Dope and the Black Nerd Zeitgeist
Not because I was gonna say something froggy about:
Nah, I was a little shook because I feared isolation.
I didn’t like Dope. So many of my people love it, I didn’t wanna be that no-fun-having-Timberland-wearing-keyboard-clacking-ass-muhf*cka-over-there.
But let me clarify: I think Dope isn’t a great film. It’s an okay film with great elements, a killer and reminiscent soundtrack, and good ideas.
But a great film it is not.
"Why," you ask? The Black Nerd Zeitgeist.
Before we get into what that could possibly mean, let me tell you why I’m mad doe. Buckle your seatbelts and put that chicken in the oven, we’re gonna be here awhile.
I was excited to see the movie. Like, genuinely excited. The marketing for the film — from Sundance buzz to industry word of mouth, made me believe that Dope couldn’t be missed.
Having now seen the film, though? Well, I don’t know how to feel.
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa, Dope is a spiritual successor to '90s-'00s black film, specifically his own first effort, The Wood. Dope follows teenager Malcolm and his friends Diggy and Jib as they navigate the perils of being young, brown, and a little out of place in the ‘hoods of LA.
By all means, this is a coming-of-age film. But it’s also an experiment in marketing and writing to young “millennials” and whatever cutesy name they’re calling the kids born on and after 1998.
I say this because the film strains itself to be young. There’s a consistent vibe of trying to push youth, both as an idea and an experience. From explaining bitcoin to a social media sequence reminiscent of The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt’s first few episodes, fast cuts, social media slang, cell phone pings and bright colors are all utilized to translate the digital-millennial experience onto film. And, for the most part, it works.
However the film falls apart way too often because, like Malcolm, it doesn’t know who or what it is. When the film hits its notes, the moments are high and you’re tucked inside Dope’s narrative world. However, most of the film is trying so hard to find itself that it dances on the "1’s" and "3’s" of its own drum. This makes for a grating and uneven watching experience, where you feel just as uncomfortable as the teenagers running around on-screen.
Specifically, the film throws plenty of jokes around. But it also tries to discuss large and complex topics. And there’s nothing wrong with this. But the film flip-flops in how it handles the two, often missing the cohesion needed to make the jump from joking about random gang violence to trying to weasel a dead geek’s comic book collection from his mother.
Or, skirting the surface of the linguistic and social politics behind non-black people saying “nigga.” This mixture of tone and situations makes the suspension of belief required to enjoy the film (like any other) difficult, at best.
The vacillation of tone often feels like you’re caught up in a fight with Mysterio — you’re constantly thrown in a fog of unpredictable shifts in direction and understanding. One minute, Dope is more Juice than Don’t Be a Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. The next it’s more Friday than Higher Learning.
For instance, the film wants you to be concerned about these kids growing up in the hood, and Malcolm specifically making it to college. However, the collegiate thread gets completely subsumed once the “Dom’s Drugs” plot kicks in.
So much so, that you forget this boy was supposed to even have an interview with a Harvard alum. Thus, when the film essentially takes an extended detour from the collegiate narrative, the final scenes feel both forced and out of place. At that moment, Dope proves that it’s so much more about Malcolm living and understanding himself than it is about getting him *out* of the hood. If the film had stuck to that theme, it would’ve been more bearable.
Add in the amount of over-acting and poorly executed dialogue in the movie and it’s hard to be happy with the final product.
For instance: the film pursues several Tarantino-esque, lingual exercises wherein characters derail a situation by examining a particular point of discussion. Out of about four of them, the best one involves a culturally relevant mockery of the Blood gang’s arbitrary replacement of C’s with B’s in words. That one got a lot of laughs and was also well-written, considering context, characters and translating that experience.
However, the other three to four conversations are so divergent and convoluted that they more waste screen time than they give insight into characters.
The “N” Word Nigga
The word nigga is dropped a lot in Dope. Now, I’m not one of those pearl-clutching folks who acts like we should’ve buried the word. In fact I say nigga with much abandon. (Reading that sentence, you’d think I don't. But I do, nigga.) But, within the context of the film, the word was thrown around about as much as it would in a Tarantino (there goes that name again) film. The problem is that it felt like the irresponsible amount of napkins you take when eating some $2 pizza from the late night spot; you don’t need it there, but it feels like it makes sense considering the greasy triangle before you.
Sadly, as pointed out by a friend, “nigga” only felt natural coming from the drug dealers and thugs in the film, namely
Miss Sealy A$AP Rocky. In comparison, these kids were so clean cut and awkward that it felt as strange coming out their mouths as would tentacles sprouting from their backs.
In the midst of my personal discomfort with this, a complete answer to why this happened is something I’m still trying to figure out.
All I can come back to is:
The word is used excessively and doesn’t feel true to Malcolm and his gang in particular. I’m not sure if this is a narrative and scripting issue, or, just a matter of needing better acting. I can watch Belly or Boys N The Hood and not be phased by the prevalence of the word. But there’s something awkward about its usage,falling from the lips of these supposedly geeky kids and the likes of around-the-way-girl Zoe Kravitz.
So I honestly don’t know. Am I secretly getting old? Going conservative? Possibly voting for Ben Carson next year?
Someone lock me up, take my things and mock me accordingly if I am.
Either way, it feels out of place. And considering the context of this film, it shouldn’t have.
