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'Dope' Director On Geekdom, The N-Word And Confronting Racism With Comedy
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'Dope' Director On Geekdom, The N-Word And Confronting Racism With Comedy

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'Dope' Director On Geekdom, The N-Word And Confronting Racism With Comedy

'Dope' Director On Geekdom, The N-Word And Confronting Racism With Comedy
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Rick Famuyiwa's new film is about a black high-school student who's into 90s hip hop and Japanese comic books. He calls Dope a celebration of kids whose interests don't fit into pop-culture norms.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new movie comedy "Dope" is about three smart high school students of color who are obsessed with '90s hip-hop, have their own punk band and are smart. That makes them the targets of mockery and worse in their predominantly black high school in a poor and working-class section of Inglewood, Calif. After a party that ends in a shootout, the main character grabs his backpack and finds that someone's puts bags of drugs and a gun in it. He and his two friends have to figure out what to do with the drugs without getting killed or imprisoned. Pharrell Williams wrote several new songs for the movie. My guest is the film's writer and director, Rick Famuyiwa. He grew up in Inglewood the son of Nigerian immigrants. He also directed the films "The Wood" and "Brown Sugar," co-wrote "Talk To Me" and is now directing an HBO movie about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.

Let's start with a scene from "Dope." The main character, Malcolm, played by Shameik Moore, is applying to Harvard. He's talking with his guidance counselor about his college admission personal essay, which is titled "A Research Thesis To Discover Ice Cube's Good Day." The guidance counselor, played by Bruce Beatty, speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOPE")

BRUCE BEATTY: (As Mr. Bailey) Malcolm, when I see stuff like this personal essay I think you're not taking the process seriously.

SHAMEIK MOORE: (As Malcolm) I'm taking it seriously, Mr. Bailey. I promise. I'm talking about something that I love. I mean, it's well-reasoned, supported with historical data. It shows creativity, critical thinking. If Neil deGrasse Tyson was writing about Ice Cube, this is what it would look like.

BEATTY: (As Mr. Bailey) I suggest you go in a different direction. Write something personal about you, your family, your life.

MOORE: (As Malcolm) I mean, I could write about the typical I'm from a poor, crime filled neighborhood, raised by a single mother, don't know my dad, blah blah. It's cliche. This here - this this is creative. This shows that I'm different. This is the kind of essay that Harvard wants from their students.

BEATTY: (As Mr. Bailey) Malcolm, I'm going to be honest with you. You're pretty damn arrogant. You think you're going to get into Harvard. Who do you think you are? You go to high school in Inglewood. To the admissions committee, your straight A's, they don't mean [expletive]. If you're really serious about this exercise and you're not wasting my time or yours then it's going to be about your personal statement.

GROSS: Rick Famuyiwa, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on the film. The essay that Malcolm writes is also a way of showing I'm different, you know? And part of what pop culture means when you're a teenager, the music you love, the movies you love, is - it's a way of defining who you are. And I think you've really captured that with this film, how pop culture has, like, two purposes in young people's lives - just loving it but also saying that's who I am.

RICK FAMUYIWA: Yeah, yeah. I mean, that's so much of how we define ourselves and I think in particularly with young kids like Malcolm who don't have a lot of positive influences, pop culture almost becomes a larger part of that self-discovery and how you define yourself.

GROSS: Is part of why your character of Malcolm is into '90s pop culture because that's the hip-hop that you grew up with - '90s hip-hop?

FAMUYIWA: Yeah. I mean, I could selfishly say that that (laughter) that's the case. I was in high school and college as hip-hop was really sort of coming into its own as a, you know, creative force, as a sort of cultural voice. And it really spoke to me. That era in the late '80s through the '90s was really when the music was so new, fresh, energetic, but still creative. It hadn't quite gotten corporatized yet. And there was just a lot of exciting things happening. But it's interesting because a lot of young kids of this generation - sort of the millennials, for lack of a better term - I think reference both in terms of, you know, musical artists that are out now like Kendrick Lamar and ASAP Rocky who reference '90s sort of style, culture, bravado and comment and flip those sort of ideas into sort of their new point of view. And so I felt like Malcolm is sort of similar to a lot of those young artists in that way.

