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'Dope' Director On Geekdom, The N-Word And Confronting Racism With Comedy


I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The movie comedy "Dope" is about three high school students of color who are obsessed with '90s hip-hop, have their own punk band and are smart. That makes them the targets of mockery and worse in their predominantly black high school in a poor and working-class section of Inglewood, Calif. Pharrell Williams wrote several new songs for the movie. “Dope” is now out on DVD. Our guest is the film's writer and director, Rick Famuyiwa. He grew up in Inglewood the son of Nigerian immigrants. He also directed the films "The Wood" and "Brown Sugar" and co-wrote "Talk To Me." He talked to Terry Gross in July.

They began with a scene from "Dope." The main character, Malcolm, played by Shameik Moore, is applying to Harvard. He's talking with his guidance counselor about his college admission personal essay, which is titled "A Research Thesis To Discover Ice Cube's Good Day." The guidance counselor, played by Bruce Beatty, speaks first.


BRUCE BEATTY: (As Mr. Bailey) Malcolm, when I see stuff like this personal essay I think you're not taking the process seriously.

SHAMEIK MOORE: (As Malcolm) I'm taking it seriously, Mr. Bailey. I promise. I'm talking about something that I love. I mean, it's well-reasoned, supported with historical data. It shows creativity, critical thinking. If Neil deGrasse Tyson was writing about Ice Cube, this is what it would look like.

BEATTY: (As Mr. Bailey) I suggest you go in a different direction. Write something personal about you, your family, your life.

MOORE: (As Malcolm) I mean, I could write about the typical I'm from a poor, crime-filled neighborhood, raised by a single mother, don't know my dad, blah blah. It's cliche. This here – this is creative. This shows that I'm different. This is the kind of essay that Harvard wants from their students.

BEATTY: (As Mr. Bailey) Malcolm, I'm going to be honest with you. You're pretty damn arrogant. You think you're going to get into Harvard. Who do you think you are? You go to high school in Inglewood. To the admissions committee, your straight A's, they don't mean [expletive]. If you're really serious about this exercise and you're not just wasting my time or yours, then it's going to be about your personal statement.



Rick Famuyiwa, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on the film. The essay that Malcolm writes is also a way of showing I'm different, you know? And part of what pop culture means when you're a teenager, the music you love, the movies you love, is - it's a way of defining who you are. And I think you've really captured that with this film, how pop culture has, like, two purposes in young people's lives - just loving it but also saying that's who I am.

RICK FAMUYIWA: Yeah, yeah. I mean, that's so much of how we define ourselves and I think in particularly with young kids like Malcolm who don't have a lot of positive influences, pop culture almost becomes a larger part of that self-discovery and how you define yourself.

GROSS: So your movie is deep into hip-hop culture, but the heroes in your movie, they're the geeks, not the gangsters. They're the smart kids who have a band. They're immersed in movies and in music. They know their way around computers. The main character wants to get into Harvard and he's really smart and you're rooting for him that he's going to make it into Harvard. Was that part of what you wanted to do, to make a story where there's a young African-American as the main character, it celebrates hip-hop, but it's about being smart, it's not about being a gangster?

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, I did. The idea was that there could be a sort of different idea sort of idea about black masculinity. And so the idea was to sort of tell a story about these kids who are geeks, who are into a lot of different things but don't necessarily fit into sort of the accepted or sort of pop cultural norms was something that I was thinking about doing more just on sort of a personal level in that I felt like I was that kid. I was like Malcolm. I was the kid who had these sort of ambitions and oftentimes had people questioning those ambitions. And so I really wanted to just give voice to that.

GROSS: So when you say people questioned your ambitions, do you mean they beat you up? I mean, I want to quote - I want to quote a line from the voiceover narration in "Dope." It's like, for most geeks, the worst at school is being beaten up by the jocks, but in my neighborhood, it might be getting shot. So what were the black masculinity issues that you faced when you were in high school, and what kind of reaction did you get to your way of being a young man?

