Saturday, September 19, 2020

Boyz N the Hood

Director John Singleton

Singleton on the set with actor Laurence Fishburne (right)

Singleton with actor Ice Cube (left)

Left to right, Singleton with actors Cuba Gooding Jr, Ice Cube, and Morris Chestnut 

Left to right, Singleton with actors Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr. 

Regina King (far left), Ice Cube (left to right), John Singleton, and Cuba Gooding Jr. 

Director John Singleton

BOYZ N THE HOOD           A-                   
USA  (112 mi)  1991  d:  John Singleton

Spike Lee’s universally acclaimed  Do the Right Thing (1989) may have introduced the everyday world of black lives into mainstream America, personified by the infamous opening dance montage by the incomparable Rosie Perez to the thundering Public Enemy hip-hop anthem “Fight the Power,” Do the Right Thing (1989) opening credits YouTube (4:23), but it was John Singleton’s BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991) that cemented that legacy into cultural relevance, accentuating the socioeconomic challenges that ravaged low-income black communities in the 80’s and 90’s, exploring ineffective and racially divisive policing, a school-to-prison pipeline of young black men, a devastating lack of basic necessities, while highlighting the importance of parenting in child development, showing how easy it is to get caught up in a cycle of violence.  In the 90’s, West coast musical artists like Ice-T and NWA introduced gangsta rap, lyrics that exaggerated gang violence and cop killing, taking the bravado from the streets of Compton and selling millions in the white suburbs.  This film actually preceded that musical explosion pitting the East coast rappers against the West, where rap and crime violence became synonymous with black culture, culminating with the murders of the two biggest rap stars, Tupac Shakur in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas and The Notorious B.I.G, gunned down in Los Angeles after leaving a party.  In the 70’s and 80’s, black men were dropped from the work force in droves, experiencing staggering numbers of unemployment, where one out of four even stopped looking for work, with earnings plummeting more than 30%, while at the same time black men were sent to prison in disproportionate numbers, accounting for nearly 50% of the prison population while composing only 12% of the nation’s population.  In large metropolitan areas, only 14% of white males have ever been arrested, compared to 51% of black males, while a black male baby born today stands a 1 in 3 chance of going to jail.  Black-on-black homicide is the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 34, accounting for a prominent screen title at the film’s opening, “One out of every 21 black American males will be murdered in their lifetime.  Most will die at the hands of another black male.”  The early 90’s sparked a new genre of films set in the hood, with Hollywood hiring black writers and directors, accentuating black inner-city life, all similarly male-focused and ghettoized, exploring conditions of poverty, crime, racism, and violence, using rappers turned actors and youth culture rap music for authenticity, something Spike Lee disparagingly described as “hiphop, urban drama, ghetto film,” but this genre quickly flamed out, displaced perhaps by a saturation of urban television dramas that accentuated street crime and police procedurals, like Hill Street Blues (1981 – 1987) or Miami Vice (1984 – 1990), opening up the door for twenty seasons of Law & Order (1990 – 2010).  Having grown up in the violence-ridden South Central section of Los Angeles, Singleton cited two films that inaccurately portrayed his neighborhood, Dennis Hopper’s COLORS (1988), which was more interested in the lurid world of LA gang warfare from the skewed perspective of two cops, and Mario Van Peeples’ NEW JACK CITY (1991) exposing the overly violent horrors of the crack epidemic.  Motivated to get it right, to make an impactful film residents in black communities could relate to and find meaningful, basically telling the story of their lives, he decided to direct the film himself, using familiar landmarks and actual locations, released just months after the videotaped Rodney King beating by the LAPD, becoming one of the  most memorable film debuts, earning the director a Best Director nomination, the youngest (at the age of 24) ever nominated, also the first black nominee, openly disappointed that he did not win, as the prize was awarded to Jonathan Demme for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991).  The film is bolder and more explosively relevant than any other film Singleton would make, never finding the same groove, where the personalized nature of the subject matter is what elevates this film into iconic cultural status, added to the National Film Registry a decade later (Films Selected for the National Film Registry in 2002 (January ...).