GROSS: So your movie is deep into hip-hop culture, but the heroes in your movie, they're the geeks, not the gangsters. They're the smart kids who have a band. They're immersed in movies and in music. They know their way around computers. The main character wants to get into Harvard and he's really smart and you're rooting for him that he's going to make it into Harvard. Was that part of what you wanted to do, to make a story where there's a young African-American as the main character, it celebrates hip-hop, but it's about being smart, it's not about being a gangster?

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, I did. And when I was thinking about "Dope" and sort of the story that I wanted to tell, I was thinking about a lot of the films that influenced me, especially when I was in film school and really deciding that this was what I wanted to do for a living, films like "Menace II Society" and "Boyz N The Hood" but also films like "Bottle Rocket" and "Boogie Nights" and that took me on different journeys as well. And so the idea was that there could be a sort of different sort of idea about black masculinity. And so the idea was to sort of tell a story about the kids that not only live in these environment but live in different environments around the country and the world that sort of have a different point of view, that don't quite fit into sort of the societal norms of what people expect. And so the celebration of these kids who are geeks, who are into a lot of different things but don't necessarily fit into sort of the accepted or sort of pop cultural norms was something that I was thinking about doing more just on sort of a personal level in that I felt like I was that kid. I was like Malcolm. I was the kid who, you know, had these sort of ambitions and oftentimes had people questioning those ambitions. And so I really wanted to just give voice to that.

GROSS: So when you say people questioned your ambitions, do you mean they beat you up? I mean, I want to quote - I want to quote a line from the voiceover narration in "Dope." And it's like, for most geeks, the worst at school is being beaten up by the jocks, but in my neighborhood, it might be getting shot. So what were the black masculinity issues that you faced when you were in high school, and what kind of reaction did you get to your way of being a young man?

FAMUYIWA: No, no. I mean, I never, you know, got beat up. But there is sort of, you know, I guess there's sort of - always sort of a social shaming that goes on with adolescents, no matter what that is and where you're from. And the first clip that you played where Malcolm is talking about his college application and he's dealing with his counselor who basically asks him who do you think you are for wanting to do this, to apply to Harvard, I had that similar type of experience where I had a teacher that I was very fond of tell my mother that, you know, I was arrogant because I had these ambitions to want to go to an Ivy League school and do certain things. And his point of view was that that position made the other students in the class feel inferior or when I would answer questions that people didn't know the answer to that that would sort of make everybody feel bad. And so I always thought about that exchange. And of course my mother sort of, you know, went off on him and told him he was crazy. But I always thought about that because it was - it sort of sat with me, you know, as a young kid hearing that, especially coming from a teacher that you really were sort of fond of and how that sort of shapes your ambition.

GROSS: So you mentioned the issue of masculinity and how it's defined for young black men. What did you feel defined masculinity when you were in high school, and how did that compare with your own self-image?

FAMUYIWA: I think there's a certain expectation from the outside world about who you are. And you're always aware of that, whether it's growing up in LA during the '90s when there were just really a lot of tension between the police and sort of the communities that they often had to police, and having sort of those feelings and being aware of how people perceive you, whether it's going into a store or whether it's driving home from a party with your friends and knowing that if a policeman pulls you over, how they think of you and what you have to sort of do in your own mind to prepare for that. And so I think there's always a self-awareness of how you're perceived to the world because it's often something you have to deal with in sort of real-world situations.

