Dope Perfectly Illustrates America’s Current Culture War

Urban culture in America should evolve and allow more breathing room for weirdos, nerds, queers, and outliers.

America is in the the midst of a tumultuous racial climate. Every week, it seems there is a new race-based controversy, from a white supremacist executing black churchgoers in South Carolina, to several inner-city riots sparked by the alleged unjust killing of young black men by police. There’s even a fake controversy surrounding our (first) black President saying “n-gger” on a podcast. Although Dope does not deal with subject matter quite that grim, it does seem like the perfect film for the current climate.

The story centers around a meek, reluctant hero, Malcolm: a black nerd trying to survive high school in the dangerous “Bottoms” neighborhood of Inglewood, CA. He is obsessed with ’90s hip hop and fashion, and has a serious penchant for “white shit” like skateboarding, playing in a poppy, party-punk band, and having Ivy League aspirations. Bonded by shared interests and outsider status, Malcolm’s only friends and bandmates are Diggy, a tomboyish lesbian, and Jib, a racially ambiguous, but not prototypically African American male. Collectively, they share the commonalities of being small, physically frail, and smart, but most importantly different from the rest of their inner city counterparts.

Without giving away too many of the details the story, the Superbad meets House Party meets Half Baked meets Risky Business with a hint of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World tale follows Malcolm and his friends’ “slippery slope” after mistakenly receiving a bag full of drugs (and a gun) after a shoot-out at a birthday party for drug dealer, Dom (played extremely well by A$AP Rocky), and having to deal with the shitstorm of problems involved in offloading the parcels of narcotics.

Even though the landscape of the film is youth-oriented, dealing with the typical coming-of-age, high school dilemmas, as well as exploring modern Millennial conventions like social media and cryptocurrency, the heart of Dope lies in the 1990’s. That was the time period that I was coming-of-age, so it was difficult not to autobiographically identify with these characters. Although my neighborhood wasn’t as bad as South Central, it was still a mostly black and brown, lower income inner-city that could afford you trouble if you were looking for it. Like the geeks in Dope, I’ve had bullies try to take my bike, but luckily I was tall, kept to myself, and avoided trouble for the most part. Being only half black, I didn’t completely fit in, gravitating towards nerdy “white shit” like comic books, heavy metal, sci-fi, video games, baseball cards, Anime, and even a bit of Magic: The Gathering. It also bears mentioning my (white) father’s in-home education of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, New Deal liberalism, The Marx Brothers, and a fair amount of pro-black radicalism ranging from Muhammad Ali to Tommie Smith to Chuck D. These hobbies may not have been chick magnets, but they helped me to avoid many of the hood traps like drug dealing, petty theft, and pre-teen pregnancy.

Despite Dope’s high entertainment value, effective comedic writing, and affectionately vulnerable performances, it’s true strength is in writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s intention to highlight the real black sheep within the urban black community. I understand the underlying truism that all young people are fairly ruthless in their admonishment of the nerdy, fat, ugly, awkward, shy, goth, disabled, etc. In film, the theme of the cool kids’ dominance over nerds and outsiders has been beaten to death from Mean Girls to Weird Science to Karate Kid. We get it— kids are dicks.

But it’s paramount to note the particular type of intolerance that extends past adolescence that’s prominent within the black, inner-city in America: hip hop culture has continuously propagated a narrowed view of what is acceptable behavior, fashion, and consumable media. It hasn’t always been like this, but whether it was art imitating life, or life imitating art, we’ve reached a point where unbridled machismo leaves no room for sensitivity, where embodying a caricature of unbreakable confidence that borderlines on delusion is delightfully referred to as “swag”, and where enunciating your words without dulled slang is considered talking “white”. I hope this film enlightens us all to have a referendum on the state of what it means to be black. Does wearing a doo rag, Timberlands, and a shiny grill in your mouth make you more black than khakis and a polo? Does listening to Wu Tang and Mary J. Blige make you more black than listening to Radiohead or The Weeknd. I hope this doesn’t come off as smug Bill Cosby-esque, “pull your pants up” finger wagging about respectability. But at a certain point we should have a say in how we are defined. Who sets up these invisible parameters?

Even Malcolm’s beloved ’90s hip hop has been appropriated by white culture, as the ’90s were really the beginning of mainstreaming hip hop nationally. Although there was the explosion of gansta rap like N.W.A. and Tupac, you also had acts like De La Soul and Public Enemy that seem to resonate more with white fans today than they do with black fans. To quote entry #116 of StuffWhitePeopleLike.com, “Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore”, “you should ask a white person about ’Real Hip Hop.’ They will quickly tell you about how they don’t listen to ’Commercial Hip Hop’ (aka music that black people actually enjoy), and that they much prefer ’Classic Hip Hop’. ’I don’t listen to that commercial stuff. I’m more into the Real Hip Hop, you know? KRS One, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, De La Soul, Wu Tang, you know, The Old School’.” Malcolm’s embrace of ’90s hip hop only made him more “white”.

Luckily, I don’t think the black community is monolithic in it’s characterizations of what qualifies blackness. My deceased black grandparents certainly had no affinity for hip hop’s appropriation of black American culture. Most white people probably don’t know that there is quite the debate within black America about the state of the culture: from those who agree with Bill O’Reilly that rap is the scourge of American morality, to those unapologetically proud that hip hop culture has more or less globally become pop culture, disregarding the potential collateral damage it’s done to our collective values, be it vapid materialism, sexual objectification, or ego inflation to the point megalomania. There is plenty of grey area between those viewpoints as well.

Maybe I’m not black enough to have an opinion that should matter. Maybe my “light privilege” precluded me from having an authentically black American experience. I’m not sure who the arbiter of personal racial strife is, but I do know that I want black, urban culture in America to evolve and allow a bit more breathing room for weirdos, nerds, queers, and outliers. Idealistically, I want people to like whatever they are drawn to without someone else telling them it’s betrayal against their own identity. I do think things are progressing, and Dope is a big push in the right direction.

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