“Malcolm is a geek.”
That’s the first thing we hear from the narrator about Malcolm (Shameik Moore), the hero of Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, the coming-of-age indie that premiered at Sundance this year and opens in theaters Friday. The line underscores a scene in which Malcolm eagerly explains the concept of bitcoin to his mom, but that’s just the tip of the nerdberg. He and his best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) are, in present day, obsessed with ’90s hip-hop music and styles (Malcolm wears his hair in a hi-top fade) and have their own band in which they sing about getting good grades. He has his sights set on Harvard, and his application essay sees him geeking out on pinning down the exact date of Ice Cube’s “good day.” We soon learn how much Malcolm and his friends stick out from their neighbors in the predominantly black and Latino Inglewood, California, in what’s known as “the Bottoms,” a notoriously bleak and violent neighborhood, and at their underfunded school. Thanks in part to his geekhood, Malcolm finds himself entangled in a drug deal between a local kingpin and a crooked business owner.
Ah, the black geek. (Or “nerd”—whichever you prefer.) Like pretty much any cultural mode associated with blackness, it’s complicated. In the 1980s, the black geek could fall under the broader umbrella of what Trey Ellis, in a celebrated 1989 essay, termed the “New Black Aesthetic,” or NBA for short—a demographic of young black intellectuals who walked the line between traditionally white and traditionally black worlds; wearing “little, round glasses, and short, neat dreads” while in bookstores, liking “both Jim and Toni Morrison.” The NBA as he described it was a “post-bourgeois movement; driven by a second-generation of middle class”—i.e., Spike Lee, the fictional Cosby family, Chuck D. (In this regard Malcolm doesn’t fit in, considering his geekhood flowers in a poor, dangerous neighborhood.) In more recent years the black geek has become a little bit cool, symbolized, intentionally or not, by the likes of Barack Obama, Donald Glover, and Issa Rae.
Glover, who openly celebrates his identity as a black nerd, has defined such an existence as being into “strange, specific stuff.” The term itself is a bit awkward, succumbing to the notion that geek- or nerdhood is, by default, representative of whiteness. This naturally lends itself to the notion that to be a black geek is to be into things that white people are into, which in turn unfurls an entirely loaded, incredibly tricky conversation about what it means to be black. At best that discussion yields the conclusion that black geeks of all types are a tangible, very invested demographic whose attention is worth courting and whose stories are worth telling. At worst the black geek gets identified as a modern-day “exceptional negro,” a smarter, more “unique” type, set apart from your average black stereotype who only listens to rap, thinks school is whack, and dreams of becoming (or marrying) a professional basketball player.
Through a genre-hopping premise (the film is John Hughes meets the Coen brothers meets Boyz N the Hood, with a dash of Porky’s thrown in), Dope dives headfirst into these complexities, and it certainly seems at first as though its attempts to define its protagonist will stick him in an old, familiar box. Straight out of the gate, the narrator—the voice is Forest Whitaker’s—breaks down what exactly makes the trio “black geeks,” complete with a visual checklist of unsurprising affinities that include skateboarding, manga, Glover, and TV on the Radio—plus engaging in typical “white people activities” like getting good grades and applying to college.
It’s not just our narrator who emphasizes Malcolm’s differences; Malcolm himself repeatedly positions himself against all of the other black people around him. After presenting his Ice Cube–themed college essay to his guidance counselor, he’s told that he needs to write something personal about himself, because his excellent GPA isn’t going to matter to admissions counselors who’ll only see his failing school system. Malcolm is resistant—he has no desire to write about being raised by a single mother, never having known his father, and living in the hood. “It’s cliché,” he protests. And following a party that gets broken up by gunfire, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), the cool girl of his dreams, thanks him for helping her get out safely. “Those other niggas” were just running over her to get out of the way, she says, flirtatiously. That’s what makes him different, he tells her. “Guess I’m just used to hearing, ‘Niggas don’t listen to this,’ ‘Niggas don’t go to college unless they play ball,’ ” he adds sheepishly. “Guess I’m just not one of ‘those niggas.’ ”
To be clear, Malcolm doesn’t intend for such statements to sound off-putting. (It’s to the credit of the young actor who plays him, Moore, that the character always comes off as charming, even when Famuyiwa writes him as kind of a jerk.) But Malcolm does seem to have internalized the mythology that black geeks like him privilege education and advancement far more than nongeek blacks—a notion that has been proven to be grossly overemphasized. It’s a familiar trope that’s been played out in recent years especially, as the rise of the black nerd has come to dominate discussions about black culture in general. Sometimes it’s subtle: A Vulture piece from earlier this year explored the increasing number of black comedians who take a more “ruminative” and “oddball” approach to humor in contrast to the bawdy humor of Eddie Murphy and Def Comedy Jam. In it, comic Jermaine Fowler told reporter E. Alex Jung, “I was the black kid in school who’d skate and wrestle, who was really into outer space and botany and kung fu and hip-hop. I was into everything.” At other times it’s completely devoid of nuance, as with a 2012 CNN article that defined black nerdhood as “a way to describe African-American intellectuals in a time when it’s finally cool to be something other than an athlete or rapper.”