GROSS: That leads to something that comes up in at least two of your movies - "The Wood," which is an early film of yours that's set in the neighborhood you up in, Inglewood, and your new movie, "Dope." In both of them the main characters have to be careful because if they accidentally start - or intentionally start hanging around with, like, the wrong people then they could easily end up in jail because you never know - or maybe you do know - like, who's carrying a gun or who's carrying drugs and who's just, you know, pulled off a crime of one sort or another. And if you inadvertently get pulled into that group of people, your life as you know it, as you wanted it, can be over. And I'm wondering if you faced that kind of threat to your future when you were growing up.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, I mean, I think that's something that you're constantly dealing with. I mean - and in my case, Inglewood is sort of a microcosm of the larger Los Angeles, so it has it's very affluent parts and it also has its very sort of economically-challenged and struggling parts and everything in between. And so I sort of lived in a part that was sort of in between those two worlds, in between sort of the Ladera Heights, which was, you know, sort of where the really successful doctors and lawyers bought houses, and the Bottoms, which is where "Dope" is set. And I was sort of in a neighborhood kind of in between, the kind of middle-working class, and so I kind of lived in both of those worlds. It was always interesting, especially as I look back on things, you know, so many of the kids that end up becoming gangsters, drug dealers, whatever - I look back and I think of those kids as just sort of the silly kids that I used to run around the neighborhood with riding bikes, skateboards and playing, but for different reasons, you end up in situations that sometimes, you know, take you in those directions. And there's a line in the movie about these kids have to deal with bad and worse choices, you know, there are no good and bad choices (laughter). Oftentimes it's sort of bad and worse.

GROSS: What's the closest you came to making a choice that could've gotten you into trouble, could've gotten you, you know, in prison?

FAMUYIWA: I was on my way to a dance with my friends, and this guy who was a sort of gangster knucklehead offered to give us a ride, and we knew him from the neighborhood. And all my, you know, my friends were like, all right yeah, cool, let's get in. And I'm like, OK, fine (laughter), it is kind of a long walk so let's jump in this car. And so we got in the car with this guy and he gets pulled over by the police. And in that moment, as he gets pulled over, I'm sitting there thinking, this is it, you know? (Laughter). This is that moment where I just made a wrong choice and we've now got pulled over by the police and I have no idea what they're going to do or who this kid we're riding with actually is and...

GROSS: And what he's carrying.

FAMUYIWA: And what he's carrying or what he's doing. And we're all going to go down because these - you know, the police aren't going to care that I'm a straight-A student and I have all these ambitions. They're just going to see me as a black kid in the car with a gangster (laughter). And so the cop pulled us over and the kid pulls out his registration and it turns out this is his mom's car. And as everything you sort of find out in life, that there was so much more posturing than actual real gangster (laughter), in this kid 'cause at that moment, he became very polite (laughter), you know, as the cop came over - and and well spoken. And then the cop kind of let us go and was like - whatever, I forget - you had a tail light, or something - and let us go. But again, it was just sort of an incident that I know of other people who ended up in that same kind of incident and they didn't get off that way. They did get arrested and then that becomes something that's a part of their record forever. And so those are the sort of things and they're small, you know? And they're innocent.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, I'm talking to screenwriter and director Rick Famuyiwa, and his new film is called "Dope." Let's take a short break here then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Rick Famuyiwa. He wrote and directed the new film, "Dope."

I don't want to get too deep into the plot of the movie, but let's just say that because of a terrible mistake, the three main characters in the movie end up with a backpack full of drugs that they have to figure out what are they going to do with it 'cause they can't very well bring it to the police. This backpack, now, has a lot of - what is it, MDMA?

FAMUYIWA: Yes.

GROSS: And a gun. If they take it to the police, like, three young people of color taking it to the police - that's not going to work. There's like, two sets of gangs out to get it. And so, like, they don't know what to do. So what's your doorway into the drug aspect of the narrative?

