Movie Review: Drugs, Black Nerd-dom, and Masculinity in Dope

I just watched the film Dope. If you haven’t seen it, it is a must. It really addresses very serious issues in a comedic but also very deep way. The film follows the life of Malcolm Adekambi, a high school senior living in Inglewood, California. His friends, Diggy and Jib, are nerds like him. They do things like skateboard, listen to 90s hip-hop and play in a band together, and bullies at their school torment them because they don’t think those interests are cool. When a drug dealer named Dom invites Malcolm and his friends to his party, the three friends aren’t sure how to react, but they go anyway, especially because Nakia, Dom’s girlfriend, is going to be there, and Malcolm secretly develops a crush on Nakia after helping her out with a math problem when she’s studying for her GED. The three friends go to the party, get drunk and then all hell breaks loose when an armed gang bust the party and shoot at everyone. Malcolm walks to school the next day and goes through the metal detectors, only this time the security canine starts barking at him and the metal detector beeps several times. Turns out that Dom put a handgun and two cases of cocaine (“dope”) in his backpack during the shooting at Dom’s party. This is bad for Malcolm because he also wants to attend college like his friends, but his college counselor thinks he is arrogant for wanting to attend a prestigious school like Harvard, and that the admissions office isn’t going to take Malcolm’s research paper on Ice Cube’s song “It Was a Good Day” seriously. His counselor advises him to stick with the traditional personal essay, even though Malcolm says that it’s too cliche and that his paper on Ice Cube would stand out. Things get messier when Malcolm and his friends have to figure out how to get rid of the cocaine, and the plot goes from there (not going to spoil the rest).

The film deals a lot with race and identity, specifically in terms of stereotypes. Because Malcolm and his friends don’t fit in school, they are bullied. However, as Malcolm notes in one part of the film, when you are the outsider of your community, you are forced to see the world from many different perspectives and this in turn forces you to change your own outlook on life. Rapper Pharrell Williams’ production company, I Am OTHER, which was behind the film Dope, also produced the web-series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which is about a young black woman named J who is awkward and introverted, and her quirks make it hard for her to fit in. Issa Rae, the creator of the show, had a hard time fitting in herself in school and other black students often teased her for “acting white”. As an outsider, however, J has the unique gift of seeing through people’s nonsense, and, as it turns out, even the most seemingly popular people are awkward in some way, such as J’s mean co-worker, Nina, who is constantly rude to J but also has her flaws, too. In Dope, Malcolm’s status as an outsider gives him insight into the lives of other people, and he understands that he doesn’t need to be someone he’s not because people’s behavior towards him is based on their own biases, and that he shouldn’t let these biases influence how he lives his life. Nakia, for instance, thinks Malcolm is sweet and kind, but when he starts making money from selling dope on the black market and people actually start to like him and his friends, he treats her with disrespect and assumes that she is setting him up because Dom told her to. Nakia tells him that she thought he was different from the other men who treated her poorly, but that he is just as egotistical as they are, and walks out on him. This messes with their friendship, until Malcolm goes back to being the nerd he is and apologizes for acting that way toward her. Nakia embraces Malcolm for who he is because he is the only man who recognizes her humanity and intellect.

Another important topic they discuss is race. The name of Malcolm’s band is called Awreooh (aka Oreo). For those who don’t know, an oreo is a derogatory term for a black person who does things that, based on stereotypes, most people wouldn’t think of black people doing, such as skateboarding, going to college and playing punk rock music in a band. The band is named Oreo because the three band members (Malcolm, Jib and Diggy) are all picked on because they “act white”. Interestingly enough, Lakeith Stanfield (Keith in the end credits) plays a black man who adopts the voice of a stereotypical white American man in Sorry to Bother You, but in this film he actually bullies any black kids who are seen as acting too “white”. Dope is similar to other dark comedies I have seen about race and blackness, namely Sorry to Bother You and Dear White People (and in some sense, Get Out) because all of these films address the complex discussion around racism. In other words, talking about racism is not easy because it brings up uncomfortable feelings of guilt, trauma and embarrassment. In Dear White People, Sam is a biracial college student who is sick and tired of not being taken seriously at the predominantly white Ivy League institution she attends, and so she has a radio show called Dear White People, which addresses the many little instances of discrimination (called “microaggressions”) that black students deal with every day at the school. But it’s also hard to just pigeonhole Sam as a black woman who hates white people because she also, at the beginning, alienates a fellow black student named Lionel. Lionel often endures teasing at the hands of both his black classmates and his obnoxious white roommate Kurt because they think it is weird that he is quiet, bookish and wears a huge Afro. There is also a discussion about who can say the n-word in the film; Troy Fairbanks, an affluent black student who is trying to bring down Sam’s reputation, is friends with a lot of the privileged white male students in the college’s fraternity, and his white frat brothers assume they can use the n-word because he is their friend. However, he tells them they cannot say that word.

