I don’t know what I expected from the Dope before I saw it this weekend. I think, at the very least, I was hoping to find out whether the movie was set in the 90s or in the present because, from the previews, I honestly didn’t have a clue. What I wasn’t expecting under the layers of nostalgically bad nineties hair and fashion (it made me nostalgic, but that stuff was bad the first time around), was an rather incisive commentary on privilege, what it looks like and how it works.
Privilege, Dope tells us, is layered in ways that most of us have learned to recognize, via race, gender, class, sexuality,and so on, but Dope also shows privilege at the intersections. Like how perceived intellectualism can earn some degree of a pass for black and brown kids, like Malcolm and his friends, who otherwise have no rung to stand on as they try to climb out of the Bottoms. How race and gender afford an otherwise slacker, Will, unimpeded and unquestioned access to a variety of spaces where he is free to wreak a kind of invisible havoc. Like how Coachella or fraternity parties are the place to go to unload massive quantities of drugs with relative little fear of policing. In dozens of little ways, the film signals the various ways, big and small, that privilege functions in the every day.
Perhaps what was most amazing, for me, about the the commentary of the film is the way that the characters are both savvy to and unabashedly employing their various degrees of privilege for their own personal gain, from the mysterious AJ, whose pedigree affords him previously unattainable power, to Malcolm using his smart black kid image to pull the wool over the eyes of various characters in the movie. Because that’s how privilege works. Those who have it, use it to their advantage in any way they can. That’s also why most work so hard to attain it, because it of the levels of power and security it affords. Privilege persists, to a degree, because those who have it disavowal all knowledge of or claim to it…at least publically. Dope doesn’t let it’s characters tell themselves or moviegoers that nice little lie. They revel in privilege, as much or as little as they have, like Scrooge McDuck rolling around in his vault of gold. And just like Scrooge, they are greedy for more.
At the same time, the film critiques the limits of privilege. Throughout the film, to the penultimate scene, characters again and again bump up against the limits of the privilege they believe they wield. Without offering any spoilers, those limitations are most often expressed along those expected lines of race, gender, class, etc…but also along those lines that we think less about like location and education. So that no matter where Malcolm goes to school, no matter what kind of life he makes for himself, there will always be spaces he will never move in with the same ease as Will.
All and all, Dope gives the straight dope (such a problematic phrase) on privilege. Not once does it sugar coat privilege. Never does it present us with some sort of pure and righteous character who seeks only rout privilege wherever it appears. At the same time offering all of the reasons why such people absolutely must exist.
You know, kind of like real life.