“I understand the codes these hackers can’t crack.”
-Rick Ross, “Freemasons”
Dope (2015, d. Rick Famuyiwa,) is the coming-of-age story of Malcolm, an African American teen from the Bottoms, a low-income neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. The film opens by telling us that Malcolm, and his two best friends—a queer, African American woman named Diggy (Keirsey Clemons) and a young South Asian man named Jib (Tony Revelori)—are routinely accused of “doing white things.” They even have a band called the Awreeohs (pronounced “Oreos”), presumably because they are dark on the outside and white on the inside. The charge of “acting white” works well as a joke because African Americans realize the charge is facetious. Black comedians—like Eddie Murphy in his famous whiteface skit—routinely satirize the hypothetical advantages of being white. But few African Americans want to be, or even act “white”: most want what they have always fought for—the freedom to be themselves while fostering broader access to social mobility.
They also want to help liberate their people and unlock the data–intelligence–information crucial to social mobility, a project that drives the plot of this film. Dope opens with a lecture about the benefits of cryptocurrency at a time when sovereignty seems especially vexed. Malcolm has a penchant for squeezing “black boy joy” from his consummate geekiness and he deploys the methods and insights of hackers to realize his ambitions. In “Free Masons,” his theoretical meditation on white supremacy—on conspiracies, and autodidacticism—the Boss, Rick Ross brags about knowing “codes these hackers can’t crack.” But it’s the hacker’s code—and strategic framework—that prepares Malcolm to transform himself and his life chances even though he started from the Bottoms.
Malcolm’s hacker quest is, naturally, an epic romance. It all begins when the neighborhood drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) asks him to play Cyrano de Bergerac in his effort to court Nakia (Zoë Kravitz). Dom invites Nakia to his birthday party via Malcolm. Nakia, in turn, invites Malcolm. Malcolm invites Diggy and Jib and although they initially have reservations about “going to a drug dealer’s birthday party”—at a nightclub, no less—they go, anyway. Jib gets wasted, Diggy charms a beautiful older woman, and Nakia flirts with Malcolm before being blocked by Dom. The party ends in a hail of gunfire when federal agents raid the club. Dom helps Malcolm escape but not before stuffing a handgun and several kilos of MDMA into his backpack. What follows is a complicated series of events: Malcom and the other Awreeohs receive mysterious phone calls, get involved in a high-speed bicycle chase, and are only saved when they use Apple surveillance technology against their adversaries by ditching a contraband iPhone on a city bus.
All this action takes place the same day Malcolm is scheduled for an interview with a Harvard alum, part of Malcolm’s application process. Before he can get to his appointment, an afternoon of shenanigans ensues involving drugs and guns and (almost) sex. Malcolm barely makes his interview, only to discover that his alum interviewer is AJ, the very drug dealer that Dom works for: a man from the Bottoms who made his fortune in predatory lending schemes. Instead of the MDMA, AJ now wants $100,000 for lost merchandise, and Malcolm has to figure out how to get it to him.
Using his pristine reputation as a resource, Malcolm concocts a scheme to use his high school as a drug factory. The science room is their laboratory. The band room is their fulfillment center. Staff of this poorly funded school remain oblivious to his drug enterprise. As cover, Malcolm secures permission to participate in a Google Science Fair.
Malcolm’s first conversation with Dom is a crucial character reveal—both for Malcolm and the film itself. Malcolm confesses that he and his friends wish they were from the 90s, the golden age of hip hop. Hip hop and hacking share many similarities. People are drawn into these arenas because they are estranged or marginalized—whether because they are low income (as in the early days of rap) or because they are marginal to hierarchies of adolescent conformity (as is the case with many hackers). Both enterprises involve solitary hours spent cultivating the craft. Hackers spend countless hours creating code, and hip hop’s most celebrated DJs mix and meld genres, and emcees fill countless composition notebooks with “codes these hackers can’t crack.” (In fact, Ricky Rozay’s witty wordplay is a pun—the age of “crack” is the golden age of hip hop. Pusha T, for instance, claims his relationship to the drug game, “started with Similac powder in a baby bottle.”)
Both hip hop artists and hackers sport hoodies as attire, suitable for long hours on the grind. The penchant for many hackers to stay locked in—listening to music when they code, especially 90s hip hop—might fittingly close the conceptual circle that Dope theorizes: that hip hop and hacking are overlapping cultures and attitudes; that hackers, like hip hop artists, thrive on consistently finding clever ways to use their virtuosity—their technique—to interrogate and expand possibilities for social mobility.
This connection manifests in Malcolm’s strategy for moving weight. He takes to the Dark Web. Camouflaging his IP address, and setting up a cryptocurrency payment platform, Malcolm generates more than $100,000 selling the stash. On top of that, as he reveals in his final interview, Malcolm also hacked into AJ’s corporate records, routed the cryptocurrency payments to his corporate account, and used his shipping labels to supply customers. Malcolm frees himself from the kingpin’s clutches, updates his business model, and earns his respect.
Malcolm and his friends explicitly reference the hacktivists, Lulzsec (an offshoot of Anonymous) as a testament to the hacker prowess they seek to cultivate. But perhaps the most illuminating moment in the hackers-as-rappers argument this film develops involves a visual homage to Aaron Swartz. In the scene where Malcolm’s co-conspirator Will breaks into AJ’s server room, director Famuyiwa recreates the angle and movements of the security footage of the late Swartz breaking into an MIT server room to liberate the contents of the academic journal database, JSTOR. Swartz, famously, was hit with a federal indictment and took his own life. Dope’s homage to Swartz is a reminder that state violence comes in many forms, where contraband is not merely about illicit narcotics but also refers to what rapper Freddie Gibbs calls “computer work.”