The frame freezes: a grey Gameboy rotates as it falls, dark red blood splattered across the square screen. Early on in the newly released 2015 film Dope, lead character Malcolm (Shameik Moore) speaks of the dangers of being a nerd in the under-resourced, mostly Black community of Inglewood, CA. The shot depicts violence divorced from the context that created it. The image does not—and arguably cannot—speak to the decades of redlining and zoning laws that systematically diverted resources from schools, libraries, and businesses in non-white neighborhoods like Inglewood. We see only a Black man holding a gun, a Black ‘nerd’ playing Gameboy in line for food, and a glossy, well-lit still of the blood stained 90s emblem. In Dope, survival is a game; violence simultaneously muted, glamorized, unexplained.
Dope, written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, tells the story of Malcolm, a young Black man who (as he points out in a tired, sarcastic tone in the film’s opening scene) is from a “poor, crime-filled neighborhood, raised by a single mother, do[es]n’t know [his] dad blah blah.” Malcolm attends an underserved high school but dreams of becoming, in his words, “a man of Harvard.” Unfortunately, early in the film Malcolm is saddled with a bunch of MDMA, and through an inconvenient coincidence he is forced to sell the drugs in order to get into college, with the help of his two best friends.
If the plot line sounds ridiculous, it’s supposed to. The film is self-aware and obvious with its hyperboles; Malcolm and his self-identified ‘nerdy’ best friends are decked out in brightly patterned 90s gear. Ultimately, though, the film’s satirical voice is subtle to the point of disappearing; as with the Gameboy shot, the consistent mix of extreme violence and stylized montages runs the risk of pacifying lived realities of structural oppression.
The bloodied screen is one of 12 shots shown in quick succession; the others show mundane high school scenes of bullies and band practice. Placed among these everyday images the shooting begins to seem ordinary and may speak to Malcolm’s necessary desensitization to violence from growing up in Inglewood. But it also—intentionally or unintentionally—gestures at a reality of structural violence that many viewers may only be familiar with through other mass mediated depictions of Blackness, like the nightly news.
Dope offers viewers nuanced depictions of Blackness in comparison to one-dimensional stock Black characters like the ‘token Black best friend’ or ‘the magical negro.’ One of the focuses of the film is about the relationship between taste, aesthetic, race, and identity. Malcolm identifies as geek: he and his friends are into punk music, skateboards, doing well in school—what he and his classmates identify as “white people stuff” early on in the film. Throughout his brief escapade in drug selling, the trio has to combine their stereotypically white qualities (computer science, chemistry) with stereotypically ‘Black’ actions (selling drugs, carrying a gun). At the end of the film, Malcolm challenges dichotomous assumptions of what constitutes white and Black behavior in his college essay to Harvard, which constitutes the film’s final monologue. Malcolm, thus, represents a more nuanced, complicated, and ‘successful’ drug dealer than usually makes it to the big screen.
A young Black man who deals drugs—even one who uses computer science, chemistry and punk music to outsmart the adults around him and get into Harvard—is still a young Black man dealing drugs. Dope tries to break stereotypes of Black criminality by telling us Malcolm has good grades, extracurriculars, test scores, but these are details about Malcolm presented through dialogue; audiences don’t see him doing homework at all throughout the film. What we do see him do is deal drugs. The one scene in the film where he does sit down to take a test is interrupted by a drug dog raid and ends with Malcolm in a bathroom holding a backpack of molly. So while Dope offers perhaps a degree of humor, complexity, and humanity to a certain kind of young, masculine Blackness we have come to expect from mass media, it does so by affirming the very stereotypes of Black criminality it attempts to disrupt.
What’s even more dangerous than the presentation of any singular character in Dope is the way the film defines race and racism. In Dope, race is reduced to a set of habits that roughly map onto a ‘nerd’ vs. ‘hood’ dichotomy. The descriptor ‘nerd’ is used synonymously with ‘white’ in the film. It means riding a skateboard, doing homework, staying in on a Saturday night. Blackness is its opposite: congregating in the street, carrying a gun, dealing drugs. The movie is self-conscious about this false binary and by the end, it has successfully disrupted it. Malcolm defies our understandings of whiteness and Blackness by creating a racial identity with attributes of both categories.