Dope, however, takes the n-word discussion to another level. William, a wealthy white legacy kid who assists Malcolm, Diggy and Jib in selling Dom’s cocaine stash on the black market, constantly uses the n-word around them, and even when Diggy slaps him for doing so and calls him out on it, Jib and Malcolm tell him it is ok to say the word. William tells them it’s not fair that Jib gets to use the n-word because he is Latino, not black, but Jib tells him he is “14 percent African” according to an online ancestry site, so he can use the n-word. At first I was extremely uncomfortable with seeing any of these folks using that word, even if they somehow meant it as a term of endearment. But I have heard countless people of color who are not black use the term around me, and there have been times when I haven’t called people out on it even though I should have. This particular scene, and every scene in which even Jib uses the n-word, reminded me yet again of how hard discussions about blackness and race in general are, because there are “rules” that people with privilege are not allowed to follow, but then it becomes this messy discussion about who can say what and then that leads to people getting their feelings hurt. The discussion over who can say the n-word is incredibly messy, and we can’t just reduce it down to “only black people can say it”. I remember having this discussion in my college U.S. history class and the professor requested we not use the n-word during the discussion. We still ended up having a very excellent discussion about the history of the word even without using the actual n-word. The film’s discussion of the use of the n-word is also complicated because Malcolm calls William the n-word as a term of endearment even though Diggy doesn’t like him using the word. This again shows how complex discussions are about whether it’s ok for white people to call black people the n-word, and for black people to call white people the n-word.

The film also tackles the term “dope”. At the beginning, there are three dictionary definitions of the term “dope”: “a drug taken illegally for recreational purposes”, “a stupid person” and “excellent”. Many of us today throw around the word “dope” casually to mean “cool”, and in the world of classical music, peg compound, or the substances that luthiers/instrument repair folks put on the pegs of string instruments to keep them from slipping, is often called “peg dope”, or at least I’ve heard a few musicians use “dope” in that context. I’ve even used it myself, but this film really does talk a lot about dope and its impact on marginalized communities. The selling of dope, the recreational use of dope, and even just the sheer presence of dope all have some effect on the characters throughout the film. Dope can mean any recreational drug: marijuana The whole plot revolves around a young man who has never touched dope in his life and now has to deal with this drug because one person made the terrible decision to stuff it in his backpack. Of course, one could argue that Dom was just trying to save himself from getting shot and had no choice but to put the dope in Malcolm’s backpack, but still, it was a bad decision. Still, Malcolm learned from this entire experience that it’s okay to be different and not fit in with the crowd, because trying to fit in jeopardized the lives of him and his friends. A young woman in the film, Lily, seduces Malcolm and takes the cocaine after finding it in his backpack. The dope impairs her mental, physical and social functioning, and she ends up vomiting on Malcolm, passing out behind the wheel while driving him to his interview and urinating in public after running out of the car. Lily’s decision to take the dope affects her down the road, because while William is helping Malcolm sell the drug on the black market, there is footage of Lily urinating in public that make the news and this footage becomes a meme. People start calling dope “Lily” (a reference to how people call the drug ecstasy “Molly”) because they want to feel how Lily feels on cocaine. How Lily felt afterwards about her act going public we will never know, but it shows how the use of cocaine can cause its users to do some wild stuff. Malcolm also realizes that he’s not interested in Lily because she only wants his cocaine, and that unlike Lily, Nakia doesn’t expect Malcolm to be someone he’s not. Austin Jacoby, who is Lily’s dad, is related with Dom and involved in some way with the cocaine in Malcolm’s backpack, once again showing how this one drug, cocaine, connects the lives of all the characters in some sort of way, mainly for worse and not better because it messes up everyone’s life in the film, particularly Malcolm’s life.