FAMUYIWA: No, no. I mean, I never, you know, got beat up. But there is sort of, you know, I guess there's sort of - always sort of a social shaming that goes on with adolescents, no matter what that is and where you're from. And the first clip that you played where Malcolm is talking about his college application and he's dealing with his counselor who basically asks him who do you think you are for wanting to apply to Harvard, I had that similar type of experience where I had a teacher that I was very fond of tell my mother that, you know, I was arrogant because I had these ambitions to want to go to an Ivy League school and do certain things.

And his point of view was that that position made the other students in the class feel inferior or when I would answer questions that people didn't know the answer to that that would sort of make everybody feel bad. And so I always thought about that exchange. And of course my mother sort of, you know, went off on him and told him he was crazy. But I always thought about that because it was - it sort of sat with me, you know, as a young kid hearing that, especially coming from a teacher that you really were sort of fond of and how that sort of shapes your ambition.

GROSS: So you mentioned the issue of masculinity and how it's defined for young black men. What did you feel defined masculinity when you were in high school, and how did that compare with your own self-image?

FAMUYIWA: I think there's a certain expectation from the outside world about who you are. And you're always aware of that, whether it's growing up in LA during the '90s when there were just really a lot of tension between the police and sort of the communities that they often had to police, and being aware of how people perceive you, whether it's going into a store or whether it's driving home from a party with your friends and knowing that if a policeman pulls you over, how they think of you and what you have to sort of do in your own mind to prepare for that. And so I think there's always a self-awareness of how you're perceived to the world because it's often something you have to deal with in sort of real-world situations.

GROSS: That leads to something that comes up in at least two of your movies - "The Wood," which is an early film of yours that's set in the neighborhood you up in, Inglewood, and your new movie, "Dope." In both of them, the main characters have to be careful because if they accidentally start - or intentionally start hanging around with, like, the wrong people, then they could easily end up in jail because you never know - or maybe you do know - like, who's carrying a gun or who's carrying drugs and who's just, you know, pulled off, you know, a crime of one sort or another. And if you inadvertently get pulled into that group of people, your life as you know it, as you wanted it, can be over. And I'm wondering if you faced that kind of threat to your future when you were growing up.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, I mean, I think that's something that you're constantly dealing with. I mean - and in my case, Inglewood is sort of a microcosm of the larger Los Angeles, so it has its very affluent parts and it also has its very sort of economically-challenged and struggling parts and everything in between. And so I sort of lived in a part that was sort of in between those two worlds, in between sort of the Ladera Heights, which was, you know, sort of where the really successful doctors and lawyers bought houses, and the Bottoms, which is where "Dope" is set.

And I was sort of in a neighborhood kind of in between, the kind of middle-working class, and so I kind of lived in both of those worlds. It was always interesting, especially as I look back on things. You know, so many of the kids that end up becoming gangsters, drug dealers, whatever - I look back and I think of those kids as just sort of the silly kids that I used to run around the neighborhood with riding bikes, skateboards and playing, but for different reasons, you end up in situations that sometimes take you in those directions. And there's a line in the movie about these kids have to deal with bad and worse choices, you know, there are no good and bad choices (laughter). Oftentimes it's sort of bad and worse.

GROSS: What's the closest you came to making a choice that could've gotten you into trouble, could've gotten you, you know, in prison?

FAMUYIWA: I was on my way to a dance with my friends, and this guy who was a sort of gangster knucklehead offered to give us a ride, and we knew him from the neighborhood. And all my, you know, my friends were like, all right, yeah, cool, let's get in. And I'm like, OK, fine (laughter). It is kind of a long walk, so let's jump in this car. And so we got in the car with this guy and he gets pulled over by the police. And in that moment, as he gets pulled over, I'm sitting there thinking, this is it, you know? (Laughter) This is that moment where I just made a wrong choice and we've now got pulled over by the police and I have no idea what they're going to do or who this kid we're riding with actually is and...