FAMUYIWA: Again, referencing the film, "Super Fly" and "Boyz N The Hood" and "Menace" and a lot of those films that I think I was playing around with, in terms of my artistic process, drugs and the sort of drug culture often become a part of the narrative, and in some ways, I wanted that to be a part of this - that even though these kids were geeks and sort of trying to avoid that environment, they still end up somehow in this predicament. And so, you know, dealing with that was something that I wanted to deal with and just metaphorically how the draw of that somehow ends up sucking even the best kids in. But I wanted to deal with it in a way that felt like how these kids would respond, and these kids are geeks and they're smart. And the way they're going to get out of this situation isn't going to be the same as the characters in those past films I was referencing. And it would be connected to technology, and would be connected to the way that we interact with each other. So, you know, idea of sort of a marketplace like Silk Road, which has also been in the news a lot lately...

GROSS: It's part of the dark Internet, like, a kind of black market.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, the dark Web.

GROSS: The black market Amazon (laughter).

FAMUYIWA: Exactly, exactly. The dark Web became very fascinating to me and I felt like, yeah, of course, you know, these kids that are geeks and obsessed with technology and a lot of things would sort of - they would find that avenue in a way that others, protagonists, wouldn't. And so that becomes a big - a central plot point in "Dope" that I think is fun, but also, you know, I had a sort of larger message attached to it.

GROSS: And an element of real danger.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: It's not like, oh they're stoners, that's funny. It's like, these kids don't even use drugs but somehow drugs have entered their lives. And it's a comedy, but you know there's potential for real danger.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, there's real...

GROSS: Because there's real guns in this neighborhood.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, yeah, there's real stakes.

GROSS: There's real stakes. And the police won't say, oh, well, you're smart kids so it doesn't matter.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, exactly. There's real stakes. And I often say that, you know, these kids are very similar to the kids in "Breakfast Club" or "Superbad," but the stakes are a lot more real for them, you know, that the mistake isn't just, you know, wrecking your dad's car or maybe, you know, getting arrested and stewing overnight for your own good and then your parents come to pick up in the morning you've learned a lesson. It's like, the stakes for these kids are real.

GROSS: The three main characters at the center of the movie are, as we've been discussing, deep into '90s hip-hop. They're into retro (laughter) hip-hop. They dress in '90s style. They love punk rock. They're in a punk rock band that's kind of part punk, part hip-hop. And one of the three characters is a lesbian, and I'm wondering if you had a close friend who was a lesbian in the '90s when you were in high school, or if you just wanted to write the lesbian character in there? She's a great character. Tell us how you created her.

FAMUYIWA: No - yeah, I didn't have a friend that was gay growing up, but as I was thinking about these three kids, and especially telling a story that I felt was about kids growing up today, I wanted to include that, and I wanted to have that voice sort of be a part of this crew. So, for me, it was important to get that - that voice in there, because I feel like that's where our world is going, that we're all sort of - that the barriers and things that divided us and what we consider mainstream and normal, I think, is changing and changing for the better. That's how my kids deal with each other. And so it's something - a very sort of positive and empowering thing that I see and that I want to sort of have reflected in the movie.

GROSS: So the three main cameras - among the things they're into is skateboards, manga comics, which are Japanese comics, punk rock, Donald Glover.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And these are things that are all criticized for being white.

FAMUYIWA: (Laughter). Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So did you run into that in high school - the things you loved you were mocked for liking because they were considered white?

FAMUYIWA: Yeah. In high school, I was into a lot of different stuff, and I did ride skateboards. And now, you know - and I surf. And so it's something that I just kind of have always dealt with. You get that kind of immediate kind of reaction when you're this, you know, six-foot-three black guy holding a surfboard, you know, going into a break. You know what I mean? (Laughter). And people kind of look like, oh, OK. Now, you know, that's different. And so - and so I've always kind of felt that kind of thing, but not wanting to be confined.

GROSS: My guest is Rick Famuyiwa, the writer and director of the new film comedy, "Dope." After we take a short break, we'll talk about being the son of Nigerian immigrant parents and about his use of the N-word in the film and in conversation. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Rick Famuyiwa, the writer and director of the new film comedy, "Dope," about an African-American high school student, Malcolm, who doesn't fit into the pop culture norms of his predominately black high school in a poor and working-class section of Inglewood, Calif. Malcolm is a straight-A student and wants to get into Harvard. He and his two friends are obsessed with '90s hip-hop and have their own punk rock band.

