Aight. I just came from checkin’ out Dope; that new joint from Rick Famuyiwa. When I first saw the preview, it looked like The Wood meets Go. Funny, cuz I ain’t even know the same dude wrote and directed The Wood, at first. After peepin’ the actual film, I’d say you could add to the mix Superbad and the rebooted Jump Street franchise. And don’t think I ain’t notice the score hollerin’ back to classics like Juice. Yeah, that’s it. Juice. Dope was like a big ol’ coming-of-age smoothie from Jamba Juice, or something. But instead of adding a shot of wheat germ or vitamin whatever for energy boost, you add a shot of Crown…for blackness. Or maybe it ain’t so much a smoothie but more like a Dockberry shake. You can still chase it with Crown, tho.
This movie comes down to identity. A bunch of times in the flick, Malcolm is asked who he is. His usual response: “I’m just Malcolm.” That answer ain’t good enough in most cases except with his boo thang hopeful, Nakia. From credits to credits, Malcolm either has to be someone that he isn’t, or someone that he doesn’t want to be in different situations. Straight survival mode. When with his best friends, Diggy and Jib, he’s probably closest to the ‘himself’ he wants to be. With Nakia? Malcolm’s like a little kid. Possibly the teenager he would be if he wasn’t from “The Bottoms”, Inglewood, California.
The goings on of his neighborhood make sure he keeps his guard up constantly and is able to move between the different environments. If he’s caught slippin’, he could lose a Jordan, a spot at Harvard, or even his life. Nakia sees Malcolm for who he is and who he could be. It’s when they’re alone together that we see his window of self preservation roll down a bit and his vulnerability seep through the crack. He even tells her not to fall into the trap of being what folks expect. Selling one’s self short is all too easy, where they’re from. Malcolm makes it clear that he’s “not like these other niggas.” But as soon as Malcolm thinks Nakia isn’t taking him seriously, he rolls that window back up and – “bloop bloop” – sets the alarm. Wearing masks is part of the performance. It’s how he and his friends–and arguably black folks as a whole–get along in life. Just like Dope uses the mask of comedy to discuss “real” issues of black communities, it ruins the image and the style that you’re used to.
Famuyiwa is a set-up artist. From jump, we see the main trio at the record shop and we learn something that isn’t all that obvious about one of them. Later, we get confirmation about another one–a mini-reveal that had me like, “Yeah, that’s what I thought. I knew I wasn’t crazy,” but I put a pin in it because I could relate to this group of friends. But then the movie told me how I was wrong. See, when I’m introduced to these kids I expect them to be a certain way. Even when they switch it up and, say, rock out as the punk band, The Awreeohs (pronounced like a certain vegan friendly cookie), there’s still a different set of stereotypes I expect them to embody. Because that’s what I need. I use my assumptions about the characters to fill in the gaps of their narrative that I haven’t learned yet. But when a film subverts my expectation, it illustrates the ways in which I, and society at large, constantly and incorrectly categorize people, especially by race, class, and circumstance.
When Malcolm’s advisor says, “Who do you think you are?” trying to knock him down a peg for wanting to attend Harvard, the advisor is me. Every time I walk up to a group of teenage boys who are wearing their pants sagging down to their knees–maybe even rolling up some weed–but who also say “excuse me, sir” and step to the side as I walk past, that’s on me for being surprised they would show me respect. Dope flashes that vanity mirror back at me to remind me that I was a “complicated” kid just like Malcolm, even though he doesn’t realize it through much of the film. I played chess in the cafeteria during lunch and played basketball with drug dealers and gang members after school. I wasn’t a part of either one group or the other; I was part of both.
With that in mind, I recognized the moment that Malcolm realizes himself. Some may say it’s when he erases his Harvard application about Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” and writes an essay on par with that of the MIT gambling protege from 21. Or even when he confronts the man who turns out to be the actual villain of the film. No. For me, it’s before that. It’s when Malcolm reaches his lowest rung of desperation. He’s one errand away from getting out of “debt” and almost loses it all because of a high school bully. We learn in this moment, in a darkly ironic turn, just how far Malcolm is willing to go to not become just another nigga from The Bottoms. He is already perceived as such but refuses to let it become his reality.
*pulls hoodie onto head*
“You got da juice now, dog.”