Dope, Post-Racial Realness and Political Cinema
In this lecture with Lord Puttnam, we explored the impact that music and sound can have on a film, how it can be used to guide or manipulate the audience, and the importance of sound and music in the experience of watching a film. I will be discussing the use of hip-hop/rap music in the 2015 film Dope – including the ways in which different eras and styles of hip-hop are commented upon and interwoven throughout the text, utilized and re-imagined, how the film uses music to comment upon generational issues and nostalgia and how the film portrays music as a means of escape.
A video made to accompany songs from the movie Dope: Don’t Get Deleted
Dope’s soundtrack contains a diverse range of hip-hop and rap music, with tracks from both older and contemporary artists. The film employs music both to highlight the thematic concerns of the film (the struggle to define oneself, navigating a liminal space with regard to identity and place, the pains of growing up) and to comment upon identity and the way in which music can be an expression of this. Curated by Pharrell Williams, the soundtrack can be viewed as both an introductory and comprehensive compilation of 1990s’ conscious and mainstream hip-hop. It is a soundtrack that both fits the tone of the film, which emphasizes the potentially joyful and celebratory elements of living in a marginalized and deprived area and the difficult moral choices that come with navigating adolescence in a perilous and impoverished neighborhood, and a soundtrack which is commercially appealing to the audience – it is both a carefully assembled throwback album and an introduction to lesser known contemporary artists .
The film uses hip-hop to signify a number of things: it uses hip-hop/rap and its cultural status as music that is based around youthfulness, irreverence, excess and urbanity to give the film a sense of propulsion and energy (all of the major scenes of frenetic movement and running involve fast-paced songs played loudly over the characters’ actions – and 90s hiphop proves particularly upbeat and energizing); it employs editing techniques commonly found in hip-hop music videos (a sudden speeding up of club dancing, a stuttering edit to the beat of the song). The soundtrack provides a sense of interiority for the characters and their struggles, and it uses hip-hop and its visual referents in a deliberate manner to evoke nostalgia for 90s’ hip-hop culture, and to give the film a sense of history and almost haptic connection to old musical paraphernalia – seen in close-ups of the vinyls that are rifled through, and the deliberate shot of a Walkman being clicked shut, as well as a collection of old Yo! MTV Raps videos scattered in Malcolm’s room.
The film comments upon and indulges in the nostalgic consumption of 90s hip-hop – a deliberate and studied choice by Malcolm and friends, reflective of the adolescent search for identity and an attempt to connect to the materiality of the 1990s, when rap music was thought to be better, more ‘conscious’, more dynamic and colourful, before it was fully seized upon and diluted by a White capitalist music industry. Malcolm and his friends reflect a generation obsessed with nostalgia, with consuming the past and looking for authenticity and sincerity there. Malcolm and his friends are always performing in a sense, as they navigate their identities as young people of colour coming of age in a neighbourhood that some inhabitants will never leave; the deliberate choice to listen to certain eras of music, and to perform in a band with a musical sound that is not usually associated with poor kids of colour, are all acts undertaken to situate themselves outside of the bounds of what is expected from them in their environment. This film is distinct from other so-called ‘hood’ movies, although it has the sun-soaked brightness and colour palette of a mid-nineties ‘urban’ film, and has more in common with a 1980s’ coming of age story than a John Singleton film.
The music of the film is also rather explicitly on the nose, for example: when faced with a choice as to which street to go down on his way home from school, Malcolm mulls over the decision to the strains of The Choice Is Yours. Music is also emphasized as an important part of personal expression and connection, central to pivotal adolescent experiences – through the band that binds the three best friends together in their outsider status, to the dance that cements the connection between Zoe and Malcolm (to the strains of ‘these girls love the boy, these girls love the boy, they love the boy’), to the frequent theoretical discussion of music – including a thesis built off Ice Cube’s Today Was A Good Day, and Dom and Malcolm’s debate over the greats of 90s’ hip-hop and the legitimacy of categorizing that generation as the best. The songs in Dope also serve to highlight the strange confluence between an aesthetic throwback to 90s’ hip-hop fashion and cultural products, and the contemporary ubiquity of social media and the new social dynamics and opportunities it presents – allowing the spread of their business, allowing the main clique to go through rites of adolescent passage – all of this is facilitated through music.
Dope, Music and Navigating Race
Awreeoh, the band Malcolm, Diggy and Jib play in, are another extension of Malcolm’s identity in the film. The songs, written from Malcolm’s perspective, help to expand the diversity of musical genres in the film, and the band’s performances serve a narrative function (helping in their scheme and deal with Blake Anderson’s character), and allow the audience to connect with them – as Lord Puttnam spoke about in his lecture, it is important for the audience to have a moment where we can connect with the characters, where we see them united, and feel a sense of communal solidarity. Awreeoh and their discography encapsulates a great deal of the racial commentary in the film: a phonetic spelling out of the derogatory term ‘Oreo’ (referring to a person of colour who acts ‘white’), Awreeoh’s songs are both achingly sincere and meta/ironic, rebelling against the prescribed notions of what kinds of music belongs to what types of people, and what type of people should listen to and perform a particular type of music, and idea of immutable concepts of race and expression of race. The band’s music functions as a way for Malcolm and friends to take lateral aggression and exclusion and channel it into something defiant and unashamed. Awreeoh’s sound is both old and new, taking inspiration from pop-punk bands of the mid-noughties, and the lyrics speak to peculiarly millennial technological concerns, as well as age-old feelings of rebellion. The inclusion of these original songs on the soundtrack also helps Dope position itself commercially – the mixing of musical genres and production of the sings by a prominent contemporary producer allows it to be viewed as a necessary soundtrack, and helps it not be boxed in by expectations surrounding a ‘hip hop’ movie.
