleel. He’s from a rich family, but at the same time he’s this sort of gangster poseur using “gangster” terminology that some people may not understand, but it’s still hilarious.
Famuyiwa: I think there’s kind of a shared language we all have now, especially in terms of culture and pop culture. We have a shared experience that was sort of ushered in by the hip-hop that really blew up in the ’90s, so people understand what that means. What was so fascinating to me was when we took the film to Cannes, I was wondering how that scene would play in front of a French audience, and they laughed and they understood it. Everyone sort of understands that world, because we’ve all been connected and we’ve been listening to hip-hop for 20 years now, where everyone got to understand the Bloods, the Crips, and what that meant.

Paste: How have you seen the Hollywood landscape change for people of color since you started your career?
Famuyiwa: It’s interesting because I think when I came in and started in the late ’90s, there was probably more volume in terms of more films being made by and with people of color in them, but I think they were narrowly focused in one direction and they kind of got labeled “hood movies.” In some ways it’s what I’m sort of referencing and countering in Dope, but I feel like now we’re at a point where there’s not as many opportunities that were there before, but there’s more voices that are sort of being heard.

Paste: Do you think the industry is progressing in the right direction?
Famuyiwa: I’m confident that we’re moving because our culture is becoming and has been diverse for many, many years and continuing on, but Hollywood and the film business [have] been slow to recognize that. But, I do think that it only makes good business sense to continue to tell stories that connect to what this larger and more diverse America looks like now or will continue to look like. Progress is an interesting word; I don’t know how much it [has] progressed but I do feel like the audiences now are demanding it in a way that I don’t think the business has ever seen before. They are now starting to deal with the world that looks diverse, and they have to grapple with that if they want to continue to be successful moving forward.

Dope opens in theaters June 19.