The focus of the film is on black male adolescent upbringing, expressed through the styles and attitudes of rap culture, becoming a brilliantly executed and fully-realized coming-of-age portrait, showing maturity and depth, though giving short shrift to women, referred to in derogatory terms, often portrayed using typical stereotypes, while several male characters are fully developed, revealing the complexities of their inner city experience, where black communities are besieged by poverty and economic blight, a deprivation of decent housing and health care options, a lack of educational opportunities, including high drop-out rates that lead to joblessness and incarceration.  More than any other films of the time, Singleton’s more subtle and complex take on urban black neighborhoods feels accurate, largely avoiding drugs and prostitution, refusing the stylized romanticism used by others.  The film actually challenges the prevailing stereotype of black masculinity, romanticized through aggressively ghettoized portrayals of Blaxploitation films, reduced to fantasy caricatures, with Singleton rendering something closer to real life here.  Many felt the movie glorified guns, but it’s just the opposite, revealing the devastating impact they have on the community, destroying lives and families, shredding any possibility of hope for something better.  Among the director’s shrewdest decisions was casting rapper Ice Cube as Doughboy, a neighborhood dope seller, seen much earlier in his life as a kid caught shoplifting while trying to obtain something to eat, sent off to prison afterwards, an overly punitive and excessively harsh reaction to ordinary survival needs, contrasted by a soothing ballad by the Five Stairsteps, Boyz N Tha Hood Ooh Child scene - YouTube (1:46).  Yet the authenticity he brings to the role is simply outstanding, as he’s a curious and thoughtful kid who is simply denied ordinary access, making do with what he’s got, seemingly aimless and unambitious, yet it’s his heartbreaking speech at the end that provides real depth and probing honesty, where his final screen appearance is eloquently poetic, as he literally fades away into invisibility.  Doughboy has a brother from another father, Ricky (Morris Chestnut), both living with their overchallenged mother Brenda (Tyra Ferrell) who is plagued by her own demons, openly favoring one child over another, which may contribute to festering resentments, yet Ricky’s exploits on the football field may win him a scholarship to nearby USC, where O. J. Simpson became the university’s second Heisman trophy winner in 1968 after Mike Garrett, a school known for producing NFL-ready running backs.  The centerpiece of the film, however, is a kid living across the street, Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.).  Early on Tre gets into trouble at school and gets suspended, where his white teacher offers a racially clueless understanding of the situation filled with stereotypical assumptions, causing Tre’s mother Reva (Angela Bassett) to pull him out of school so he can live with his separated father, Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne), believing he needs a male role model.  These kids grow up and do everything together, hassled by older gangbangers on the street, taunted and intimidated, eventually threatened by guns and reckless, out-of-control behavior, where every perceived slight or insult is followed by a barrage of drive-by gunfire that results in senseless deaths.  This kind of tragedy plays out on their streets everyday, where these accumulating murders are pulling families apart, losing so many kids at a young age, and with them their hopes and dreams.  From the outset, the film is punctuated by an aggressive sound design that includes gunshots, neighborhood screams, police sirens, the whirring helicopters flying overhead, peppered by the sounds of routine arguments and disagreements, all sounds of everyday life, while an exuberant rap-heavy soundtrack fuels each and every sequence.  

