“A bad day for most geeks would be being the butt of jokes,” says the punk-band-playing straight-A brainiac Malcolm (actor Shameik Moore) at the center of Dope, a film that’s as much about questioning identity as it is owning it.
In the span of about 24 hours in Inglewood, a birthday-party bust spirals into a series of calamitous (read: hilarious) events involving Malcolm and his two friends and bandmates Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), who besides being on the run with a backpack full of white stuff, are also tryna (quite stereotypically) avoid being statistically shot or imprisoned.
This drug deal gone awry—thanks to the movie’s ace slinger Dom, played ever so smoothly by A$AP Rocky—thwarts Malcolm’s Harvard ambitions, a plot that heavily relies on the notion that Malcolm is a straight-up geek.
Last week over drinks, I had a conversation with a friend who’d seen the same early screening of Dope. Her one minor issue was its classification of Malcolm. “He’s not really a nerd,” she said. “Those kids are cool. When I think of nerd, I think Urkel.” Really, Malcolm isn’t so much “uncool” as he is an outcast in his high school’s social order. He’s awkward and hooked on an idea of nerdiness that’s (socially) defined by his eccentric interests. Within the confines of his hood, The Bottom, Malcolm is for sure of the geek breed.
Amidst the cool-nerd/nerds-rule movement, there’ve been few (or maybe zero) mainstream films that actually visualize that shared existence in black circles. In attempting to show what it means to be a nerd, or a cool nerd, Dope makes you feel a kinship with its teen protagonists and also manages to be fun as hell. Inevitably, too, it both upholds and challenges stereotypes. How is a nerd supposed to be? How is a black nerd supposed to be?
Director Rick Famuyiwa avoids depicting Malcolm as a full-on, bumbling, bespectacled nerd partly because, believe it or not, some nerds have 20/20 vision, and because that archetype (at least in pop culture) has long been replaced by more self-aware versions whose so-called geekiness is a badge. (You can probably guess where I stand here: Tina Belcher is my Slack chat avatar.)
Pharrell Williams, Lupe Fiasco and Donald Glover are all basically poster boys for subversion of traditional dorkdom, making proudly self-identifying as a black nerd far from a new thing.
It’s not yet old, either. As Glover once put it in his Comedy Central standup special in 2010—“I’m a black nerd and that shit was illegal until like 2003.” The reasons, of course, have a lot to do with how black people have conventionally been “allowed” to exist in public spaces. Urkel is better considered a unique and narrow slice of real life.
In Dope, while there’s something off-putting about Malcolm’s will to assimilate (his band is called Awreoh and, well, he wants to go to Harvard), it also speaks to his perception of identity. Malcolm calls himself a geek because he loves Game of Thrones (a nerdy and popular show), ’90s hip-hop (like every teen today) and worships Neil Degrasse Tyson (who doesn’t). Is that what makes him a geek? Sure. Glover says in his special, “Strange, specific stuff, that’s what makes a nerd a nerd. If you go up to Kanye West and say, ‘What are your favorite things?’ he’ll say, ‘Robots and teddy bears.’ That’s a nerd.”
When I asked my younger brother, who’s 14, for a definition, he texted back, “To me, a nerd is someone who gets good grades but is kinda socially awkward. But I use the word nerd as a good connotation in my school. I’d say that nerds aren’t very prominent, but the ones that do exist aren’t very accepted.” (I think, like my friend, he’s consciously separating the cool nerds from traditional Urkels, proving that the distinctions these days are vague).
Before Malcolm and his friends are about to potentially get jacked for their bikes, Jib jokes that someone should invent an app to “avoid hood traps.” That the street dudes in the neighborhood are also web savvy—they post videos of their thefts online—further highlights cliché expectations. In reality, the internet is one big nerd soup. Dweeb and street (and thus the meaning of coolness) inevitably intersect.
Another element of Dope that challenges our tricky definition of nerd is its styling. As Malcolm and his friends circle their blocks, it’s hard not to thirst over their thrift wear, intended to denote cool and different. The movie’s costume designer Patrick Milani compiled these outfits from stores like KarmaLoop and brands like Crooks and Castles. (I made a mental note of the flap-pocket jeans worn by Diggy in several scenes, which Milani tells me came from a vintage shop on Melrose.)
“The reason they’re obsessed with ’90s rap,” he says of the three lead characters, “is that was an era of breaking ground and it was the beginning of rap getting accepted into the mainstream. A lot of early rappers took risks, which might look nerdy to other people, but they weren’t. Pharrell wasn’t afraid to wear pink and same with Malcolm. He isn’t afraid to wear pink or stripes. That comes from a place of security. You’re so secure that you can be nerdy.”
Malcolm thinks everyone around him is cooler than him, theoretically, so he feels vastly different. Because of this ancient perception than he’s “one of the good ones,” he’s able to go far with his drug dealing mission. When he’s coerced into selling the backpack of molly that falls into his lap (via Dom), more than a genuine desire to be bad, he’s mostly just trapped by dumb luck and poor decisions. The Bitcoin-related exit strategy he devises is without a doubt the nerdiest aspect of Dope and perhaps the nerdiest storyline of any movie this year. The limits of perception make the film’s definition of nerd murky, which is the exact reason it’s a subject worth broaching.
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Image via Open Road Films