LOS ANGELES - In the last scene of "Dope," a lighthearted comedy produced by Pharrell Williams, Forest Whitaker and Sean Combs, the academically inclined main character - a nerd from the 'hood - asks why anyone would question his desire to attend Harvard.
"Why do I want to attend Harvard? If I was white would you even have to ask me that question?" Malcolm tells the camera.
Director Rick Famuyiwa's topical heist, which has already drawn rave reviews at Sundance and Cannes, takes on some of America's biggest problems - drugs, violence, inequality and racial tensions - with buoyant humor.
The film, which hits theaters Friday in North America, traces the adventures of three friends as they try to unload a backpack full of drugs which they accidentally acquire.
The story is loosely premised on Famuyiwa's own life journey: the director grew up in a disadvantaged neighborhood but went on to study at the University of Southern California, one of Los Angeles' best schools.
Famuyiwa said the film's title is meant as a double entendre on two slangs: the word "dope" signifies both drugs and is used as an expression for "cool." "I knew the heart of the movie would be drugs, but also that Malcolm and his friends are the coolest kids on the block, so they're dope to me," Famuyiwa said.
Malcolm, played by Shameik Moore in his debut leading role, is a nice geek - a good student and connoisseur of 1990s rap, who likes to bike and play music with his two best friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori).
Malcolm has the gall to apply to Harvard University, despite being from a poor Los Angeles neighborhood he derisively calls "the bottoms." Trying his best to avoid trouble generally, Malcolm is lured by love interest Nakia (Zoe Kravitz) to the birthday party of a local drug dealer, Dom (played by rapper A$AP Rocky, in his debut cinematic role).
When police arrive to bust Dom, Malcolm finds that his backpack has been stuffed with a substantial quantity of cocaine, which he must get rid of... or sell for profit.
"Even the most promising kids end up falling into traps in these neighborhoods," Famuyiwa told a press conference.
"When I grew up a lot of people that I considered very smart and talented nevertheless ended up involved in things, and I thought a lot about that," Famuyiwa said.
"I just wanted to show that it is not as easy as good or bad, black or white," he added.
The crew finished filming around a year ago, just before major events erupted that put race relations and police brutality against African Americans in the national spotlight.
The deaths of multiple unarmed black men at the hands of police - Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York and Freddie Gray in Baltimore - brought those issues to the fore.
Trafficker or gifted student?
For producer Forest Whitaker, one of the movie's strengths is that behind its humor lie oddball characters, through whom "the director was really dealing with perception." In one scene, Malcolm asks "Who am I? Who do you see?" Whitaker said.
"That's a very strong statement of people being profiled," he added.
"'Am I a drug dealer? Am I a gifted student?' The movie tries in a very entertaining way to be part of the dialogue," said Whitaker, who is known for his roles in "Platoon," "The Butler" and "The Last King of Scotland," for which he won an Oscar in 2007.
The independent film brings together a new generation of talent such as Moore, who stars in the film in his first leading roll.
Orbiting around him are Clemons, best known for her part in the television series "Transparent," and Revolori, who made a name for himself as the bellboy in "The Grand Budapest Hotel." The film also features model Chanel Iman, who breaks away from her clean top-model image in several trashy scenes, and Quincy Brown, rapper Sean Combs' adopted son.