Despite living across the street, it’s evident both groups of kids receive substantially different parenting, as Tre’s parents are both involved, maintaining a mature relationship with each other even as they have bitter personal differences, with both providing guidance along the way, as well as unconditional love.  The love both his parents offer is in sharp contrast to the lackluster parenting on display with Ricky and Doughboy across the street, neither one having any contact with their absent fathers, with their negligent mother showing little or no interest in setting goals or boundaries.  Tre is the beneficiary of parents who take the time to show they care, with Furious Styles making the most of his role, showing an educated understanding of how things work in black neighborhoods, where there’s no shortage of gun shops and liquor stores, suggesting blacks killing one another is no accident but by design, Boyz n the Hood (3/8) Movie CLIP - Gentrification (1991) HD YouTube (2:41), as they’re fighting for the available crumbs that filter through their communities, where drugs are the major economic industry.  Tre’s father is the missing ingredient in black communities, with so many father’s missing, some killed, some imprisoned, some serving in the military, and some just missing, but Furious is a strong presence in the young boy’s life, loving but firm, instilling discipline and moral values while teaching his son personal responsibility. Paternal love is hardly a panacea for the totality of problems plaguing the black community, but it’s a significant factor, where one thing is clear, the differing parental styles offer different results by the end of the picture, effectively making the point that parenting matters, and kids with two involved parents are in the best position to navigate their way through the inevitable obstacles kids have to face.  Other core factors show how clearly the black community lacks social justice, as there’s a Wild West mentality of various gangs terrorizing the neighborhoods, wreaking havoc with each new generation, subjecting them to an ongoing pattern of death and brutality where nothing is fair, where there’s no justice, but it constantly grates on your nerves, wearing you down from the constant pressure.  Compare that to white communities with the best schools, manicured lawns, successful business commerce everywhere, multiple grocery stores or health care options, plenty of nearby hospitals, where kids have every available activity offered, putting them in a position to succeed, even if their parents are screwed up.  In Tre’s world, there is no sense of moral accountability, as police are bullying and threatening, even black officers, sadistically enjoying making them squirm in fear, victimized by prejudice and abuse, where there is simply no value or concern for human life.  Blacks are routinely dehumanized, subjected to harsher criminal penalties, which alters the fabric of their families and communities, creating marginalized lives, as this unequal treatment reflects the over-criminalization of black life, offering less hope, with substantially fewer avenues to succeed.  Certainly Ricky and Doughboy’s premature incarceration in an attempt to stave off hunger does not happen in white neighborhoods, where there is an abundance of food and opportunities.  In white neighborhoods, troubled kids receive every advantage, living in a different world where police are polite and respectful, where crime is actually prevented instead of ignored.  In a sense, this is a black version of the George Lucas film AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), both keying on adolescence, where the characters are so memorable, becoming etched into the social fabric of American culture, offering such uniquely different life experiences, one black and one white.  Despite highlighting these bleak inequities in an explosively realistic exposé nearly 30 years ago, there’s been little progress, as the underlying problems plaguing black communities continue to go unaddressed, including excessive police brutality and the criminalization of black lives, where despite overt denials from prominent governmental officials, there are two separate and unequal systems of justice in America.  If anything, conditions have actually gotten much worse, as the divisions between rich and poor have only escalated since then. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Nothing But a Man

Director Michael Roemer

NOTHING BUT A MAN        A+                
USA  (95 mi) 1964  d:  Michael Roemer

One way for local whites to take the strut out of a black man's step was to put him in prison...Southerners who had just lost a war managed to convince courts to put hundreds of black men in prison, including black soldiers.          
—from the book Ain’t Nothing But a Man, by Scott Reynolds Nelson

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people...then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
—Martin Luther King Jr. from April 16, 1963, Letter from Birmingham Jail full text

I ain’t fit to live with no more. It’s just like a lynching. They don’t use a knife, but they got other ways.    —Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon)          

One of the better films that reveals what it means and how it feels to be black, reportedly Malcolm X’s favorite film, this is arguably the best black film ever made in America, set in Alabama’s Deep South in the early 60’s, though interestingly enough it was actually made by a white guy, Michael Roemer, born in Berlin, Germany, who fled the Holocaust as an 11-year old child on the Kindertransports, coming after his mother’s family shoe store was destroyed during Kristallnacht.  In the early 30’s Nazis organized boycotts of Jewish businesses in Germany, publically burned Jewish and non-German books in Berlin, established quotas for non-Aryans in schools, and excluded Jews from public parks and swimming pools, with the director remembering having to sit on separate yellow benches when Jews were denied entrance into movies theaters, circumstances eerily similar to blacks in the Jim Crow South, with white supremacy resembling Nazi racialization, especially in its impact on families.  Made on a $300,000 budget during the dawn of the Civil Rights era, the production coincided with the civil rights insurgency and benefited from input from activists, shot during the tumultuous summer of 1963 simultaneous to the Medgar Evers’ assassination, George Wallace preaching “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” while standing in the doorway blocking the entrance of two black students at the University of Alabama, the March on Washington, the site of Martin Luther King’s infamous “I Had A Dream” speech, and they were still filming the day four young girls were killed by bombs at the Sixteenth Street Church in Birmingham.  Both Roemer and his co-writer and cinematographer Robert M. Young were Jewish, educated at Harvard University, and wrote the script after traveling through the South together, with Roemer directing the black-and-white film using a neorealist style, giving it a near documentary look.  What distinguishes the film is the remarkable ease in telling the story without a hint of condescension or manipulation, no preaching, no moral crusading, no underlying political message, and never resorting to caricature or exaggeration for added emphasis.  Instead it just tells it like it is.  Never once do we hear music swelling to emphasize a poignant moment and the end credits play without a sound.  There’s not a false step anywhere in this landmark picture, beautifully directed with an assured, understated style that reeks of authenticity and serves as a time capsule that holds up unusually well even after 50 years.  With no sympathetic white figures in the film, it was misunderstood and undervalued by white critics, largely ignored at the box office, with viewers finding it underwhelming, but the film was years ahead of its time, with Ebony magazine listing the film among their Top Ten Black Films of All Time in a 1995 poll, revealing essential truths about being black that other films ignored, effortlessly conveying a poetic depiction of everyday black realities, a predecessor to small black independent films like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1979) and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), which received greater acclaim, largely due to their accessibility, part of an academically studied movement, the LA Rebellion, catalog (pdf), while this harder-to-find film has continually been relegated to the obscure.  Ivan Dixon as Duff Anderson gives one of the great unheralded performances in American film, smart, proud, a sexy swagger to his step, extremely dignified, never overreaching, usually calm and quiet, a strong, silent type, but his life is a neverending series of exasperating events, continually referred to as “boy” and “trouble” while being goaded into unwelcome confrontations from racist taunts where he refuses to buckle under the patronizing humiliation of ignorant whites who expect him to “act the nigger” and play the subservient game of bowing down to white authority, as that’s what’s always been expected in this neck of the woods. 

