“Malcolm is a geek.”
Aisha Harris is a Slate culture writer and host of the Slate podcast Represent.
That’s the first thing we hear from the narrator about Malcolm (Shameik Moore), the hero of Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, the coming-of-age indie that premiered at Sundance this year and opens in theaters Friday. The line underscores a scene in which Malcolm eagerly explains the concept of bitcoin to his mom, but that’s just the tip of the nerdberg. He and his best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) are, in present day, obsessed with ’90s hip-hop music and styles (Malcolm wears his hair in a hi-top fade) and have their own band in which they sing about getting good grades. He has his sights set on Harvard, and his application essay sees him geeking out on pinning down the exact date of Ice Cube’s “good day.” We soon learn how much Malcolm and his friends stick out from their neighbors in the predominantly black and Latino Inglewood, California, in what’s known as “the Bottoms,” a notoriously bleak and violent neighborhood, and at their underfunded school. Thanks in part to his geekhood, Malcolm finds himself entangled in a drug deal between a local kingpin and a crooked business owner.
Ultimately Dope slyly undermines Malcolm’s internalized notions about blackness.
Ah, the black geek. (Or “nerd”—whichever you prefer.) Like pretty much any cultural mode associated with blackness, it’s complicated. In the 1980s, the black geek could fall under the broader umbrella of what Trey Ellis, in a celebrated 1989 essay, termed the “New Black Aesthetic,” or NBA for short—a demographic of young black intellectuals who walked the line between traditionally white and traditionally black worlds; wearing “little, round glasses, and short, neat dreads” while in bookstores, liking “both Jim and Toni Morrison.” The NBA as he described it was a “post-bourgeois movement; driven by a second-generation of middle class”—i.e., Spike Lee, the fictional Cosby family, Chuck D. (In this regard Malcolm doesn’t fit in, considering his geekhood flowers in a poor, dangerous neighborhood.) In more recent years the black geek has become a little bit cool, symbolized, intentionally or not, by the likes of Barack Obama, Donald Glover, and Issa Rae.
Glover, who openly celebrates his identity as a black nerd, has defined such an existence as being into “strange, specific stuff.” The term itself is a bit awkward, succumbing to the notion that geek- or nerdhood is, by default, representative of whiteness. This naturally lends itself to the notion that to be a black geek is to be into things that white people are into, which in turn unfurls an entirely loaded, incredibly tricky conversation about what it means to be black. At best that discussion yields the conclusion that black geeks of all types are a tangible, very invested demographic whose attention is worth courting and whose stories are worth telling. At worst the black geek gets identified as a modern-day “exceptional negro,” a smarter, more “unique” type, set apart from your average black stereotype who only listens to rap, thinks school is whack, and dreams of becoming (or marrying) a professional basketball player.
Through a genre-hopping premise (the film is John Hughes meets the Coen brothers meets Boyz N the Hood, with a dash of Porky’sthrown in), Dope dives headfirst into these complexities, and it certainly seems at first as though its attempts to define its protagonist will stick him in an old, familiar box. Straight out of the gate, the narrator—the voice is Forest Whitaker’s—breaks down what exactly makes the trio “black geeks,” complete with a visual checklist of unsurprising affinities that include skateboarding, manga, Glover, and TV on the Radio—plus engaging in typical “white people activities” like getting good grades and applying to college.
It’s not just our narrator who emphasizes Malcolm’s differences; Malcolm himself repeatedly positions himself against all of the other black people around him. After presenting his Ice Cube–themed college essay to his guidance counselor, he’s told that he needs to write something personal about himself, because his excellent GPA isn’t going to matter to admissions counselors who’ll only see his failing school system. Malcolm is resistant—he has no desire to write about being raised by a single mother, never having known his father, and living in the hood. “It’s cliché,” he protests. And following a party that gets broken up by gunfire, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), the cool girl of his dreams, thanks him for helping her get out safely. “Those other niggas” were just running over her to get out of the way, she says, flirtatiously. That’s what makes him different, he tells her. “Guess I’m just used to hearing, ‘Niggas don’t listen to this,’ ‘Niggas don’t go to college unless they play ball,’ ” he adds sheepishly. “Guess I’m just not one of ‘those niggas.’ ”
To be clear, Malcolm doesn’t intend for such statements to sound off-putting. (It’s to the credit of the young actor who plays him, Moore, that the character always comes off as charming, even when Famuyiwa writes him as kind of a jerk.) But Malcolm does seem to have internalized the mythology that black geeks like him privilege education and advancement far more than nongeek blacks—a notion that has been proven to be grossly overemphasized. It’s a familiar trope that’s been played out in recent years especially, as the rise of the black nerd has come to dominate discussions about black culture in general. Sometimes it’s subtle: A Vulture piece from earlier this year explored the increasing number of black comedians who take a more “ruminative” and “oddball” approach to humor in contrast to the bawdy humor of Eddie Murphy and Def Comedy Jam. In it, comic Jermaine Fowler told reporter E. Alex Jung, “I was the black kid in school who’d skate and wrestle, who was really into outer space and botany and kung fu and hip-hop. I was into everything.” At other times it’s completely devoid of nuance, as with a 2012 CNN article that defined black nerdhood as “a way to describe African-American intellectuals in a time when it’s finally cool to be something other than an athlete or rapper.”
