Rick Famuyiwa, writer and director of the new movie "Dope," draws his story from his experiences growing up in Inglewood, listening to hip-hop and watching John Hughes films. Through his film, Famuyiwa works to redefine the mainstream and better understand the diverse audience the film attracts. He talked about it with the Frame in front of a live audience after a screening of the movie.
Product of Inglewood
A great deal of Famuyiwa's inspiration comes from Inglewood. It was childhood home, as well as the birthplace for his ideas and his self-discovery. Inglewood is the focal point of the film through the eyes of the protagonists and Famuyiwa.
"Inglewood for me was where I really found my voice — found sort of the core group of friends that I still have to today," Famuyiwa says. "It was the basis of my first movie, 'The Wood.' I was at a point in my career where I really wanted to revisit and redefine what I was doing as a filmmaker. I felt like Inglewood, being the place where I originally found my voice, would be the place where I could sort of redefine my voice."
However, the characters in "Dope" are not just representative of people living in Inglewood. While their experiences are specific to that world, they touch upon universal ideas of not fitting in. The feeling of not fitting for Famuyiwa is something he's experienced a lot.
Growing up, Famuyiwa could see parallels between the way he felt and characters in John Hughes films. That is why he believes that "Dope's" audience might be able to capture some of that too.
"I grew up watching a lot of John Hughes films like 'The Breakfast Club,' 'Sixteen Candles,' 'Weird Science' and 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off,' and I just felt like even though they were mainly set in middle class suburban Chicago, I could relate to these kids," Famuyiwa says. "My friends and I would quote lines from the movie, be silly and act crazy off of those films. I felt like, well, if we were able to connect to these kids in a way, why can't those kids from suburban Chicago connect with Malcolm, Jib and Diggie?"
Redefining the mainstream
Famuyiwa says he understands the diverse audience the film draws. He says that people watching the movie and its protagonists can see that these people could come from anywhere.
Famuyiwa does not consider the mainstream to be suburban and white. He says that thinking about the mainstream that way means labeling everything else as "other." Famuyiwa says his mainstream is more representative of America.
"That was part of the motivation for making the movie. It was, we could redefine things that are mainstream. I think when we talk about what is normal and mainstream in cinema, it always looks one way, which is white and suburban. But somehow when we talk about kids of color, who are from Inglewood or the south side of Chicago, we start to call it 'niche' or 'other.'"
That wasn't what Famuyiwa wanted to do.
"We have all these labels for it. You know, like 'urban films,' which always kind of tripped me out. Any movie set in a city is an 'urban film.' All these labels seem to come about when you talk about people of color. So I feel like we're sort of moving into what I call the new mainstream, which is what this room looks like, and what America looks like. I think film needs to start reflecting that, or it's going to become a dinosaur."
Despite having what appeared to be a great start, Famuyiwa still had difficulties producing his film.
"When we took this film out, I had met Pharrell Williams early on in the process, who read a treatment that I had of the script, come on board, want to do the music and be an executive producer. I met Forest Whitaker on our family wedding and we struck up a real bond and friendship. When I was thinking about who would get this as a producer, he had just finished doing 'Fruitvale [Station],' and I felt like it would be the perfect opportunity for us to work together, and he did too."
That gave Famuyiwa and his collaborators a sense of confidence, he says.
"We felt like, 'Man, we got a pretty good package.' I mean Pharrell is involved, and he's just coming off 'Happy,' and that is huge. Forest Whitaker is involved, and we have a great script — and nobody said yes. I mean, at least not to the script as I wanted to make it. A lot of them said, 'If you change this and don't deal with all the drugs and violence...' Keep them happy — the 'happy' world that they live in."
Famuyiwa says the people helping to dictate what kind of films get made don't understand the diverse audience they're speaking to.
"I mean, it looks like this. Really. when I was writing this. I was and am convinced that the audience that's out there is much different than what the studios think they are and what the networks think they are. I think the networks are slowly starting to figure it out, because now they can produce things at a rapid and quicker pace than the film side can."
Diversity is baked into what America is, Famuyiwa says.
"I think just the basic understanding that we are a multicultural country — it started that way, that's just sort of the basis of who we are. We all came here, whether by force or by choice, from somewhere else. It's always been the clash and celebration of that that has made America what it is and made America unique in the world. So, it's always curious to me that you would think in some ways that the best way of celebrating that is reflecting and showing it across the world, but for whatever reason, and we know that there are a lot of them, that has just looked the other way."
Famuyiwa says that all is changing now. Hip-hop has become an international language, and the relationship has grown from one between white suburban kids and kids in Inglewood to an international one.
"I firmly believe that there was a shift that has been happening for many generations — that is sort of manifesting itself now — that people from different walks of life could connect. We have a common language, we have a common pop culture that was driven by hip-hop that started in the '90s but is continuing now. So you can have a joke about the Bloods and Crips here, and also in France, which is surprising. I mean we were sitting at the theater in Cannes, and people were laughing at Jaleel and knew exactly what that meant. That is hip-hop and that's how hip-hop became the sort of common language that we all speak."
Hopefully, Famuyiwa says, with a firmer grasp of who the audience is, labels like "black cinema" will disappear. Assimilating these labels will help to create film with different perspectives, he adds, making movies as diverse as their filmmakers without needing to uphold arbitrary boundaries.
"'Black cinema' — I don't even know what that means. It's just cinema. When Paul Thomas Anderson makes a movie, we don't just say it's 'white cinema.' I mean, 'What is that going to do for white cinema and white filmmakers everywhere?' Nobody says that. Somehow when it's a film with black characters, it becomes 'black film' and 'What is this going to mean for black culture?' It's going to mean if you like it, you like it, and if you don't, you don't. So those labels are just always ridiculous to me. I'm a filmmaker. I'm going to speak and tell stories from my point of view, but I'm a filmmaker, and that's how I see myself."
"Dope" is set to be released June 19.