When President Obama was elected for the first time in 2008, it had a psychological impact on the black American community independent of any of his policies or official acts. Here was someone succeeding publicly at the very highest level, someone who was authentically and unapologetically black, yet whose entire persona was counter to prevalent stereotypes of American black identity.
I remember often, in the pre-Obama years, having the experience of speaking with another black person (particularly another black male) and gradually becoming aware that here was a powerful intellect, heavily concealed. Outside of sitcom Family Matter’s arch-nerd Urkel (and a handful of academics like Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates), blackness and intellectual achievement were utterly divorced in the popular cultural consciousness. After the election of Obama, however, a figure composed in equal parts of coolness and intelligence, it was as though black intellectuals all over were coming out of their closets, finally able to proudly display their advanced vocabularies without pretending to stumble over their words.
At the same time, the stereotype of the black youth as an undifferentiated sullen, crude and thuggish mass began to break apart, and you suddenly started seeing new figures you hadn’t seen before –black nerds and hipsters, science fiction buffs and anime fans, punk rockers, folkies, and country music stars. The connection in this case is a bit harder to trace, but in my view it goes a bit like this: For a long time, with ample justification, black Americans felt like aliens in hostile territory, even in the nation they built. As a result of living under Cold War conditions, black Americans developed a “with us or against us” outlook, that viewed with suspicion any affection for the objects of mainstream white culture as signs of selling out and joining “the enemy.” This sense of being forced to pick sides was especially acute among the youth, who embraced a self-destructive vision of black identity that ironically was manufactured and endlessly reinforced by the mainstream media.
When Obama was elected, it was far –as we have seen –from the end of racial problems in America, but it did bring a visible end to the widespread belief this was a country in which a black man (or woman) could only advance so far and no farther, regardless of merit. I, myself, did not believe, right up until the moment of his inauguration, that the nation would actually allow a black person to survive to ascend to the highest office in the land.
For at least a brief shining moment, it looked as though blacks and whites were no longer at war in this country, and that detente brought about an opportunity for people to no longer be stereotypically black without fear of aligning themselves against their own community. Overnight, it became OK to be black and a Beatles fan –it might not mean that you had forgotten how much the Beatles owed to black music, but rather that you had remembered.
It’s in that context that I place a movie like “DOPE,” the recent hit comedy-drama about three geeky black (or at least “blackish”) kids growing up in inner-city Los Angeles. It is one of a vibrant new wave of black-directed, stereotype-defying movies that have come out in recent years, also including Justin Simien’s “Dear White People,” Chris Rock’s “Top 5” and Spike Lee’s “Chi-raq.”
One of the movie’s subtlest jokes is that many of the things that the heroes enjoy that cause them to be perceived as “white wannabes” are actually products of black American culture, from Donald Glover to 90’s hip hop. Even their beloved punk rock turns out to have black roots if you look hard enough. It isn’t that these aren’t valid elements of black culture –they just don’t match with prevailing stereotypes.
DOPE isn’t a perfect film, but I applaud its willingness to be true to itself, no matter what other people expect it to be –just like its main characters. For one thing, it’s a film about smart, ambitious young black people that doesn’t end in a tragic bloodbath. That may buck a trend that extends from Cooley High to Higher Learning, but I, for one, am glad to see a film break such bold new ground.