We’ve seen the trope in pop culture, of course. One of the most persistent and widespread purveyors of the “niggas don’t listen to this” mantra was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In that sitcom, the sweater-wearing, Tom Jones–loving Carlton Banks was repeatedly subjected to the blackness litmus test by Will Smith over the course of six seasons, starting with the very first episode:
Carlton: That’s a really neat tux, isn’t it, Will?
Will: Oh yes, it’s definitely the cat’s meow.
Carlton: Wait till we come downstairs in those tuxes. People may not think we’re twins, but I bet they’ll think we’re brothers.
Will: You know what? I don’t think you have to worry about anyone mistaking you for a brother.
Refreshingly, Dope doesn’t actually wind up promoting toxic ideas about a lack of diversity and nuance within black culture; ultimately the movie slyly undermines Malcolm’s internalized notions about blackness. We hear Malcolm’s ideas about what a special snowflake this black geek is, but we, the audience, never witness them in action. He and his friends are picked on by some particularly rough kids at school but only because Malcolm’s shoe size matches that of the ringleader bully, who tries to steal his Jordans. The school’s gruff security officer wishes him luck on his SATs. And charismatic drug dealer Dom (ASAP Rocky) takes a liking to Malcolm, using his inoffensive geek persona as an asset for his own personal gain on more than one occasion. (Dom, despite his hood persona, is also an intellectual of sorts himself, as we see in a conversation he has with a fellow dealer about the U.S.’s drone program.) In Dope, not only can’t the black nerd be pigeonholed—neither can his neighbors, no matter how gang-ridden and poverty-stricken the neighborhood may be.
This doesn’t mean that in the world of Dope, a character like Malcolm would never be accused of “acting white,” but it does mean that his perception of how people view him is vastly different from the reality. I can relate: I too was a black geek. (In many ways, I still am.) During the late ’90s and early ’00s, I was usually the only black kid (or one of very few) in my honors classes, and my “strange, specific stuff” included Turner Classic Movies and channeling my inner Weird Al by writing minimusicals with made-up lyrics to the tunes of popular Disney songs. I too fought hard to prove to people that I wasn’t like those other black kids. I was unique.
I eventually wised up and saw the harm in internalizing such ideals, and by the end of the film, Malcolm does too: In a powerful montage, he reads aloud his newly rewritten college essay, in which he presents the many facets of his life—getting straight As, playing in a band, encountering powerful drug pushers—as the work of two hypothetical students, one from the suburbs, one from the hood. “So why do I want to attend Harvard?” he writes at essay’s end. “If I was white, would you even have to ask me that question?”
It’s a bittersweet but ultimately empowering moment. On the one hand Malcolm knows that much of society may look at him and where he’s from and still make stereotypical assumptions no matter how successful he becomes. Yet the tone is far from defeatist; Malcolm ends the film a wiser, more confident young man than he was at the beginning, having proven to himself that he can play the many tricky, unfair aspects of life—namely, assumptions about race and class—to his advantage. It echoes the voices heard in Trey Ellis’ “New Black Aesthetic” essay, in which Ellis quotes the filmmaker Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle): “I wasn’t listening when everybody told me about the obstacles.” Ellis adds, in a passage that feels very appropriate to this complex coming-of-age indie comedy: “So he took the dominant culture’s credit cards and clobbered it with a film.”
e was Malcolm Little when he was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz when he fell in a fusillade of bullets on Feb. 21, 1965, in New York City. In the relatively few years in between, he was Detroit Red, Satan and Malcolm X. Now, 27 years after his assassination, his complicated life has been refracted through the prisms of history and myth, confirming him as a compelling political presence but leaving conflicting interpretations of his legacy.