For a long time people have often thought of hip-hop as just drugs and girls, but this film uncovers a deeper layer of the discussion around drugs and hip-hop because it doesn’t glamorize drug use at all (similarly to how Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream depict the grim reality of what happens to people when they use the drug heroin). Malcolm receives a death threat from an unknown caller who knows where the dope is and tells him to bring it to his car, but when Malcolm calls Dom about it, Dom tells him he is in prison and to not bring the dope to the unknown caller because he will get killed (side note: I only knew A$AP Rocky because of his music, but he is a really good actor in this movie). The film also explores the illegal use of cryptocurrency and its connections to the sale of dope. In the film William creates an online black market where Malcolm can sell the drugs and not get caught, and the payment method he sets up is Bitcoin, or cryptocurrency, because it’s not connected to any centralized banks. Bitcoin is legal in most countries; however, critics have denounced its use in illegal activities such as selling drugs on the black market. William reveals to Malcolm that to access the Bitcoin money, he would need to connect his account to the black market account, which would give away Malcolm’s identity and get him caught, so he has to go to a gangster named Fidel to take the Bitcoin cash off the USB William put it on so Malcolm can get the cold hard cash. But Fidel doesn’t play and threatens to kill Malcolm if he doesn’t guess correctly whether the designer bags the money is in are fake or real, and also holds a gun on Malcolm and his friends. Again, this shows how dope and the illegal trade of dope can land people in life-threatening situations and that, in the end, it’s really not worth it. When Bug and his fellow bullies try to run off with the money Malcolm got from Fidel, Malcolm threatens to shoot them with the gun that Dom put in his backpack, and we see Bug silently back away and Jib and Diggy telling him to let it go. Malcolm has usually been the victim of bullying, but seeing him pull a gun like that was new for his tormentors and even Jib and Diggy.

The film also says a lot about toxic masculinity because most of the people involved directly with the selling of dope are macho-acting men who think being emotionally available is weak. Malcolm is a sensitive young man, and being involved in the dope exchange forces him to adopt a cold detached persona so he doesn’t get bullied anymore. Its discussion of toxic masculinity reminded me of the film Moonlight, which is about a young black gay man who grows up poor in Miami and deals with homophobic bullying every day. The film portrays the psychological and mental toll that toxic masculinity has on young men down the road because later in his life, because he got bullied so much, the main character, Chiron, deals drugs, works out a lot and in general just adopts a hard-surfaced persona that doesn’t want to be emotionally available so people don’t take advantage of him anymore. However, he meets his past lover, Kevin, who tells him to stop selling drugs and be himself again because he was the first man he met who was okay being a sensitive soul. We see Chiron crying when he visits his mom, who abused him in the past and is in rehab for her drug addiction. This is a painfully sad moment, but also one in which we understand that it is one of the few times we have seen black men being allowed to wear their hearts on their sleeves on the big screen. In Dope, Malcolm’s unintentional involvement in the selling of dope transforms him into a hyper-masculine jerk who only cares about money and being cool, and it really does him a lot of damage (although I still thought it was cool that his friends stuck around for him. Most friendship movies involving betrayal show friendships breaking up after someone does something wrong). The film shows how there is more than one way to be black, and especially because historically people have viewed black men as hyper-sexual and full of rage, this film is especially important because it showed that there are many different ways of expressing black masculinity and no one expression is better than the other.

Also, I was glad to see this film because Tony Revolori is in it. He played a hotel lobby boy in The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is one of my favorite movies. And I was also trying to figure out where I knew the actor who played Malcolm from, and I looked up “Shameik Moore” and saw he played Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse! 🙂 A lot of other famous people star in this film, too: the rappers Tyga (who plays De’Andre) and A$AP Rocky (who plays Dom), Zoe Kravitz (Nakia). Sean Combs, Forest Whitaker and Pharrell Williams also helped produce the film, which made me super happy. Pharrell wrote the songs for Awreooh and Germaine Franco, who I talked about in my last post about film composing, composed the score. The score is incredible and I felt like I was taken back into time listening to some good old-school 90s hip-hop hits.

Overall, I highly recommend this film. It opens up a lot of interesting thought-provoking discussions but also has its fun moments. Thank you to Rick Famuyiwa for this excellent film. Here’s the trailer below to pique your interest.

Dope. 2015. Rated R for language, drug content, sexuality/nudity, and some violence–all involving teens.

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