I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember. Regular readers won’t be surprised by this admission, but I still feel like it still needs saying. As a misfit who suffered crippling social anxiety unless I was talking about anything relating to music, movies, and pop culture, I’d seen my fair share of coming-of-age movies: The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Boyz N The Hood, even more recent fare that does acknowledge multicultural come ups like Bend It Like Beckham and Life of Pi, you name it. Throughout all my watching, however, I never saw anyone who looked quite like me in those movies; a bi-racial kid so in tune with movies, music, and pop culture that it left me and my friends on the fringes of the high school hierarchy to an extent. I thought I wouldn’t live to see the day where black nerds (blerds) got the cinematic recognition they deserved. Then I sat down and watched Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope.
Dope is far and away one of the best movies of the year, doubling as a celebration of geeks of color from across the spectrum and an insightful look into the lives of said geeks in Inglewood, CA, but there’s much more to what makes this one of my new personal favorites. Blerds and geeky people of color (PoC) don’t have many role models in media who aren’t automatic targets of ridicule, but in Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), and Jib (Tony Revolori), Dope has found three for the ages.
Let’s gauge exactly where these three fall on the spectrum. They’re straight A brainiacs/computer coders who are obsessed with 90s hip-hop culture (even though Malcolm counts The Blueprint as a 90s record), play in their own punk band called Awreeoh (pronounced Oreo), carry walkmans and vintage-era Game Boys while riding around Inglewood on bikes, so they push their way past Urkel status and move into a strata all their own. The trio winds up stuck with a bag full of drugs when Malcolm’s bag is swapped out for Dom’s (A$AP Rocky), and what do they do with it? They sell it using BitCoin. You really can’t get much geekier than that, and the film uses this knowledge to its advantage in ways that got a bit too real for me (all those lonely nights…you’ll know it when you see it).
Dope is a great film for a multitude of other reasons, don’t get me wrong. The cast is superb, the soundtrack bangs, and as coming-of-age flicks go, it’s one of the funniest of all-time (including one hell of a bad drug trip about halfway through). But it’s crowning achievement comes in the form of representation; Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib are simply allowed to *be*. They experience the latter side of puberty, awkwardly work their way through conversations with girls, get pushed around by bullies and face sexual harassment, deal with white people who freely use the N-word, come up with a plan, and have one hell of an adventure together – and they do it as fully fleshed out characters, not just stereotypes (and when they do, it’s not without a massive dollop of satiric irony). For once in this kind of movie, the PoC characters aren’t relegated to supporting duty, steeped in lowest common denominator stereotypes, and they don’t serve as some kid’s Magical Negro companion. They’re given a chance to figure out who they are, and no spoilers, but they do. In these three characters, PoC nerds, geeks, and dweebs no longer have to wonder like I did where they were on the screen. They’re right in front of our eyes now.
High school is a special brand of living hell that nearly every American teenager has to slog through, and up until now, the high school experiences we’ve seen on movie screens have been uniform and one-note. Dope finally gives American blerd youth a chance to grow up and find themselves on the international cinematic stage and defies being shoved in the “Black Goonies” box in the process, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s the best movie of its kind since 2011’s Attack The Block.