Malcolm, the young hero of Rick Famuyiwa's "Dope," has a question for those who read his Harvard application: What color would you assume he is? Malcolm loves hip-hop, sings in a punk band, excels at math and lives in a rough section of Inglewood, California. Here's another clue: He recently began selling drugs.
"Dope," a comedy about a black kid who sometimes seems kind of white, arrives in theaters with uncanny timing, amid a national debate over Rachel Dolezal, the white former official at the NAACP who was passing as black. The two situations aren't precisely analogous -- dishonesty is different from nonconformity -- but they raise the same question: Can anyone really define race? Malcolm, played by amiable newcomer Shameik Moore (and a clear alter ego for the film's Inglewood-raised writer-director), suspects it's mostly just a pile of signifiers and stereotypes.
To the point: Malcom's band, Awreeoh, is pronounced "Oreo," like the racial pejorative. The bassist, Jib (Tony Revolori), appears to be Indian, while the drummer, Diggy (an appealing Kiersey Clemons), is a black lesbian. Malcolm wants to assure his dream girl, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), that he isn't at all like her drug-dealing ex-boyfriend, Dom (rapper A$AP Rocky, in an assured debut). When Malcolm winds up holding Dom's massive stash of molly, however, he may have to walk a new walk.
"Dope" unfolds like a rowdy teen comedy, with wild parties, topless girls and a bit of rough violence. The real fun, however, comes when the characters talk. The lingua franca is hip-hop -- thugs, geeks, FBI agents and Harvard businessmen all speak it -- but it can complicate matters. For instance, Malcolm's white friend Will (Blake Anderson) cries reverse racism when he's forbidden from using the N-word. Diggy slaps him for it, Malcolm allows it and Jib, who is "14 percent black," is on the fence.
"Dope" makes a good companion piece to last year's "Dear White People," another sharp comedy about young people navigating an ostensibly post-racial world. One of "Dope's" best features is a vintage hip-hop soundtrack with four pop-punk songs by Awreeoh. Those were produced by Pharrell Williams, who drew scorn last year when he defined himself as "the New Black." Maybe he was onto something.