Hollywood Gives Its Black Geek a Promotion

Bloomberg View , October 21, 2015

Andy Weir’s "The Martian," the novel on which the hit movie is based, offers almost no physical description of its characters. It reflects the nerd value code: What people think and do matters. What they look like doesn’t.

So all that readers find out about Rich Purnell, the astrodynamicist who concocts a brilliant maneuver to rescue the stranded astronaut Mark Watney, is that he isn’t good with people and is a work-obsessed slob: “His cubicle was a landfill of printouts, charts, and reference books. Empty coffee cups rested on every surface; take-out packaging littered the ground.”

The movie naturally made him black.

The black geek is hardly a real-world stereotype, but he’s a stock character in Hollywood. The type goes back to Barney Collier (Greg Morris) in the 1960s television series "Mission: Impossible," although it’s now more common in movies than TV shows. Ving Rhames picked up the "Mission: Impossible" slot as Luther Stickell in the movie franchise. Ludacris fills the part in the "Fast and Furious" movies. Samuel L. Jackson played it in the original "Jurassic Park." Don Cheadle’s explosives master held it in the "Ocean’s" movies. Even the German bad guys in the original "Die Hard" used a black guy (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) as their tech expert.

The best-known version is LeVar Burton’s character of Geordi La Forge in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." True to the type, in seven seasons Geordi had only two romantic relationships and, Burtoncomplained to the web publication io9’s Charlie Jane Anders: “One was with an entity that was actually a monster. And the other was with a holographic representation of the woman who designed the Enterprise engines.” Not exactly inspiring.

The black geek is never the protagonist. He may be brilliant, but he’s essentially part of the equipment. Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) is the ideal type: He appears, ingeniously solves a technical problem, and disappears. He’s the perfect nerd, a brainiac with no back story and no personal life. It’s casting that could pass muster in 1966, respectful but other. It’s casting as set decoration.

Malcolm Arakanbe is not that kind of geek. The protagonist of the delightful coming-of-age film "Dope," newly released on DVD and streaming services, Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a quirky, earnest, handsome, creative, libidinous teenager growing up in a rough Inglewood, California, neighborhood. As the rare movie that knowledgeably and sympathetically portrays smart kids who actually want to be smart, "Dope" would be significant even if it were set safely in the white suburbia of John Hughes. But portraying black geeks as multidimensional heroes on gangster turf is a radical move. It upends conventions about teenage comedies, about black characters, and, like "The Martian," about whether a nerd can carry a picture.

Make no mistake about it, Malcolm is a bona fide geek, recognizable to anyone who knows (or is) the type. From the character’s first line, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s script knowingly captures a teenage nerd’s irrepressible urge to share information and correct error. “I just read that money as we know it is dead,” Malcolm tells his bus driver mom as he sits down to breakfast. “Soon the world is going to buy and sell products using Bitcoins. It’s like a complicated math equation.” Mom is skeptical, but Malcolm thinks Bitcoin is “dope,” cool.

When drug dealer Dom (A$ap Rocky) stumps his crew by asking if anyone can define “slippery slope,” Malcolm is standing nearby. He mumbles the definition, leading an impressed Dom to conclude that he must have “one of them photogenic brains.” Danger! “You mean photographic memory?” Malcolm responds without thinking. He safely backtracks by claiming that he was just “reiterating” what Dom said. Nerds use words like “reiterating” without considering them weird.

They also have to put up with authority figures who don’t appreciate their unique intelligence or their ambition. For his college application, Malcolm wants to submit an essay titled, “A Research Thesis to Discover Ice Cube’s Good Day,” reflecting his fanatical devotion to 1990s hip-hop. “It’s well reasoned, supported with historical data; it shows creativity, critical thinking,” he tells his guidance counselor. “If Neil deGrasse Tyson was writing about Ice Cube, this is what it would look like.”

Malcolm yearns to demonstrate that he’s special, original, different. The counselor urges him to write about his life, sticking to cliches about growing up in a crime-filled neighborhood with a single mother. He berates Malcolm as “arrogant” for aspiring to Harvard -- a line Famuyiwa, who went to the USC film school, took from his own Inglewood experience. Malcolm may be a bona fide geek, but it matters where he comes from. A guidance counselor on the Westside or in the San Gabriel Valley wouldn’t survive by advising low expectations.

Along with old-school hip-hop culture, Malcolm and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) share common passions for punk rock, comic books, and beautiful, unattainable women. (“Did I mention that Diggy is a lesbian?”) They aren’t into drugs or gangs and are trying to stay safely low-profile until they can go to college. But curiosity and lust draw them into dangerous circumstances, and they find themselves having to unload a huge haul of the club drug Molly -- preferably without having to hitchhike to Coachella.

Both Famuyiwa and reviewers have compared "Dope" to an updated version of "Risky Business," the 1983 teen movie that made Tom Cruise a star. But the risks are much greater in "Dope." Unlike Cruise’s Joel Goodsen or the partying USC students to whom they sell drugs, Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy have little margin for error. They’re in constant danger of making one life-destroying bad decision or, like a fellow geek shot while waiting for a hamburger, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

They survive not because they’re tough -- although Malcolm turns out to be harder than he looks -- but because they’re smart. Trapped in an impossible, potentially deadly situation, they, like "The Martian’s" stranded astronaut, use ingenuity and technical skills to find a way out. "Dope," like "The Martian," celebrates geeks. But in this case, the black guy gets to be the hero.