How Dope rewrote coming-of-age movies for Black teens

February is Black History Month. Here, an HG contributor reflects on the 2015 feature film Dope, and how it challenged stereotypical portrayals of Black teens.

Don’t let his surroundings fool you—there’s more to high-school senior Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore) than “The Bottoms,” his neighborhood in Inglewood, California. Although he is Black, Malcolm refuses to conform to a stereotype. He doesn’t care if you think that his interests veer toward “white shit,” meaning anime, Bitcoin, alternative rock bands like TV on the Radio, and good grades in school. Although The Bottoms isn’t exactly an environment that encourages upward mobility or financial prosperity, Malcolm is determined to break free of its toxicity and violence so he can attend Harvard.

Along with his equally outsider friends, Jib and Diggy, Malcolm’s great love is old school rap, especially ’90s hip-hop. Nostalgic for a past that seems better than his present, Malcolm and his friends hit the record stores for rare vinyl and religiously pour over old VHS tapes of Yo! MTV Raps. Disavowing the flashy looks that would attract the typical hypebeast, Malcolm’s wardrobe favors Coogi-style prints and button-downs reminiscent of a De La Soul video. The flattop he sports looks every bit the Fresh Prince. Malcolm views his style, along with his taste in music, as evidence that he doesn’t belong in The Bottoms. Yet at the same time, he knows that his sense of individuality is not a direct correlation to the “authenticity” of his Blackness.

Refusing to fall for hollow tropes, Dope uses Malcolm’s narrative in a way I’d rarely seen in other teen movies, where if Black characters were even present, they were merely props. While the movie does have some questionable moments, namely in terms of how Black female characters are portrayed, Dope shows that coming-of-age stories involving Black teenagers are more than exercises in traumatic tragedies.

At the end of the day, the pains of adolescence are universal; a teen movie set in the hood doesn’t have to equate Blackness and inherent oppression.

Although Malcolm is a self-avowed geek, this is not meant to characterize him as superior to his peers. He may play guitar in a punk band and he may have a passion for the latest advancements in crypto technology, but Malcolm’s nerdy tendencies are not separate from his overall identity as a Black teen. For Malcolm, to be Black doesn’t mean he must follow a rigid checklist—it means to embrace contradictions and nuances, to realize that Blackness does not mean adhering to expectations, but disassembling them.

In one scene, Malcolm meets with his guidance counselor to discuss his college applications. Malcolm is confident that he can get into Harvard, but his guidance counselor, a cynical Black man, scoffs at Malcolm’s confidence. The guidance counselor calls his aspirations a lost cause. Despite Malcolm’s stellar grades and numerous extracurricular activities, the guidance counselor claims that Malcolm’s background works against him. He’s just another Black kid from The Bottoms, another sob story without any connections. He asks Malcolm, “Who do you think you are?”

For Malcolm, his guidance counselor’s words act as fuel to the fire. Malcolm doesn’t take the judgement as truth, but as the incorrect assumption of someone who has bought into the stereotypes surrounding Black youth living in urban areas.

Dope challenges its audience to consider that someone’s environment doesn’t necessarily dictate their future or their character.

If Malcolm is meant to be an outsider in his community, then Dom (A$AP Rocky) is his foil. Dom is the local drug dealer in a tumultuous relationship with Malcolm’s crush, Nakia. While biking home from school one day, Dom asks Malcolm to invite Nakia to his upcoming birthday party on his behalf since she isn’t speaking to him. Nakia tells Malcolm that she’ll only attend the party if he shows up, too. Malcolm enlists Diggy and Jib to go with him, but their fun is stopped short when a rival gang ambushes the club and starts shooting. Malcolm leaves with his backpack, unaware that Dom has hidden in it a gun and the molly he intended to sell.

It would be easy to write off Dom as a stereotype, a caricature even. On the contrary, Dom’s limited screen time features quick moments that disrupt viewers’ assumptions. While engaging in a drug sale at his birthday party, Dom talks with another dealer about the ethics of drones. He brings up the fact that many people who are killed by drones are bystanders, essentially caught in the right place at the wrong time. In a scene that could have bordered on parody with two drug dealers basking in bricks of molly in the darkness of a back room, Dom’s discussion about drones is an attempt to show the multiple angles of his personality—a contrast from the unsympathetic person shown moments earlier, beating a bouncer that questioned his guest list.

On the other hand, the female characters in Dope, while not entirely hollow placeholders, are mainly used to propel the plot forward and felt like afterthoughts to me. Besides her love of old school hip-hop, the defining characteristic of Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) is that she is a lesbian. Malcolm’s love interest, Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), is defined by her turbulent relationship with Dom and her looks. The audience doesn’t know much about her besides the fact that she’s studying for her GED and wants to attend community college. She’s the Unattainable Crush, a component meant to aid Malcolm’s rite of passage.

While it would be inaccurate to say that both Diggy and Nakia are tropes, they don’t have the same narrative development or nuance as Malcolm. Even Malcolm’s mom is more of a background character than a fully formed person. A single parent, Malcolm’s mom works long hours as a city bus driver. Her presence is kept to a minimum. For a movie that adamantly vows to smash anti-Black stereotypes and the perceptions of Blackness, I wanted more for the women on screen.

By the end of the movie, Malcolm ends up selling the drugs planted in his bag by using Bitcoin. He gets a large envelope from Harvard, and considering the smile that blossoms on his face after he opens it, it’s safe to assume that he was granted admission. Before his senior prom, Malcolm decides to cut off his flattop, which seems to signal closing one chapter in his life for the next. He is not another statistic and despite the doubters, he knows himself very well.

Dope’s conclusion serves as a bookend, doubling down on the notion that Blackness—and by extension, Black coming-of-age experiences—must only be about crime, violence, and the inner city. While it does fall a little short with its depictions of female characters, Dope succeeds in showing that Blackness and Black people are not a monolith. For Malcolm, Blackness is never a matter of choosing sides. It is an exercise in endless possibility.