No one recognized Rick Famuyiwa when he strolled up to the Ladera Park basketball courts on a bright weekday afternoon. In January, the lanky, 41-year-old director's new comedy, Dope — a crowd-pleasing high school flick about three nerds who dress like Kid 'N Play, dream of going to Harvard and bash around in a Bad Brains–esque punk band — was the hit of Sundance. It triggered one of the festival's biggest recent bidding wars, finally selling for $7 million plus a $15 million advertising commitment when the movie opens in June. (It premieres locally on June 8 as part of the L.A. Film Festival, which officially runs June 10 to 18.)
Dope is poised to be one of the summer's sneak successes. It has breakout potential: It's funny, off-kilter, smart and sincere. And Dope could help change the way many people view Famuyiwa's hometown of Inglewood, which is more than just a base for gangbangers and cop dramas. Inglewood's mostly a place with mundanely lovely days like this, days when the park is packed and the guys on the court are busy dribbling, whooping, teasing and mock-bickering, looking exactly like the actors Famuyiwa directed there almost 20 years ago, when the then–22-year-old USC film student shot Blacktop Lingo, the 12-minute short that got him into his first Sundance and launched his career.
“They painted the court,” Famuyiwa observes. “It's a little nicer now.” As a kid, he and his friends would hang out there all day. Famuyiwa is 6 feet 4 inches and looked like a jock back then. “I'm tall and I play basketball,” he says, “so I'm not going to get fucked with.” But secretly he was a bit of a weirdo, the son of Nigerian immigrants and a kid who preferred to boogie board. The older guys who joked around as they hooped were “doctors [and] drug dealers and everything in between,” and he'd eavesdrop and file away their conversations for the movies he'd someday make — before he even knew he wanted to make them.
“I'd sit here at this park and hear them talking about politics,” Famuyiwa recalls. “They had really smart things to say, and I would often think, if these guys were born in a completely different environment, they wouldn't be drug dealers. But back then, you were sort of confined by what everyone was doing in your 'hood.”
He felt as if he was always flipping through a rule book for how to behave: “That's black, that's not black enough, that's too black,” he says. “There's too much navigation. You get to that part where you're like, 'Fuck it, I'm just me.'” (In Dope, he jokingly calls out “white shit”: skateboards, manga, Donald Glover and getting good grades.)
Famuyiwa graduated high school in 1991, during what he describes a “golden age” for Inglewood. The Pharcyde were working on their first album across the street from his friend's house. Some of the best acts performed at the Good Life, a health-food shop with an open-mic night, where the one rule was no swearing. This was before the 1992 riots, “but obviously all that stuff was simmering beneath the surface,” Famuyiwa says. And that summer John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood would present a violent picture of Inglewood that would stick.
The Inglewood of Boyz n the Hood wasn't inaccurate. But the neighborhood's real story is more complex. The 1960 census registered just 29 African-Americans in the district, approximately .04 percent. It was one of the whitest parts of the city, until the 1965 Watts Riots caused frightened Caucasians to flee. Even so, Inglewood High School didn't integrate until 1970.
“One of the last places,” Famuyiwa notes. “You'd think it was the South.” He's kicking around making a film about that freshman class, the third movie in his unofficial Inglewood trilogy.
Rapidly, the city changed as whites moved out and blacks moved in. Inglewood was the first city in California to declare Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a holiday, and it has the highest percentage of registered Democrats in the state. Today, it's a majority-Latino neighborhood with pockets of everything from upper-class to “down and dirty, and everything in between,” Famuyiwa says. That's his Inglewood. But that isn't the Inglewood he saw in the movies, or the Inglewood people wanted him to make his own films about.
After Blacktop Lingo played at Sundance in 1994, producers called Famuyiwa for meetings. They were looking for a new Boyz n the Hood, something gritty about poor kids and drug dealers. When he said no to that, they pitched him on making a goofy comedy like Booty Call or How to Be a Player, “all these weird interpretations of blaxploitation.” He'd watched all those movies with his dad, but he'd also fallen for films by Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards. Famuyiwa kept selling shoes for a living, and finally, out of desperation, gamely pitched an idea about a guy named Willie Popcorn who was obsessed with afroed '70s kitsch.
But he didn't want to be John Shaft. He didn't want to be John Singleton. He wanted to be John Hughes. And why not? Ferris Bueller claimed rich suburban Chicago kids were typical teenagers. Why couldn't a movie about middle-class Inglewood kids do the same?
A well-financed film couldn't — at least not at the time. But then came word, in 1999, that MTV loved his script called The Wood, a male-bonding comedy about two middle-school best friends, now all grown up, trying to keep their third pal from sabotaging his own wedding. Famuyiwa shot the film on location in Inglewood, with scenes at his old middle school, La Tijera, and the convenience store a block from his house. There were Bloods and one robbery, but The Wood's real focus was on the universal stages of growing up: first slow dance, losing your virginity, getting married. Famuyiwa strived to make a point of portraying his hometown as a place everyone could relate to, no matter where they're from or what their skin color.