Music plays a really big part in your movie, "Dope," because the characters love '90s hip-hop and because you do, too, and also because you got Pharrell as the music director of your movie. And he wrote some original songs which are the songs that the three main characters who are in high school perform in their punk rock band. It's - in the movie, they wrote the songs, but the songs were actually written by Pharrell. So why don't we pause here and listen to one of those songs? And so this song is called "Go Head". And tell us what you told Pharrell about what you wanted these original songs to sound like.

FAMUYIWA: Pharrell came on board the project really early in the process. I hadn't even written the script yet. I'd had a treatment and a look book of sort of these kids and this character and this world that I wanted to sort of live in. And so as we talked about the music that these kids would create, we started with hip-hop because obviously these kids were obsessed with '90s hip-hop. But we also felt, and I talked - and we talked about how these kids would draw from many different things because they're of a culture that's connected to the world through technology in a way that we weren't. And so Malcolm and his generation has access to all types of music at the touch of a screen. And so hip-hop would be at the root but also punk and also grunge and also a lot of other things that these kids would have access to. And that became the jumping-off point for the band Awreeoh that these kids created.

GROSS: So this is a track of the kids in the band performing and it's written by Pharrell. Are the actors in your movie actually performing on this track?

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, they are singing. That's actually their vocals. They don't all play instruments, so that's other people that are coming in to play the music, but it's all their voices. They're all singing.

GROSS: OK, so here it is from the soundtrack of "Dope."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO HEAD")

AWREEOH: (Singing) Yeah, first day of school. Hey, good grades are cool. Trying to find a new way to rule, yeah, and land a new major boo. Hey, my mind is like a ride, bumpy and cheesy inside. Yeah, I march to the beat of my own drum and tomorrow don't care about the outcome. Work, who cares to? I love her T-shirts and her hairdos. No makeup, only on her eyes. You like her cakes, get them online. Let's be friends, it's been too long. No [expletive] I'll put you on. Let's go shopping, what is this? Take that up street [expletive]. I won't act like a gangster would. And no you can't [expletive] with my hood. It seems that lately your homeboys try to play me. Stay acting shady, my ego might just make me. Go head, go head, make some noise. Make some noise.

GROSS: That's music from the soundtrack of "Dope," song written by Pharrell and performed by the three main characters. My guest is Rick Famuyiwa who wrote and directed "Dope." Your main character, Malcolm, is raised by a single mother who's a bus driver. His father is Nigerian but he - but Malcolm has only had basically one interaction with his father. And then we see in a flashback his father slipping through the mail slot of the house a DVD of his favorite film "Super Fly," the father's favorite film. So let's talk about your story. Your parents are from Nigeria.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah.

GROSS: So did that set you apart when you were growing up?

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, I mean, that was definitely - it's who I am. I'm first generation American, and my parents were both from Nigeria. And so I always say that I'm literally an African American, you know what I mean? And so my last name is Famuyiwa, it's different. And so that was a part of my experience from people not being able to pronounce it to not sort of having sort of a shared, common history with a lot of the kids that I was growing up with because my parents were from Africa.

GROSS: Your parents are from a majority black culture. And then come to America where black people are considered the minority.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah.

GROSS: And did their coming from a majority black culture influence how you saw yourself as a young black man when you were coming of age?

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, I think it did. And I think because they didn't have sort of the baggage in some ways that we carry when you're - you kind of grow up in the United States or, you know, I felt like they sort of had a point of view on the world that I got as well, a sort of ambition that became my own and also a sort of point of view about the American experience because they were immigrants, too. And they came to the United States to go to school and ultimately live here and raise a family here. And so the idea of being an American to them was something that was very specific and particular and something that they wanted. And the idea of being American for good and bad is something that I would always hear, you know? And there was sort of a constant refrain in my household about Americans. Americans this, Americans that - often times not in the most positive light. But it was very much something that, as immigrants, you think about and deal with.