GROSS: And what he's carrying.

FAMUYIWA: And what he's carrying or what he's doing. And then we're all going to go down ‘cause these - you know, the police aren't going to care that I'm a straight-A student and I have all these ambitions. They're just going to see me as a black kid in the car with a gangster (laughter). And so the cop pulled us over and the kid pulls out his registration and it turns out this is his mom's car. And as everything you sort of find out in life, that there was so much more posturing than actual real gangster (laughter) in this kid 'cause at that moment, he became very polite (laughter) you know, as the cop came over - and well-spoken. And then the cop kind of let us go and was like whatever -I forget, he had a tail light, or something - and let us go. But again, it was just sort of an incident that I know of other people who ended up in that same kind of incident and they didn't get off that way. They did get arrested and then that becomes something that's a part of their record forever.

DAVIES: Rick Famuyiwa wrote and directed the film “Dope.” We’ll hear more of his conversation with Terry in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re listening to Terry’s conversation with Rick Famuyiwa, who wrote and directed the film “Dope,” which is now out on DVD.


GROSS: I don't want to get too deep into the plot of the movie, but let's just say that because of a terrible mistake (laughter) that the three main characters in the movie end up with a backpack full of drugs that they have to figure out what are they going to do with it 'cause they can't very well bring it to the police. This backpack, now, has a lot of - what is it, MDMA?


GROSS: And a gun. If they take it to the police - three young people of color taking it to the police - that's not going to work. There's like, two sets of gangs out to get it. And so, like, they don't know what to do. So what's your doorway into the drug aspect of the narrative?

FAMUYIWA: Again, referencing the film, "Super Fly" and "Boyz N The Hood" and "Menace" and a lot of those films that I think I was playing around with, in terms of my artistic process, drugs and the sort of drug culture often become a part of the narrative, and in some ways, I wanted that to be a part of this, that even though these kids were geeks and sort of trying to avoid that environment, they still end up somehow in this predicament. And so dealing with that was something that I wanted to deal with and just metaphorically how the draw of that somehow ends up sucking even the best kids in.

But I wanted to deal with it in a way that felt like how these kids would respond, and these kids are geeks and they're smart. And the way they're going to get out of this situation isn't going to be the same as the characters in those past films I was referencing. And it would be connected to technology and would be connected to the way that we interact with each other. So, you know, idea of sort of a marketplace like Silk Road, which has also been in the news a lot lately...

GROSS: It's part of the dark Internet, like, a kind of black market.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, the Dark Web.

GROSS: The black market Amazon (laughter).

FAMUYIWA: Exactly, exactly. The Dark Web became very fascinating to me and I felt like, yeah, of course, you know, these kids that are geeks and obsessed with technology and a lot of things would sort of - they would find that avenue in a way that others – protagonists - wouldn't. And so that becomes a big - a central plot point in "Dope" that I think is fun, but also had a sort of larger message attached to it.

GROSS: And an element of real danger.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: It's not like, oh they're stoners, that's funny. It's like, these kids don't even use drugs but somehow drugs have entered their lives. And it's a comedy, but you know there's potential for real danger because it’s…

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, there's real...

GROSS: There's real guns in this neighborhood.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, yeah, there's real stakes.

GROSS: There's real stakes. And the police won't say, oh, well, you're smart kids so it doesn't matter.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, exactly. There's real stakes. And I often say that, you know, these kids are very similar to the kids in "Breakfast Club" or "Superbad," but the stakes are a lot more real for them, you know, the mistake isn't just, you know, wrecking your dad's car or getting arrested and stewing overnight for your own good and then your parents come to pick you up in the morning, and you've learned a lesson. It's like, the stakes for these kids are real.