Ultimately I think it points to bad direction, in terms of understanding how nigga can be said in different contexts, tones and understandings. As well as how the word is uttered and used across cultural contexts. Put simply: how these kids said "nigga" should’ve been approached in the same way that the rest of the script was when building their identities. And it doesn’t feel like it was. Fight me.
Going back to this idea of tone and themes, there are a lot of little things that prevent Dope from being believable. And not in the “I can’t believe this fool,” way — but rather in the “these things you’re presenting to me, within the context that you built, make no fucking sense.” way.
For example: when the crew decides to sell their dope, Malcolm has the bright idea of selling it through their high school. He even goes so far as to exclaim that no one will suspect them, in spite of them alerting Officer Stacey’s drug hound every time they walk in. Not only does that make no damn sense, it also goes against this idea of Malcolm claiming that they want to stay ghost.
Speaking of which, Malcolm’s claim is even more forfeit when it’s revealed that they gain a following via a collegiate party that blasts their band’s name across the Internet in association with their batch of molly. How you could maintain anonymity while also gaining Internet fame off of a party that basically advertises your shit, is beyond me.
Only Sway has the answers to that one...
The last thing I really wanna hit on is the problematic treatment of Lily, Mr. Jacoby’s daughter. Pitched as the jezebel of the film, Lily is the sexually aggressive girl that every teenage boy is taught to pray for. From American Pie to its predecessors, this narrative of lusting after and canoodling with “the hot girl” is a fantasy that’s been sold to us countless times, but through the lens of white maleness.
The problem with this is that Famuyiwa and the gang just dipped the experience in chocolate. Lily is simply “fast,” instead of “slutty;” a molly fiend instead of a coke fiend. The sad thing is, by dressing it up in a black context, Lily’s scenes prove just how broken the trope’s presentation of nascent sexuality, heterosexual relationships and maleness are.
Obviously, then, the problems with this are legion. But I’d really like to zero in on the fact that it is through her ridicule that Malcolm and his friends are able to save their asses and Malcolm is able to find love. So once again, the classic binary of slut-to-good-girl is employed and it’s disgusting. The fact that this wasn’t done in a way that gave Lily enough agency to be realized and not just an object (and plot device) bothers me to no end.
What makes the insult to injury so messed up is the fact that they chose to add Lily as a prop for Will’s subplot/backstory, too. In turn, this informs his problematic Chet Haze-esque desire to be down and say nigga.The most shitty part of this is his exchange with a fellow college student, who wants to “get in on” what Lily has (see: pumpum) since she’s not “Will’s bitch” anymore.
Lily then becomes little more than a prop — an object that supports or illuminates the narrative of men. In a way, she is pushed out of the narrative (while supporting it) in the same way that Malcolm’s mother is essentially subsumed. Once again, black women become invisible and one dimensional in a black film. Yay.
Granted, this film is about kids being kids without adults. But it’s something to note, considering the cinematic lineage of “manhood forged in the absence of black parents” that this film wants to sit with.
The Black Nerd Zeitgeist
Still with me? Cool.
So, after a lot of conversations with people who loved or liked the film, I’ve come back to this strange nucleus of ideas. In particular is this idea that the film represents something that hasn’t really, honestly, adamantly, boldy, been thrown on film: black nerds doing black nerd things and struggling to know themselves.
Yes, we got Urkel. Yes, we got others. But for the “millennials,” there wasn’t a representation that could bridge the gap between reappropriating geekiness as cool, while also making it relevant to kids who grew up with Google and Siri.
In my honest opinion I think Dope, in this weird way, has achieved that. At least, for a feature film that has gotten critical acclaim and cosigns.
What does this mean though?
It means black nerds, and by extension nerds of color, are going to stan for this film till the death. Not only because it resonates with them, but because all the goodie-good things we’re reveling in culture right now are adjacent to nerds of color — the kids who wanted to play Pokemon and do science, the folks who wanted to rock Jordans and read Foucault. The list goes on. I bet you my bottom dollar that after seeing Dope, somebody, somewhere, is actually going “Nigga, that’s so fucking Kawaii!”
My point is, all this shit is related and there’s levels. And at each level, nerds of color are not only being validated, they’re running shit. Just look at hip-hop. The likes of Chance The Rapper and Donald Glover are reaching audiences and elevating whole new ways of understanding the culture and relating to it. So much so that cats such as Troy Ave can only grumble that they’re “weirdos” while selling 30 copies of his album at your local bodega.
The world is changing, and we’re seeing the birth of a New Black Cinema™ (joke possibly intended. Get it how you live.) Whether curmudgeons like myself can accept and deal with that change, even if it’s not how we would do it, is another matter. What does matter is that this film affects the culture and those who are creating and controlling it in a way that’ll spark new growth. Because black audiences in particular are so starved for representation, in all our diversity, that we deserve more and better.
So if it’s time for the nerds of color to be winning, so be it. ‘Cause I’m a black nerd too. But I’ll grumble and try to keep it real with you through it all, because it’s deeper than rap.
All that said, don’t get it twisted: I refuse. Refuse. Re. Fuse. To herald this film as anything more than what it is; a disappointingly okay film that could’ve been great.
A transplant from “Back East,” dap found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things, founding REELYDOPE with a friend. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter), among other things. @dapisdope.
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