On “Dope” And The Way We Tackle Black Stereotypes In Films

June 24, 2015  |  

From the moment I heard about Dope, I was hyped. A movie written and directed by a Black filmmaker about Black nerds, ‘90s hip-hop, and set in Inglewood? Count me all the way in. You see, I am a Black nerd who lived and went to school in the hood, South Central Los Angeles to be specific, in the ‘90s. I loved punk music and indie films, but I could still recite a Pac or Biggie verse flawlessly.  My hair was blue as I cried on the street corner in my Dead Kennedys shirt when I found out Tupac died. Clearly, I could relate to the plot.

So I bought my ticket ahead of time and was first inside the theater when it opened last week. Before the first frame played, I assumed I would recognize myself in these characters, and I was giddy. We all know what they say about assuming, though.

The movie felt like a ‘90s teen comedy. It had a trio of funny, driven, original characters. There was Malcolm, the leader of the crew who desperately wants to go to Harvard, “Diggy,” the smart, loyal, and funny Black lesbian, and “Jib,” a quirky Guatemalan and arguably the biggest nerd in the group. They play in a hip-hop/punk band called Awreeoh, a play on Oreo, a terrible nickname for Black people who are considered Black on the outside and white on the inside.

Everything was really working for me right up until Malcolm began to bitterly break down what his type of Blackness meant to everyone else. Enjoying “White people shit like college, Donald Glover, and TV on the Radio.”

Pump the brakes, son.

College, Donald Glover, and the all-Black rock band TV on the Radio are hardly exclusive to Whites. This description of the protagonist paints the picture that everyone outside of Malcolm’s clique is ignorant and uncultured.  Perched from atop a high pedestal, the movie goes on to show off his neighborhood in Inglewood, California, his school, and the various bullies who are trying to attack his trio for being into “White shit.” The world of Dope was very black and white. You were either a nerd or you were one of many Black stereotypes. There was no middle ground in the whole movie.

Now, maybe if I had left all my personal experiences waiting for me at the do’, then I could have just fallen in love with this movie. But as audience members, we always take personal experiences into movies.  It allows us to relate and sympathize, to hate and root for the villain’s demise. The choices the filmmaker makes inform the audience.

I think the filmmaker, Rick Famuyiwa, chose to break as many stereotypes in the nerdy trio as he could while placing as many one-dimensional stereotypes on every other character in the movie.  There are no chosen few Black people who enjoy rock; lots of Black people enjoy different kinds of music.  You’d be a fool to think you were the only Black Green Day fan on earth; that you were this magical other. People hate on Donald Glover fans because they act like they have the golden ticket. Like they understand the world better than everyone else because they have a Childish Gambino mixtape where he talks about being hated for liking “White people shit.” What some fans of Gambino don’t understand is that most people don’t hate you for liking “White people shit,” they hate you because you’re probably an uppity jerk about it.

I was regularly rocking Deftones shirts and dirty Chuck Taylor’s while listening to Tool on my Sony Walkman at a school. A place that was a few blocks away from where the LA riots took place. I can count on maybe one hand the times people gave me shit about it, and none of those people were Black. The Black kids were always cool with me, but that’s probably because it wasn’t a big deal. A spare few Latino students, however, constantly tested my music knowledge and were the first to call me a poser. If I was to write a movie about that time, rest assured, I would not write one where every Latino character was a testy jerk. It would be ignorant and self-serving to reinforce tired tropes against a group of people because of my experience with a handful.

The movie comes down to a series of “us vs. them” situations.  Malcolm felt completely disconnected from every aspect of his neighborhood, with the exception of his love interest, Nakia, played by Zoe Kravitz. Because of Malcolm’s isolation from his environment, and because the movie is told from his POV, the audience sees everyone that isn’t a part of Malcolm’s crew as less than. There were such great side characters who could have lent a hand in breaking down the stereotypes in the movie, like the school security guard who defends Malcolm from bullies. He is young, tatted up and very dominant—you get the impression that he walked away from a much harder life to pursue a more stable one. But I can only imagine his back story because his character receives screen time only when it’s necessary for the street-dumb Malcolm to take advantage of him so he can cut Molly in the school’s science lab.

The neighborhood drug dealer who sets everything in motion, wonderfully portrayed by A$AP Rocky, gave me a little hope as he held his own in a verbal tête-a-ête against Malcolm.  But that was as far as the movie would go to show that gangsters are not all undereducated, impulsive, macho jokes. And with the exception of Diggy, the prominent female characters exist solely as sex objects, be it Chanel Iman whipping her clothes off every two seconds or Zoe Kravitz doing her best homage to Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice with come hither box-braid sultriness.

Look, I was not asking for Dope to change the world. I merely wanted it to give proper representation so that I could celebrate it and shout it from the mountaintops. And, I’m sorry, but I don’t fancy the idea of one character (or one type of people) being uplifted at the expense of all the rest. There are many different sides to Black women and Black dope dealers. Black women are not just sexual objects; they come in all shades, sizes, beliefs, manners, and senses of humor. Dope dealers are not just rough, idiot men; it’s often circumstantial. They can be educated, sensitive, and they can even grow to become other things. I don’t think it is necessary to unbox one stereotype while allowing so many others to flourish. When I see Ava DuVernay dismantle the stereotypes of the imprisoned Black man and the loyal Black woman who waits for him on the outside in Middle of Nowhere, I know that anything is possible. What I’m saying is that there is an underlying responsibility as a Black filmmaker, whether they like it or not, to present a full character to the audience. Black people are so unique and multifaceted. Our culture is vibrant, attractive and filled with ups and downs and courage against adversity. As we start to see more movies with Black faces, I am hopeful that those faces will be more layered than ever before.

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