Now he thinks he might have tried too hard. With The Wood, Famuyiwa had made a film that was quietly rebellious: an all-black movie where nobody dealt drugs or died. His next romantic comedy, 2002's Brown Sugar, was his spin on The Philadelphia Story. At the time, it felt “fresh and different” — showing a softer side of black culture was his way of combating Inglewood's always-up-to-no-good image. But as knockoffs sprouted, Famuyiwa grew concerned that the industry now felt comfortable only making aspirational, issue-free rom-coms about African-Americans who were so wealthy as to be, well, whitewashed.
“There's this responsibility you feel to present a certain thing — that kind of respectability politics,” Famuyiwa says. “I think that became the only accepted way of defining black culture. I started to become too aware of 'How does this look?' instead of 'Who are these characters?'”
Worse, he couldn't help contrasting acceptable — i.e., flawless — fictional black characters with the media's portrayal of actual teens. “Maybe Trayvon is a teenage kid and a loudmouth punk, but he loses his life because he's not perfect,” Famuyiwa says. “We're telling kids that unless they're Theodore Huxtable, their life doesn't have value.”
After his next film, the cross-cultural comedy Our Family Wedding, turned into something sillier and louder than he'd intended, Famuyiwa realized he'd gotten too far off course from the smart and realistic movies he'd wanted to make. “The genre couldn't handle it,” he says.
“I always come back to Inglewood for inspiration when I need it,” Famuyiwa says. In the years since he'd moved closer to the beach, a new generation of kids — young musicians such as Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean — were redefining the sound of Southern California. Like him, they were weirdos. Unlike him, they had no qualms expressing that.
“Their energy was so different,” Famuyiwa says. “Those kids didn't feel any constraints of neighborhood or what anyone expected of them.”
Dope's title is a play on the slipperiness of definitions: It can mean cool, stupid or drugs — or, here, all three at once. In the movie, Famuyiwa's alter ego Malcolm (newcomer Shameik Moore) refuses to fit into the Inglewood image. Instead of baggy jeans and bandannas, he wears bright-colored '90s thrift-store shirts buttoned all the way up to the neck, and grooms his hair into a 4-inch high-top. The neighborhood gangster, played by A$ap Rocky, teases Malcolm that he runs around “looking like you came out of a DeLorean and shit.”
Malcolm's best friends are a Guatemalan kid (Tony Revolori, the lobby boy of The Grand Budapest Hotel) who insists he's 14 percent black, and a lesbian (Transparent's Kiersey Clemons) who licks the back of 2 Live Crew album covers. They play in a punk band named Awreeoh, cruise around to Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest, and try to stay out of trouble. Malcolm jokes he wants to invent a Waze to avoid “'hood traps,” like the older dudes who want to steal his bike, and his guidance counselor prods him to write the kind of college-application essay Harvard wants to read — a violin dirge about his single mother and crime-ridden neighborhood. Malcolm refuses to play into stereotypes, even when the stereotypes are half-true.
Famuyiwa's young cast knew all the classic hip-hop. “Their parents were coming of age in that era,” he says. “They were into it the same way that my parents got me into Marvin Gaye.” He taught them everything else, a crash course in retro cool with mixtapes of Bad Brains and Dead Kennedys, and movie nights where everyone watched Rushmore and Go, his touchstones for the movie he wanted to make.
Dope's clothes and Yo! MTV Raps soundtrack might seem like gimmicks, but Famuyiwa is using them to make a point. Malcolm wants to prove he's different. The truth that the movie gets at, though, is that when you're defining your personality in contrast to an image, you still aren't truly defining yourself. And sometimes, as Malcolm finds out, the only way out is to play into the drug-dealing, law-breaking role strangers ladled on him anyway.
“Everything about who I am, negative and positive, is what shaped me,” Famuyiwa says. Even he, the geek who wanted to go to USC, still knew the guys who were just trying to get by, and he'd buy their stolen speakers. “There was a ton of shit that we got into that people would look at now and go, 'What the fuck?'” he says. “I didn't want to smooth down those edges.” And it's important to him that audiences understand that the characters in Dope don't have to be role models — they just have to be themselves.
“We don't discuss race, so just the discussion of race has become racist,” says Famuyiwa, now taking long strides around the perimeter of the park as the basketball players take a breather. “We've been trained that it's such a lightning rod that we don't even want to say the word.”
That silence isn't healthy. Famuyiwa wonders if today's Inglewood isn't so different from the one he knew in high school — a place of optimism and music and ambition that's also steaming with quiet tension. “It weirdly felt a lot like what's going on today,” he says, “those eruptions of violence here and there.”
He hopes Dope can make people laugh. That shouldn't be too hard. He also hopes it can start a conversation about the way we label kids from places like Inglewood. Everyone — himself included — has a preconceived notion of who they are, a notion that's either pessimistic or rooted in the belief that these kids need a high-pressure push to prove their worth to the rest of the world. But as Famuyiwa learned in college and relearned as an adult, the best way to represent a neighborhood is just to lace up your sneakers and listen. As he narrated nearly 20 years ago in Blacktop Lingo, “The court produces legends who can fly.”