How do young black men see themselves in America today? This is the formidable question buried under the high-top fades and Cross-Colour jeans of Rick Famiyuwa's natty new film Dope. It's the story of Malcolm, a retro-obsessed hip-hop geek with Harvard aspirations navigating senior year in a rough section of Inglewood, California. He and fellow squares Jib and Diggy have built an entire identity out of subverting expectations of blackness. He is befriended by local drug dealer Dom (whose own blackness is of the canonical Menace II Society/Juice/Belly variety), and after things go pear-shaped at a party, the trio find themselves holding one of Dom's packages. Malcolm must contend with the weight, the weapons, the friendships, the rival gangs, and, of course, the girl—all while trying to complete his admissions essay. It's a straightforward "teenage boy has to find out who he really is" kind of a plot. We've seen it a million times. And yet we've never seen it at all.
Maybe the best single quote on the Black Experience in America is in Ralph Ellison's 1952 masterwork, Invisible Man. The titular character makes the dizzying observation that "black is and black ain't," a contradiction central to the madness of race in America. It's real. But it's bullshit. People only see black when you want to be human, but as soon as you're being beat, shot, and shit on for your blackness, suddenly it's all "race doesn't matter," and "we're all one." We've taken a biological lie and forced it into a centuries-deep social truth. The mere effort of both maintaining and denying this charade has made America maniacal and Blackness insane.
This contradiction drives Famuyiwa, like many black storytellers, to undertake a number of strategies that shouldn't be revolutionary, but are. He uses the cinematic language of 90s indie teen comedies like Rushmore and Go! to tell a story in a setting where moviegoers more likely expect to see Boyz n the Hood. Here he captures the "black ain't" side of the Ellison quote. If Max Fischer can be charming, resourceful, and arrogant, so can Malcolm. If Ronna and Claire can have a slick, madcap adolescent drug caper, so can Jib and Diggy. Race and class do not trump the universally understood panicked weightlessness of a fading American adolescence.
But Famuyiwa pulls off an even craftier stunt. He starts off with a movie about a black kid whose whole thing is that he's anything but a drug dealer. And then he becomes a drug dealer. Moreover, his dealing is treated as a slick heist. We hope they win and get all the money. But why do we feel that way about Malcolm, and not Dom, played with easy charm by A$AP Rocky? Is it because Dom is dressed as every hood movie bad guy stereotype? Braids and grills, leaning on a '64, surrounded by enforcers? Is it because Malcolm has been established as closer to white, and therefore closer to our understanding and sympathy? Closer to human?
Here's where race does matter. Here's where black is.
There is a moment near the end where we finally see a gun in Malcolm's hands. It's a stark departure from the rest of the film's relative Scooby-Doo-isms, and it lands sharply if unexpectedly. We are staring down the barrel of a Boyz n the Hood Red Hyundai moment—a scene we have unconsciously been waiting for. A black teen with a gun is a fate you can't seem to escape no matter how many early De La Soul songs Dope's soundtrack has. And because Famuyiwa has spent the previous 80 minutes establishing that Malcolm is essentially just Ferris Bueller with a flat top, the gun moment hits hard.
When a dark-skinned teen wearing a hoodie is holding a gun in a movie, we are comfortable because it's a normal movie thing. It's the Italian grandmother saying "you should eat." It's the middle-aged Jewish guy having a hilarious existential crisis. It's a trope. Devoid of specificity and therefore bankrupt in meaning.
But when a human child is holding a gun, it is something else entirely. It is fear. It is hate. It hurts. In movies, a black kid holding a gun is nowhere near as meaningful as a human kid holding one.
And that's the goal of Famuyiwa's brilliant genre play—to trick the audience into seeing Malcolm as the human that he actually is. It shouldn't require a trick. But it does. And that's the point.
But that's also the problem for Dope. In importing film language from white teen movies, Famuyiwa also imports the tropes that make those movies frustrating to begin with. There is no woman in Dope who is treated as a complete person. Some are nice, some are treacherous, but all are effectively made of cardboard. Malcolm falls for the romantic interest, (played with distant winsomeness by Zoe Kravitz) without knowing anything about her other than she's pretty and bad at math. Eye-roll inducing too, is Chanel Iman's treacherous rich girl, breathily stripping out of a terrycloth onesie and seducing Malcolm despite having just met him 30 seconds ago. (Also, were all the dark-skinned actress given the wrong audition time?) Even Diggy, the crew's resident stud who promises to dispel every hood and lesbian stereotype ever, is left, in the end, with only a few quips and an unnecessary titflash. This is especially frustrating given Kiersey Clemens's wise and playful screen presence.
Another problem arises when you set Ferris Bueller's movie in Inglewood's streets. The funny part of the White Teen Comedy is that there are no real consequences, but everyone thinks there are. "If I don't make it to this party, I'll die." "If I don't get laid before senior year I'll die." "If I don't get into Harvard I'll die." No you won't, we laugh, that's just life in your teens. The difference with Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib, is that they actually might die. Like for real. That's what it means to be who they are where they are. And it seems that the movie has an awkward go of moving back and forth between these two realities. We are kept at such comedic distance that it is well into the film before we ever feel what Malcolm is feeling. We have no real cinematic or viewing language for a life that is as real as it gets, but is still just another teen movie.
All of us humans are infinitely more complex than movie tropes would suggest. We may sometimes act just like everyone else who looks like us. But that's not all we are. We also take ideas of how to be from every place and person we encounter, add them to our basic understandings, filter them through our own languages, and create infinite variations on how to be human. This wonder of real life is also the failure of movies, for studios aren't likely to finance a movie about the Infinite Variations of Being Human. Instead, we're left with films like Dope that murder some expectations while failing to even question others. And until we as an audience learn and accept that every fucking person is complete, complex, and self-defining, then intelligent filmmakers like Famuyiwa will always have to trick us into seeing people as humans. And we'll always have to make do with movies that both are and aren't dope.
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