GROSS: Were there things that you were into that your parents didn't understand and maybe they especially didn't understand because they didn't grow up in America or they're from Nigeria?

FAMUYIWA: I don't know, my parents were pretty open about a lot of things, especially my mom. And any kind of little crazy thing I was into, she was very supportive of. You know, whether it was BMX bike racing or being in the Boy Scouts or surfing or anything else, she always seemed to sort of support it. And I think it's because she was an immigrant and that idea of sort of having her kids be able to have access to their dreams and whatever they wanted to follow was very important to her. And I think she was very supportive of that. But, yeah, I mean, I think there's always an expectation when you're a first generation, especially a first-generation Nigerian, of sort of being a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. And so, you know, sort of my initial pursuits into the arts and that I was going to pursue film as a career didn't confuse them, but it was definitely something that they were scared about.

GROSS: My guest is Rick Famuyiwa, the writer and director of the new film comedy "Dope." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rick Famuyiwa. He wrote and directed the new film, "Dope." I want to talk to you about the N-word and the use of the N-word and who is allowed to use and who isn't allowed to use it. It's still so controversial, and I'll offer as the example when President Obama used that word to make a larger point when he was talking to Marc Maron on Marc Maron's podcast. That made headlines. I mean, all of the cable news shows were talking about it. It was front page of New York Times - Obama uses the N-word. There's a scene in your movie, "Dope," in which the three main characters of color are talking to this like white, hippie drug dealer who's a really funny character. And he listens to so much rap that he likes to use the N-word, you know, when talking to his white friends. And so he's talking to these three young people of color and using the word. And they're going, no, no, you can't use that word with us - (laughter) like, you're not allowed to use it. It's a very funny scene, and I'm not going to do the comedy of the scene justice, obviously. But given that you have a whole funny scene about that and given what a very controversial word that is, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the use of that word and how you felt about that word growing up in the '90s, hearing it so much on hip-hop, if you've used it yourself in the kind of, you know, friendly, insider way (laughter) that it's often used. OK, your turn.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, it's a word that ends up in the movie because I wanted to be authentic about how these kids speak. And it was the way I spoke growing up that's influenced by many different things that predates hip-hop. And so that was just part of the sort of normal vernacular of how we communicated with each other. And it is - it's the part of the way that a lot of black people communicate when they speak. And so the idea of sort of who can use it and who can't has sort of been a historical thing that took on another wrinkle as hip-hop exploded onto the scene starting into the '90s and obviously through the present day because it's in the same way that I sort of reflected the reality of kids growing up in my environment, hip-hop reflects that reality, too.

And also generationally, I feel the younger generations don't feel the same sort of weight and impact of the word that older ones do. It was just something that I wanted to throw into the mix. And so who uses it and how it can be used is something that's changed and defined. And so when the president uses it, it becomes about who can't use it and why they can't use it. And that was something that I wanted to deal with.

GROSS: Did you have a problem with the president saying it?

FAMUYIWA: I didn't have a problem with it - and because, again, I feel like he was expressing a certain thing. And it is a word, you know? It's a word that's not going to go away because it has a negative history. And it's - and so I didn't have a problem with him using it. It's a word that we can't hide from, and we have to sort of deal with its history and sort of how it's sort of been incorporated in culture now.

GROSS: So how did that word play in your house? Again, you're the son of Nigerian immigrants so they don't...

FAMUYIWA: I didn't use it at home, no (laughter).

GROSS: Right.

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, that's how it played.

GROSS: But they probably knew that you used it or maybe they didn't?

FAMUYIWA: I'm not sure, maybe they did.

GROSS: Or maybe they had feelings about the word, whether they thought about you using it or not?

FAMUYIWA: It wasn't anything we ever discussed 'cause I think, you know, to me, the word is sort of like any other curse word. It's like OK...

GROSS: Right.

FAMUYIWA: ...I'm just not going to speak a certain way in front of my parents...

GROSS: Right.

