On (& off) Categories, no. 2: #DOPEMOVIE

It’s been a tumultuous week of categorical work. In particular, categorical work having to do with race in America — a persistent division that engenders institutional violence, that surfaces with sudden and vociferous violence on the worst of days. Then, a film like DOPE comes along, and shows how tragedy and struggle are intertwined with something persistently hopeful; how even when pushed by the weight of institutions — from the school, to city politics, to the neighborhood, to the street — people can resist types, can be-multiple when that doesn’t seem possible.

Echoed in Pharrell’s commentary here (from the film’s behind-the-scenes publicity), and in director Rick Famuyiwa’s origin story of the movie, it is about ‘black geeks’, where ‘geek’ stands in for ‘being interested in stuff I’m not supposed to be interested in’ — like getting good grades, Donald Glover, and other ‘white people stuff’. Effectively, ‘black geek’ becomes a codeword for being-multiple: being able to resist categorizational force, and to embrace multiple ways of belonging in complex worlds.

Dope gives its characters a lot of credit for having that ability — and rightly so. Being able to creatively combine belongings access to multiple worlds allows the protagonist to invert the societal and storyline problems that trap him into one seemingly inescapable pathway, into a solution that brings him out of it. In a few sequences, Famuyiwa (with excellent work by DP Rachel Morrison and editor Lee Haugen) addresses this multiplicity head on — like a couple conversations about who’s allowed to use the n-word, and a voice-over in which the main character directly challenges the audience/Harvard admissions committee to think about their own tendencies to categorize someone like him (evoking, apart from the cinematic references to John Hughes and John Singleton noted by other reviewers, a bit of Do the Right Thing). None of these character voices are prescriptive; more like how Spike Lee and John Hughes deploy their characters, these ask us to recognize the complexity in a world that might be in some ways a familiar stereotype, and in other ways totally unknown.

A film like this gives me hope, though measured. It brings to a public life the narrative that Pharrell repeatedly identifies as his own storyline — going from outsider to leader in the way he is passionate about his vocation, though he may still struggle with not being defined by ‘blackness’. It points to circumstances, environments, and encounters that create the possibilities for diversity and connection, rather than relying on the safe ‘types’ that populate most cinema, and make it easy to demographically target. Which is why I was so utterly disappointed to see this film, in the theater, prefaced by a set of trailers which were undoubtedly pitched to a ‘black’ audience: Straight Outta Compton and The Perfect Guy, among others. I suppose the distributors see a film populated with ‘black’ characters in a ‘black’ neighborhood, and it becomes a ‘black’ film. I hope that it can be seen as much more than that — a film about what breaking categories could mean in a messily diverse world.

** Check back on Installment no. 1