However, the problem with a hobby-based definition of race is illustrated most clearly by a scene in which Malcolm walks through the metal detector at his school with a backpack full of MDMA and a gun. The alarm rings, but Malcolm is waved through by the security guards. Supposedly, his ‘geek’ identity (defined by his stereotypically white attributes) renders the idea that he is carrying dangerous substances unfathomable. He is not stopped or searched. Later on, Malcolm and his friends use the school’s chemistry and computer labs to distribute drugs via the Internet. He says, “Nobody’s going to suspect a thing, we’re just geeks doing what geeks do.”
One way race operates, however, is by coding people phenotypically and judging their actions through the lens crafted by centuries of cultural narratives and systems that oppress or privilege based on race. As Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, the activities of white fraternity members and Black gang members are remarkably similar, but our understandings of the same actions vary drastically depending on the skin color of the actor. When young white men congregate in large groups, drive fancy cars, smoke weed, and listen to hip-hop, they are viewed as youthful and harmless. When Black men do the same thing, they are violent, dangerous, criminal.
The image of the young Black male gangster is part of a cultural narrative that dates back to slavery. Following emancipation, Black men were depicted as violent, dangerous, and incapable of self-control in order to justify lynching them to ‘protect’ innocent white women. Criminalized Black youth inherit the legacy of Black men as lawless, aggressive, and incapable of control. This narrative determines in part how young Black men’s actions are read and received.
It is therefore unlikely that a Black man, even in his own school, could walked through a metal detector with drugs and weapons in his backpack and not be at least stopped, at most searched or arrested. Race as a structural reality—beyond a set of individual hobbies or aesthetic choices—operates such that no amount of studying, punk music planning, or 90s hip-hop knowledge could protect someone from being read as a young Black man, and therefore dangerous. The problem with Dope’s hobby-based definitions of race is that they don’t capture how race fully operates beyond personal stylistic choices. Race cannot be worn and removed depending on the situation; suggesting this overly individualizes race and ignores the confines that structure places on behavior. It has the potential to blame any Black man who is stopped and searched at a metal detector for not making the same ‘nerdy’ choices as did Malcolm.
It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible to present three hundred years of racial oppression in a single film. And it is unfair to place the burden of explaining that history on a single Black director depicting, in part, his own experience. It is also unfair to state that Dope is completely sociologically or historically void—we see Malcolm’s school, his neighborhood, his home. But the images of systemic injustice in the film are incomplete. They provide enough information to gesture at a sociological and lived reality, yet then step away from giving the whole picture, setting the audience up to make dangerous assumptions about behavior and culture.
This would not be an issue if every viewer watching the film also grew up in Inglewood, or was otherwise familiar with racism’s structural and cultural legacies. Many viewers, however, do not fit this description. And in the absence of such an audience, the film’s nuances are too easy to misinterpret. Malcolm attends an underserved school with a metal detector, yet he has nearly perfect SAT scores. By not mentioning the racial bias of the SAT, or showing how difficult it is to learn when your school is under-resourced, Malcolm’s character connotes that hard work is all it takes for a Black man from Inglewood to end up with the credentials to apply to Harvard. The audience sees Malcolm and his friends avoiding dangerous areas as they ride home from school, but it’s couched
in the terms of a video game: avoid the traps. The beautiful production and constant sunny weather tell us that everything is going to be okay.
In an interview for the Sundance Film Festival, Famuyiwa speaks about what it’s like to be a student where he grew up: “These kids have to face not only the daily struggles of gangs and drugs but also the low expectations sometimes of their schools, the teachers who don’t want to be there teaching them, the system that assumes that they’re up to no good even when they’re not.” Famuyiwa describes the systems that form the backdrop of his film. To a viewer who does not have this understanding, however, in a cultural context of either extremely negative images of Black people, or the rare exceptions used to say those systems do not exist, it’s going to take more than a paused image of blood on a Gameboy screen to unpack the racial realities that Famuyiwa’s film presents.
Dope is coming to theaters on June 19.