Applying to college is, in short, seeking access to the real world’s green room. During that period of incubation, experience pushes young people towards their adult identities. This arduous process ramps up during high school, magnified when some pen their essays for admission to college. Writing the personal statement is a review of your identity's composite elements. But the adolescent identity is still a work in progress. Suppose you haven’t figured out exactly who you are?
Dope, director and writer Rick Famuyiwa’s Sundance darling, examines the trials and tribulations of the black nerd. The protagonist, Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore), is a misfit eager to escape the perils of his Inglewood, Calif. neighborhood and fulfill his Harvard aspirations. Although cognizant of who he isn’t, he has yet to establish exactly who he is. In his eyes, he’s just Malcolm—an outlier looking to hurdle the quicksand. However, the path to self-definition is more intricate. Dope is the story of a kid formalizing his identity by confronting the obstructions placed in his way. In a sense, he lives out his application essay throughout the film.
With Dope, Famuyiwa returns to his hometown, which was also the setting of his previous coming of age tale, The Wood. Parallels are present, but the evolution of friendship isn’t Dope’s primary concern. Ties to John Singleton’s groundbreaking Boyz n the Hood (survival amidst Inglewood’s chaos) have also been made, but Dope adds new layers to the good kid, mad city narrative. Malcolm is no Tre Styles—he’s college bound, but lacks the social prowess to successfully pivot between the worlds of academia and his surroundings. He isn’t one of the cool kids—he’s an outsider frequently fleeing from "hood traps" like overzealous bullies and his socioeconomic status. Where a similar film might feature the geeky outcast pressing his face against the window of life’s inner-circle, Malcolm and his friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), push themselves outside of the margins.
In accepting his own bitchassness, Malcolm also embraces his eccentricities. He’s fixated with '90s fashion and hip-hop, and will gladly listen to Nevermind and Illmatic in succession. As a display of that eclecticism and defiance, he formed the aptly-named punk band, "Awreeoh," with his friends. The group owns their quirks, especially Malcolm, who Famuyiwa told me exudes a confidence that he lacked at the same age.
"If I walked into a record store on Market Street in Inglewood and asked for Nirvana, [I’d get] dirty looks," says Famuyiwa. "Malcolm can just pull that up on his phone and never have to deal with the social shaming that comes along with that. He and his peers can kind of form their own circle of coolness where, in their world, they’re the coolest kids on Earth and can say 'Forget everyone else.' That was the kind of the spirit I saw when I would watch Odd Future and those kids running around Inglewood and Ladera—where I grew up. They were filming [their exploits], making music, and not really giving a fuck about what anyone thought. There was sort of an open honesty and freedom about that which kind of inspired me as I was writing Dope."
The resistance that Malcolm, Diggy and Jib display is far less antagonistic than the attitude that warranted Odd Future notoriety. They’re docile, nerdy kids from the hood—a sect largely ignored by black cinema. Furthermore, the characteristic that makes the trio intriguing is what also makes them distinctively bewildering to other residents of the Bottoms: their ambition in a place of hopelessness. That’s why their behavior is branded "white shit," a tag they proudly adopt. According to Famuyiwa, it’s the catalyst for their active rebellion, particularly Malcolm’s. "I do think that, especially in places like where Malcolm and I grew up, those expectations and labels hit you—especially the, 'You’re trying to act white’ label,'" he says. "That even extends to certain things that normal, ambitious kids should want to do like go to a great college and make something of themselves."
Malcolm’s interests—such as the desire to succeed—are viewed as perplexing and arrogant. "I think because there’s such generational oppression that some communities have to deal with, there becomes a sort of ownership of that in a way that’s wrong, bad, and much larger than this movie," Famuyiwa asserts.
Specifically, the "You’re trying to act white" mentality is a brick in the psychological wall that prevents some from seeing goals that surpass what they accomplished (or, more importantly, had the resources to accomplish) as anything more than self-importance. Wanting more is equated to thinking that you’re better than, especially in a place where the odds are mounted against your success.
"When you have a kid who doesn’t want to accept that, people look at you like, 'Who do you think you are?' That’s a question Malcolm has to answer often throughout the movie for various reasons," Famuyiwa says. "The whole idea of ‘Who do you think you are?’ was at the heart of creating the story, because as someone who grew up into a lot of different things, I had to answer that on many occasions. In many ways, this film was my real answer to the question."
Famuyiwa used his own experience to construct Malcolm’s character because he’s aware that other black kids endure comparable social auditing. I never got beat up at school or harassed in my neighborhood, but I was occasionally looked at as an alien because I attended a different school than the bulk of the kids I grew up around. I blended in with a basketball in my hand, but the sight of me with a 35mm camera draped from my neck triggered puzzlement. When other kids were salivating over Jay Z lyrics, I placed them under the same microscope—but also did the same with Radiohead. The confusion surrounding that straddling of an invisible line speaks to the "too black, not black enough" quandary that some black youths face during their formative years. Society conditioned Malcolm to anticipate the scrutiny, even when he did good, so his appearance became a uniform of protest. Yet this comfort with the mutual objection between he and his environment didn’t equip him to answer the question of who Malcolm Adekanbi is until pushed.
"At the beginning of the movie, he very much does not want to be defined by his environment, so he embraces things like the flat-tops, the '90s, and his band," Famuyiwa explains. "The progression of the movie makes him have to confront his environment, and it gets him to a point where he understands that, good or bad, his environment is what makes him who he is. It’s up to him to define himself using that, but not necessarily always react against it."
Each day, Malcolm’s habitat presented a test of his manhood—tests that he continuously (and literally) ran from. He eventually acknowledges that his upbringing is responsible for his persistent rebellion from a different angle: he isn’t just fighting through his appearance, he’s fighting against the constraints of his atmosphere. When circumstance paints you into a corner, the measures you take to break out of it may surprise you and others. What he learns is that the daily adversity of the Bottoms prepared him for what he’d face at Harvard and beyond. That’s how he figures out who he is and what he’s truly capable of.
During one of Dope’s early scenes, Malcolm’s guidance counselor essentially tells him that the real world doesn’t care whether or not he’s a good kid. With the same dismissive tone, the older man urges him to wax eloquent during his admission essay on growing up in a single-parent home against the backdrop of urban fester. It’s the type of generic sob story that, due to white guilt, has likely opened hearts and campus gates to many a minority student. Instead, he elects to do something exceptional. This inclination to rail against the grain is why he initially connected with Diggy and Jib. It’s why Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), the rose that sprang up from the hood’s concrete, is drawn to him, and why he ultimately earns the respect of two similar drug dealers (A$AP Rocky and Blake Anderson) from opposite worlds.
The film examines the concept of the "slippery slope." This references simultaneously being too black and too white for acceptance, as well as sliding through the tiny crack separating success from failure. What life teaches Malcolm is that identity is a slippery slope, but that the ground steadies once it’s cemented.
Julian Kimble is a contributing writer. Follow him @JRK316.