FAMUYIWA: ...And I'm sure they know that we're saying a lot of different things, so it didn't come up in that way.

GROSS: Do you still use the word in conversation?

FAMUYIWA: I do, I do. When I'm hanging around friends and we just sort of talk and, yeah, we do. And it's nothing that I am particularly self-conscious of or ashamed of in any way. It's just a part of the way I speak sometimes. But I think that applies to everyone. We all sort of speak in a certain way when we're in informal environments that we may not do on FRESH AIR.

(LAUGHTER)

FAMUYIWA: So, you know.

GROSS: So you've released this movie, "Dope," a very kind of vibrant comedy at a time of real tragedy. There's been so much media coverage of shootings of young black men by police, protests of those shootings, the murder of nine people in the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina. And I'm wondering about the experience of releasing this just, like, wonderful comedy at a time when there's like so much tragedy. And there's not just tragedy in the world but nevertheless, I'm wondering if it's something that you've thought about?

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, it is. And even as I was writing it, it was something I was thinking about 'cause as I was writing the script was right in the middle of the Trayvon Martin incident. And so I was thinking about comedy and how comedy in many ways opens us up to ideas and really being influenced by Richard Pryor and sort of the way he would use comedy to really speak about larger social issues. And as this film is released and as sort of these incidents have happened and increased and become more visible over the last, you know, few years, it just so happens to fit into sort of that conversation that we're having on a larger scale about race, about young black men and young black kids - just about how we're all dealing with each other, the N-word and everything in between that I didn't necessarily set out to do. But I think I was just sort of listening to my environment and felt like comedy was the way to sort of deal with that in a real and personal but also fun way.

GROSS: Right now as we speak, you're shooting a film called "Confirmation" that involves the Anita Hill hearings and the confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas. The only other thing I know about the movie is that Kerry Washington stars as Anita Hill. Can you tell us something about it?

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, "Confirmation" does star Kerry Washington as Anita Hill. Wendell Pierce who's known from "The Wire" and "Treme" is playing Clarence Thomas.

GROSS: Oh, really (laughter)?

FAMUYIWA: Yeah, yeah. And Greg Kinnear is playing Joe Biden...

GROSS: No, really?

FAMUYIWA: ...Who was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time. And so the film is written by Susannah Grant dealing with the several-week period of that confirmation hearing and how these two people's lives were thrust - their private lives were thrust into the public realm in that early '90s as the 24-hour news cycle sort of combined with the racial and gender dynamics of that hearing just sort of exploded for these few weeks and riveted the nation.

And so it's really just dealing with that confirmation period, not necessarily about who was telling the truth and who wasn't, but really about the process. And so that's really the point of view of the film is to try to be as objective as possible, knowing that that's - you can never be completely objective, but feeling like we're really just going to examine that time period and that crucible that happened - hard to believe almost 25 years ago now. But...

GROSS: Where were you during the hearings?

FAMUYIWA: I was a freshman in college. And as I said, I was a political science major before I applied to film school. So this was very much on my mind as it was going on. You know, we were, you know, in the program following closely what was going on with the hearing ever since Marshall announced his retirement. And so I vividly remember watching this and being riveted by it throughout the whole process and thinking back on that time wondering, you know, what I really felt about it because I had sort of strong feelings about it and wondering if my history has sort of affected what I think I thought about it then in some ways.

But I was really - it was really sort of a - just to see these two accomplished black people on TV and tearing each other down in some ways was always kind of problematic to me. As so when this project came around, it felt like something that I really wanted to address on the film scale.

GROSS: Well, I look forward to seeing it. Rick Famuyiwa, thank you so much for talking with us.

FAMUYIWA: No, thank you. Thank you for having me, it was a pleasure.

GROSS: Rick Famuyiwa wrote and directed the new film comedy, "Dope." After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli is going to talk about how the late night news comedy shows, including "The Daily Show," have been covering recent big stories like the Supreme Court decisions and the shootings at the church in Charleston. This is FRESH AIR.

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