We’ve seen the trope in pop culture, of course. One of the most persistent and widespread purveyors of the “niggas don’t listen to this” mantra was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In that sitcom, the sweater-wearing, Tom Jones–loving Carlton Banks was repeatedly subjected to the blackness litmus test by Will Smith over the course of six seasons, starting with the very first episode:
Carlton: That’s a really neat tux, isn’t it, Will?
Will: Oh yes, it’s definitely the cat’s meow.
Carlton: Wait till we come downstairs in those tuxes. People may not think we’re twins, but I bet they’ll think we’re brothers.
Will: You know what? I don’t think you have to worry about anyone mistaking you for a brother.
Refreshingly, Dope doesn’t actually wind up promoting toxic ideas about a lack of diversity and nuance within black culture; ultimately the movie slyly undermines Malcolm’s internalized notions about blackness. We hear Malcolm’s ideas about what a special snowflake this black geek is, but we, the audience, never witness them in action. He and his friends are picked on by some particularly rough kids at school but only because Malcolm’s shoe size matches that of the ringleader bully, who tries to steal his Jordans. The school’s gruff security officer wishes him luck on his SATs. And charismatic drug dealer Dom (ASAP Rocky) takes a liking to Malcolm, using his inoffensive geek persona as an asset for his own personal gain on more than one occasion. (Dom, despite his hood persona, is also an intellectual of sorts himself, as we see in a conversation he has with a fellow dealer about the U.S.’s drone program.) In Dope, not only can’t the black nerd be pigeonholed—neither can his neighbors, no matter how gang-ridden and poverty-stricken the neighborhood may be.
This doesn’t mean that in the world of Dope, a character like Malcolm would never be accused of “acting white,” but it does mean that his perception of how people view him is vastly different from the reality. I can relate: I too was a black geek. (In many ways, I still am.) During the late ’90s and early ’00s, I was usually the only black kid (or one of very few) in my honors classes, and my “strange, specific stuff” included Turner Classic Movies and channeling my inner Weird Al by writing minimusicals with made-up lyrics to the tunes of popular Disney songs. I too fought hard to prove to people that I wasn’t like those other black kids. I was unique.
I eventually wised up and saw the harm in internalizing such ideals, and by the end of the film, Malcolm does too: In a powerful montage, he reads aloud his newly rewritten college essay, in which he presents the many facets of his life—getting straight As, playing in a band, encountering powerful drug pushers—as the work of two hypothetical students, one from the suburbs, one from the hood. “So why do I want to attend Harvard?” he writes at essay’s end. “If I was white, would you even have to ask me that question?”
It’s a bittersweet but ultimately empowering moment. On the one hand Malcolm knows that much of society may look at him and where he’s from and still make stereotypical assumptions no matter how successful he becomes. Yet the tone is far from defeatist; Malcolm ends the film a wiser, more confident young man than he was at the beginning, having proven to himself that he can play the many tricky, unfair aspects of life—namely, assumptions about race and class—to his advantage. It echoes the voices heard in Trey Ellis’ “New Black Aesthetic” essay, in which Ellis quotes the filmmaker Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle): “I wasn’t listening when everybody told me about the obstacles.” Ellis adds, in a passage that feels very appropriate to this complex coming-of-age indie comedy: “So he took the dominant culture’s credit cards and clobbered it with a film.”