In his new film "Malcolm X," which opens on Wednesday, the director Spike Lee traces the black leader's dramatic evolution, from impoverished child, hustler and thief to convict to angry spokesman of the Nation of Islam contemptuous of "blue-eyed white devils" and, finally, after a pilgrimage to Mecca, to the powerful humanist who used his rhetorical gift to repudiate racial exclusivity before being gunned down at the age of 39. The film stars Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, Angela Bassett as his wife, Betty Shabazz, and Al Freeman Jr. as Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam.
"Malcolm X," 3 hours and 21 minutes in length, takes its audiences from the rural poverty of 1920's Nebraska to the tough streets of Roxbury in Boston and Harlem in New York, inside the strict world of the Black Muslims and to the holy land of the Middle East. The screenplay, which embodies Lee's vision of Malcolm X, is based on an adaptation of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," written with Alex Haley and published in 1965.
Because Malcolm X had so many facets and stoked the passions of so many people, portraying his legacy would present a challenge to any film maker. Apprehensions about Lee's portrayal set a brushfire of controversy even before filming started last year. The poet Amiri Baraka, who criticized the project before he had seen the script, said it would be a distortion of Malcolm X's life "to make middle-class Negroes sleep easier." Some critics voiced concern that Lee would focus too much on the black leader's days as a hustler or, worse, make him seem in the end like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Others suggest that subsequent writings have revealed important inaccuracies in the autobiography and that a script that follows the book would leave audiences with an erroneous portrait.
But the trials of presenting Malcolm X on film did not begin with Lee but in 1968, when a screenplay by James Baldwin and Arnold Perl was commissioned by Marvin Worth, a producer who had acquired rights to the autobiography. Since then, the project has been beset by battles over such issues as Hollywood's readiness to deal with so controversial a leader, which phase of his ideological development to highlight and whether a white director -- Norman Jewison, in this case -- could do justice to the subject.
Lee says that his film does not glorify any one phase of the black leader's development but rather looks at "all the different Malcolms as making up one Malcolm."
"I know he was constantly evolving; I like the total evolution, the many transformations he made, because all of those together made Malcolm," he said recently at a midtown Manhattan hotel, adding that he realized that "there is a specific Malcolm some hold dear more than the other parts of Malcolm. Baraka and nationalists want their own Malcolm; the Nation of Islam definitely don't want you to push the Malcolm after he left the Nation of Islam. People just pick and choose what Malcolm fits their own personal agenda or own political beliefs."
"Malcolm X" comes in the wake of such historical epics as Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi" (1982), Alan Parker's "Mississippi Burning" (1988), Roland Joffe's "Fat Man and Little Boy" (1989) and Oliver Stone's "J.F.K.," which appeared last year. Increasingly, and most notably with "J.F.K.," the mixing of fact and fiction, especially in the service of explaining seminal events of our times, has raised serious questions about film makers' responsibility to the historic record.
Like those directors, Lee used the material of history selectively in an effort to tell a compelling tale. He shunned certain accounts of events that were at odds with Malcolm X's own account, specifically those set out by Bruce Perry in his 1991 book, "Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America."
In one of several places in which Perry's and Malcolm X's versions of events differ, the autobiography tells how Malcolm's mother, pregnant with him, confronted Ku Klux Klansmen when they surrounded the family's house in Omaha, looking for Malcolm's father, Earl Little. But according to an interview Malcolm's mother gave Perry, the incident never happened. While both the autobiography and Lee portray Little as a political militant who was martyred by white racists, Perry depicts him as a violent man who beat his wife and children and died when he was run over by a moving streetcar as he tried to board.
Perry also suggests that a fire at Malcolm X's home in Queens one morning in 1965, as his wife and four young daughters lay asleep, may have been set by the black leader himself and not, as he publicly insisted, by the Black Muslims.
"I don't believe it," Lee said of Perry's book. The film maker said his own historical interpretation was formed not only by the autobiography but by independent research, including interviews he conducted with Malcolm X's relatives and Black Muslims who were close to him. He also used information provided by Paul Lee, who Lee described as an astute scholar of Malcolm X who served as a technical consultant on the film. "Malcolm loved his family," said Lee. "Why jeopardize the lives of your wife and children by setting your own house on fire while the children are sleeping?"