GROSS: Music plays a really big part in your movie, "Dope," because the characters love '90s hip-hop and because you do, too, and also because you got Pharrell as the music director of your movie. And he wrote some original songs which are the songs that the three main characters who are in high school perform in their punk rock band. In the movie, they wrote the songs, but the songs were actually written by Pharrell. So why don't we pause here and listen to one of those songs? So this song is called "Go Head". And tell us what you told Pharrell about what you wanted these original songs to sound like.

FAMUYIWA: As we talked about the music that these kids would create, we started with hip-hop because obviously these kids were obsessed with '90s hip-hop. But we also felt these kids would draw from many different things because they're of a culture that's connected to the world through technology in a way that we weren't. And so Malcolm and his generation has access to all types of music at the touch of a screen. And so hip-hop would be at the root but also punk and also grunge and also a lot of other things that these kids would have access to. And that became the jumping-off point for the band Awreeoh that these kids created.

GROSS: So this is a track of the kids in the band performing and it's written by Pharrell. Are the actors in your movie actually performing on this track?

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, they are singing. They don't all play instruments, so that's other people that are coming in to play the music, but it's all their voices. They're all singing.

GROSS: OK, so here it is from the soundtrack of "Dope."


AWREEOH: (Singing) Yeah, first day of school. Hey, good grades are cool, uh-huh. Trying to find a new way to rule, yeah, and land a new major boo. Hey, my mind is like a ride, bumping Young Jeezy inside. Yeah, I march to the beat of my own drum and tomorrow don't care about the outcome. Work, who cares to? I love her T-shirts and her hairdos. No makeup, only on her eyes. You like her cakes, get them online. Let's be friends, it's been too long. No [expletive] I'll put you on. Let's go shopping, what is this? Take that up street [expletive]. I won't act like a gangster would. And no you can't [expletive] with my hood. It seems that lately your homeboys try to play me. Stay acting shady, my ego might just make me. Go head, go head, make some noise. Make some noise…

GROSS: That's music from the soundtrack of "Dope," song written by Pharrell and performed by the three main characters. My guest is Rick Famuyiwa who wrote and directed "Dope." Your main character, Malcolm, is raised by a single mother who's a bus driver. His father is Nigerian but he - but Malcolm has only had basically one interaction with his father. And then we see in a flashback his father slipping through the mail slot of the house a DVD of his favorite film "Super Fly," the father's favorite film. So let's talk about your story. Your parents are from Nigeria.


GROSS: So did that set you apart when you were growing up?

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, I mean, that was definitely - it's who I am. I'm first-generation American. My parents were both from Nigeria. And so I always say that I'm literally an African-American, you know what I mean? And so my last name is Famuyiwa. It's different. And so that was a part of my experience, from people not being able to pronounce it to not sort of having sort of a shared, common history with a lot of the kids that I was growing up with because my parents were from Africa.

GROSS: Your parents are from a majority black culture. And then come to America where black people are considered the minority.


GROSS: Did their coming from a majority black culture influence how you saw yourself as a young black man when you were coming of age?

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, I think it did. And I think because they didn't have sort of the baggage in some ways that we carry when you're - you kind of grow up in the United States. I felt like they sort of had a point of view on the world that I got as well, a sort of ambition that became my own and also a sort of point of view about the American experience because they were immigrants, too. And they came to the United States to go to school and ultimately live here and raise a family here. And so the idea of being American to them was something that was very specific and particular and something that they wanted. And the idea of being American for good and bad is something that I would always hear. And there was sort of a constant refrain in my household about Americans - Americans this, Americans that - often times not in the most positive light. But it was very much something that, as immigrants, you think about and deal with.

GROSS: Rick Famuyiwa, thank you so much for talking with us.

FAMUYIWA: No, thank you. Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.

DAVIES: Rick Famuyiwa wrote and directed the film “Dope,” which is now out on DVD. He spoke with Terry in July. After a break, John Cleese will tell us about growing up and getting started in comedy, and we’ll remember some special moments from “Life Of Brian” and “A Fish Called Wanda.” And David Edelstein reviews the new film “Room.” I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.