[I wanted to write this reflection the weekend of its release. I decided that I needed a little more time because the film hit home in too many ways and I needed some space from it to get a better handle on how I wanted to approach it. This will not be a typical review, nor will it be an endorsement — despite my endorsing the film whole-heartedly. I have no idea what this is, but I needed to get it out.]
Hip-hop is fandom. While it may not be explicitly geek/nerd culture, it is fandom of the highest order. If anyone chooses to refute this, they aren’t being intellectually or culturally honest. Never has this connection been so blatantly displayed than in Rick Famuyiwa’s 2015 gem of a film, Dope. [I have a lot more to say about this. Watch this space in the next month or two]
I won’t use this space to praise the performances (universally great), or the amazing soundtrack, or the spot-on ’90s indie aesthetic of the direction, dialogue, storytelling, or feel of the film. These are easy entry points and Dope deserves something else.
As with sci-fi/fantasy fandoms, Dope is about obsession. College bound Malcolm, foul-mouthed voice of reason Jib, and round the way (lesbian) girl Dig are obsessed with ’90s hip-hop. From the clothes, to sourcing VHS bootleg copies of YO! MTV Raps, the trio — who are hip-hop heads but have a pop-punk band — are as obsessed with their culture of choice as any Browncoat. And like any geek who embraces the name and status, they sometimes let their passions get the best of them.
There is a hilarious scene where Malcolm and Dom the local drug dealer — played with charismatic menace by A$AP Rocky — are arguing about how Public Enemy’s 1988 classic album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Jay-Z’s classic 2001 joint, The Blueprint could possibly factor in to Malcolm’s ’90s hip-hop love affair. He brushes off the temporal lineage with a line that seems thrown away, but there was a minute deflation of his hyper-inflated love affair.
It is that moment that all geeks go through when you have to reassess your obsession and wondering if you are, somehow, off-message and what are the social impacts of being off-message.
While there are many moments of dialogue that are this wonderful — there is a Tarantino-esque bit about what “slippery slope” means, at its core Dope is about much more than being clever.
Dope is about the fragility and the fluidity of masculine identity. And this was refreshing. Whenever masculinity or manhood is discussed publicly, it almost always gets relegated to a pole of set-in-stone masculine stereotypes, or gets labeled as patriarchy and then plans are made on how it should be dismantled. Masculinity is one thing. But when you add race and youth to it, it becomes something else entirely.
When you are a black boy, especially when there are no father figures in the home or in the immediate neighborhood, you source your manhood from the masculine performances around you. In many cases, it is your community that is your first point of reference. A very close second is popular culture. Malcolm has cobbled together a masculine identity that fits into no established category, but is citational to the extreme.
We know where his walk comes from. We know who inspired his hair and sneakers. We know where the rhythm of his speech originated. Malcolm, despite his awkwardness, is able to step into and embody his referents when he needs to. This was one of the most important aspects of the film.
Masculinity and Blackness are fluid cultural identities and the ability to find the correct balance between them is hard, and constant work that is emblematized in how Malcolm negotiates the absolutely wild adventures he and his friends are forced to endure. He is vulnerable, quirky, loyal, brilliant, cocky, scared, and joyful and it is beautiful to behold. In recent memory, I’m hard-pressed to think of a film that painted a young Black man with such complexity and likeability.
There are two major critiques that I have:
- The overuse of the term, “nigga.” Damn near every character, in damn near every scene. There is a funny scene of a white stoner hacker questioning why he isn’t allowed to say it. Dig’s reaction is priceless.
- The primary women in the film were light-skinned, thin, and ethnically ambiguous. The men came in all shades and sizes, but the women seemed to be orders from the exotic model-looking girl catalog. One of the only false notes in the film.
If Menace II Society, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Scooby Doo cartoons, and The Goonies could somehow have a baby, Dope would be that offspring. You owe it to yourself to see this remarkable little film.