Perhaps even more important than the biographical details is the legend of a man who, even in death, exerts extraordinary influence over generations who honor his memory. Clearly, Malcolm X has gained wider approval than he had during his lifetime, but sharp debate continues over what his legacy is -- or should be -- with people of competing ideologies claiming to be the rightful heir to his political philosophy.
Betty Shabazz, his widow, considers him a "person for all seasons," one whose message was sometimes misunderstood. Dr. Shabazz, who is director of communications and public relations at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, served as a consultant on Lee's film.
"He said freedom by whatever means necessary to bring about a situation where members of the African diaspora were respected and treated as human beings wherever they reside," she said recently. "A lot of people didn't like that and said 'freedom by whatever means necessary' is violence.
"No, it's not violence. It's a comprehensive statement that says use more than one option. It could be political, social, educational, or it could be self-defense." It is those who refuse to include blacks in the "human family," she said, who are violent and who "attempt to superimpose their perverted thinking, their negative thinking, their violent thinking, their unrighteous thinking on my husband."
For the writer and historian Paula Giddings, the enduring legend of Malcolm X is embodied by the man who had a "tremendous capacity to change" his views to encompass "a much more sophisticated vision about race in the global context and a much more sophisticated vision about gender, to a much more emancipatory view of women." It is this Malcolm X who broke with Elijah Muhammad and, in a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, learned that Islam could embrace people of all races. On his return, he renounced racism and took the Islamic name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Yet many young African-Americans champion a different Malcolm X, the one who was a fiery Black Muslim minister. And they view Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, as the ideological heir to the ideals of black moral superiority and economic self-reliance espoused by Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad. Radical rap artists, prophets of rage who echo the teachings of the Nation of Islam, have revived the ideas and, through sampling, sometimes the recorded voice of this Malcolm, putting the questions of cultural nationalism and violence-versus-nonviolence to a new generation of militants.
"He made history while he was Minister Malcolm, following the leadership of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad," said Kam, a 23-year-old Los Angeles rapper whose first album, "Never Again," will be released by East-West/Atlantic early next year.
"That's the only Malcolm I can say I personally respect, not the man who left the Nation of Islam," said Kam, who typifies many rappers with their serious ideas and combative attitudes. "The same thing that attracts me to Malcolm attracts me today to Minister Farrakhan: the truth, uncut and raw, the discipline, the sacrifice, the uncompromising stand and the love for black people.
"Malcolm was an eloquent speaker, and he stirred up the country. He was speaking about action, but people in his time weren't with that. Today we ain't with nothing else; we ain't with no talking, we want action. We were born for action."
But there is another school of thought. Swayzack, a rapper with the Goats, a Philadelphia group that records for Ruffhouse Records, said that he believes all of Malcolm's phases of development were "valuable" in making him the man he ultimately became. Young people attracted solely to "Minister Malcolm" are ignorant of his political evolution, he said.
"Kids running around with X hats and everything, they don't know the half of it," said Swayzack. "They look to Malcolm X as a hero but stifle themselves by not knowing the truth of the man. They wear Malcolm X hats but carry 9-millimeters and shoot other brothers."
To James H. Cone, a theologian and author of "Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare," Malcolm X's racial pride and strength of character defined the consciousness of many African-Americans.
"Malcolm's legacy is on the inside," said Dr. Cone, whose 1991 book shows how the visions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were converging in their final years. "It is blacks renaming themselves from Negro to black to African-American. He was a cultural revolutionary who transformed the way in which black people thought about themselves. He revolutionized the black mind by reorienting them into a deep appreciation of the African cultural heritage, showing black people that you cannot hate Africa and not end up hating yourself."
With so many faces of Malcolm to be taken into account, how can a film maker hope to do justice to his legacy? Lee also refers to Malcolm X in his previous works, such as at the end of his third film, "Do the Right Thing," in which he juxtaposes quotes by Malcolm X and King. He said it was his intent in the new movie to leave audiences with "the Malcolm that is alive today," adding, "All of them are alive."
Thus, while the film depicts the assassination of Malcolm X, the final images are of schoolchildren and the South African black nationalist Nelson Mandela in present-day Soweto, the black township that symbolizes the political conflicts in apartheid. One by one, the children stand and say proudly, "I am Malcolm."
"We make the connection between Soweto and Harlem, Nelson and Malcolm, and what Malcolm talked about -- pan-Africanism, trying to build these bridges between people of color," Lee said. "He is alive in children in classrooms in Harlem, in classrooms in Soweto."
To some heirs of the Malcolm X legacy, this is the most enduring inheritance of all.