The neat compartmentalization of race and what signifies Whiteness and an ‘authentic’ Blackness are queried and mocked throughout the film, and is usually related to music: Malcolm and his friends are chastised for listening to ‘white’ music like TV On The Radio, and the notion of a particularly ‘real’ or definitive Black masculinity is negated by the presentation of several different characters who navigate masculinity differently: primarily seen through the figures of Dom, who is aurally associated with the sounds of rap pumping from cars and the throb of club music, and through Malcolm, who is afforded a great range of music to speak through, from contemplative Gil Scott-Heron, to Casey Veggies, to Busta Rhymes. Hip-hop culture/rap music is shown again as something that is consumed and appropriated by everyone, still racially coded and located in proximity to certain notions of Blackness and coolness, but also part of characters of all races’ lives, with varied associations. Hip-hop/rap provides a code of dress, a way of speaking; it is part of the background hum and suffuses the atmosphere. It is the music of South Central, but crucially, presented as the music of everywhere else also – from amateur MCs living in mansions to White hackers from music camp.
Politics and Hip-Hop: A Comparison between Do The Right Thing and Dope
Dope, although it shares some superficial visual similarities with Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, does not explicitly intertwine politics and hip-hop, or music and speak to anything overtly political, except perhaps in the final scene: built around an ascending, anthemic track with abrupt drops in sound, Malcolm is framed looking directly at the camera, and delivers a speech on the multifaceted nature of his identity (poor, Black, smart, naive, a geek, a dope dealer) and how it feels to be an outsider in multiple ways. In contrast, Do The Right Thing makes use of purposefully obtrusive music cues, which as Victoria E. Johnson notes, gives the film a quality of excess and manner of spectatorial address similar to rap’s rhythm, and foregrounds the polyphony and competition between different racial and generational voices in the film through the use of sound and competing music genres (20). Rap in this film seemingly controls the camera and directs it (Johnson 20), and in the case of Public Enemy’s Fight The Power, functions as something confrontational and powerful. The use of rap in this film is also what Johnson refers to as a ‘totalising aesthetic system’: something which transforms the view of the world – the camera shifts and our perspective shifts, and rap is aligned with change and disruption (20). Dope is a film which eschews using hip-hop as a force to guide it aesthetically, to interrupt it, to force the viewer out of complacency or ideologically challenge the viewer, and it is not a film which positions rap as music that is overtly political; at least not as ‘threatening’ and bold as Public Enemy. Rap, as used in this film, does not comment upon Blackness and space, or oppression and marginalization. Dope instead deliberately uses music to evoke memories of other films (films which deal perhaps more explicitly with growing up in South Central, but in a different era and with a different sensibility), and traditionally how narrative cinema uses music: to guide feelings and reactions, and seamlessly integrate into the narrative. It spotlights the material accouterments of hip-hop culture – and how meaning can be found by integrating the old (Walkmans, Kid’n’Play hair) with the new (the spread of a viral video, the circulation of memes) . The film takes songs that exist in a very specific milieu, and are written about a very specific space, and reworks them to comment upon other issues – one such example is a scene where Malcolm, Diggy and Jib ride their bikes down a wide street lined with palm trees, a neighbourhood dotted with huge luxurious houses to the strains of The World Is Yours by Nas. This seminal song from The Illmatic is, very broadly, a song about yearning and dreaming and what could be achieved, distinctly New York in tone, a song about meandering around the boroughs and living out boastful, grandiose dreams but also contending with poverty and and darkness; about the certainity if money over any hope of symbolic representation. As they ride their bikes down the wide street and enter a cavernous mansion, the song fades in and out, one moment diegetic and another extra-diegetic – a trick repeated several times throughout the film. This anthem – recounted by a young man who hustles and aspires to be someone important, a rich Tony Montana figure, to move beyond the cloud hanging over him – is contrasted and complimented in this scene; a song about consumption and richness and the space being available to you, to having dead presidents represent you fits with the images of lushness we see, the possibilities available to someone who hustles, the space they can take up. As Malcolm encounters Lily at the mansion, who is presented immediately as essentially a body and an object, the song increases in volume as they stare at each other as she floats in the pool – she becomes associated with the idea of consumption and achievement, someone (something) aurally associated with the acquisition of power and wealth.
Dope demonstrates how hip-hop’s use in film has changed: from a disruptive, political and ideologically loaded musical choice, one meant to provoke and often radically employed, to its use in a world where rap/hip hop culture has been appropriated, and watered down, and splintered and made anew, and is now familiar to mainstream audiences. It is consumed both organically and inorganically, how it is still codified as something that is specifically culturally Black, but is also produced by and consumed by a wide and diverse audience.
Johnson, Victoria E. “Polyphony and Cultural Expressions: Interpreting Musical Traditions in “Do The Right Thing“”. Film Quarterly. Volume 47, No. 2.Winter 1993-1994, pp. 18-29.