“Dope” Is an Upbeat Comedy About Being a Nerdy Black Teen

Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, and Shameik Moore play three nerdy, music-loving friends in Dope

It’s hard out here for Black nerds—and for films made about them. Rick Famuyiwa’s film Dope opened in late June to what some would call disappointing box office numbers. There was confusion about who the intended audience for this film was: Black teen nerds, their parents, millennials, everyone? 

Safely nestled between the categories of crime caper and cookie cutter coming of age film, Dope is a narrative about teenagers caught in-between worlds, trying to find their place, while listening to 90’s hip hop and rocking out in a punk band.

It was easy for me to like this film even before I’d seen it. Dope was a hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, igniting a bidding war that Open Road Films eventually won. Growing up, I was a Black nerd, at a time where it wasn’t cool and there were no movies about it. I listened to Sam Cooke and No Doubt while studying for my AP US History exam on a Saturday night. I danced to DMX and cursed for the fun of it.

In Dope, we meet Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a Black geek living in the “the Bottoms” of Inglewood, with his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (played by a very impressive Kiersey Clemons). The friends bond over 90’s hip hop classics by A Tribe Called Quest and Rakim and have intelligent debates over grammar, all the while using the word “nigga” after almost everything they say. When Malcolm encounters a popular drug dealer named Dom (A$AP Rocky) and is invited to his nightclub birthday party, a fight breaks out and the movie’s action begins. The teens escape the party, but accidentally carry off a large stash of ecstasy.

In addition to sweet bikes, the three friends have a band called Awreeoh (pronounced “Oreo”)—Pharrell Williams wrote four original songs for the film.

Along the adventures that follow, Malcolm’s identity as a “good kid who’s going to college” is tested. In Dope, Famuyiwa attempts to mix the coming of age genre with that of the antics and adrenaline of an unbeat heist film, similar to the films Go, Blow, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Attempting to evade danger and still get accepted to Harvard University in the fall, Malcolm and his friends go on a fun, chaotic journey through Inglewood and South Los Angeles. In one scene, they visit a drug dealer’s posh home to drop off the drugs, only to discover he’s not there. Instead of leaving, Malcolm is asked to stay by the drug dealer’s reckless, sexy daughter Lily (Chanel Iman), who walks around topless and blatantly expresses her desire to have sex with him. Malcolm, a virgin, cannot resist and before we know it, his day erupts into a high-speed chase and a viral Youtube video of an ecstasy-crazed Lily peeing on a sidewalk. It’s a smart, bizarre homage to the millennial, Youtube culture that we live in.

And yes, Black nerds want to have sex too. The film deals with Black teenage sexuality in ways that are both authentic and at times problematic. I wondered what purpose Lily served as a character, besides being beautiful, naked, and tragic—there are ample, lingering shots of her scantily-clad body and pretty much zero character development. But I really loved Diggy, who’s a relaxed and funny Black teen lesbian. Diggy steals many scenes with her natural wit, intelligence, and throwback jeans. With no makeup and no need to impress, Diggy feels like a kind of misunderstood old-soul. Her presence balanced out the male ego and bravado in the film—as did Zoe Kravitz, who plays Nakia, a girl in the hood who’s studying to take her GED and is the apple of Malcom’s eye. Watching Malcom’s face contort in awkwardness each time he approaches her was another nice element of the film’s exploration into teen attraction—having a crush is often awkward as hell. Diggy’s character made me yearn for more coming-of-age films about Black girls where they don’t play a best friend, or have to be saved by a white teacher. (But that’s another blog post altogether).

In the end, the film is smart, fun, and wild, but as I sat in the theater watching it with a mixed group of people, I got the sense that some didn’t know what kind of film they’d come to see. Dope is no Lean on Me or Boyz In The Hood. It’s a feel-good, gross-out dramatic comedy that uses the word “nigga” so much that sometimes it feels forced. It explores the fringes of Black teen identity, so I wondered if many Black teens actually went to see it. If so, I had to wonder, what did they think? 

While the politics of Black nerd culture have changed over the years, the existence remains the same. It’s about looking in from the outside and questioning why you’re a labeled a “nerd” in the first place. In a society built on normative ideologies of race, gender, and sexuality, marketing Black outsider culture to the public might be just as hard as living it—even when you do have Pharell singing your praises.    

Dope is currently playing in theaters. Watch the trailer below. 

by Nijla Mu'min
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Nijla is a writer, filmmaker, and essayist whose work can be found at www.nijlamumin.com.

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