It ain’t pretty, but it’s real, where the film does an excellent job laying a foundation of his well respected and confident demeanor working and joking among fellow black men as a nomadic railroad worker, making good money, a loner out on his own not beholden to anybody.  But when he falls for a preacher’s daughter at a church social outside Birmingham, Alabama, Josie (jazz singer Abbey Lincoln), a proud and irresistibly beautiful woman, their romance is accompanied by a backdrop of contemporary Motown songs playing on a jukebox or the radio, like Martha and the Vandella’s “Heat Wave” Martha & the Vandellas - (Love Is Like A) Heat Wave YouTube (2:43) or Little Stevie Wonder - Fingertips. (Part 2) - YouTube (3:13), adding an overall sense of upbeat optimism, like seeing the couple develop an interest in one another dancing on a crowded dance floor, which predates the use of culturally relevant rock music in movies like Easy Rider (1969) or early Scorsese movies like Mean Streets (1973).  When they decide to get married, there’s little fanfare, as her father (Stanley Greene) is openly suspicious of a man who never went to college and doesn’t go to church, believing that his daughter deserves better.  But they’re happy in an easy going kind of way, despite the objections of her father, developing a low key relationship not usually shown in motion pictures, with a distinct class difference, as she grew up in a middle class background and teaches elementary school, having gone to college.  But their marriage suffers as he experiences a series of job setbacks where he’s forced to endure local insults, always being labeled a troublemaker for refusing to shuffle and jive for the white man, losing one job after another which puts them in desperate straits financially.  Usually he’d just hit the road, but now he’s part of a marriage.  Each time he runs off, he comes face to face with his seldom seen father (Julius Harris) who abandoned him at a young age, a bitter, broken down alcoholic who has nothing but rage against the world around him, unfortunately maimed by an industrial accident, no longer able to work, who would probably be dead were it not for the care of the strong woman beside him, Lee (Gloria Foster), continually railing against his own son as well, telling him to “get lost.”  He also visits a little 4-year old boy born out of wedlock, whose mother has taken off and left the child behind with another woman, viewing his father with that sad, fearful look of distrust.  Yet when he’s angry, he denies that’s even his child, but he nonetheless sends money regularly.  Interesting that Josie’s father gives Duff a word of advice, suggesting he “act the part,” calling it a form of psychology to “make ‘em think you’re going along and get what you want.”  Duff has a few words of his own for the preacher, “You’ve been stooping so long, Reverend, you don't know how to stand straight.  You’re just half a man.”  Like De Niro in a Scorsese film, Duff’s refusal to compromise his pride is what distinguishes his character, and his strong sense of self-respect is precisely what Josie finds so remarkably attractive about him, though he’s tested to the limits, behaving atrociously at times when his back is against the wall, undermined by generations of black passive indifference to the demeaning arrogance of white supremacy that has ruled since slavery days, exploiting black work aspirations and destroying family lives, refusing any suggestions of blacks aligning together, as that means losing their livelihood, leaving him singled out and isolated, placed on a do not hire blacklist around town for similar jobs, Nothing But a Man YouTube (2:32). 

Despite the bleak and unforgiving landscape for blacks in the Jim Crow South, described in great detail by American novelists William Faulkner and Richard Wright, or adapted movie novels like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), blacks remained subject to white-controlled work places in town, along with a constant reminder that a lynching occurred in town eight years ago, perhaps a reference to the horrific 1955 murder of Emmett Till in nearby Mississippi, yet what’s ultimately so revealing is the discovery that Duff is living in a world that belongs to others, who set the rules and conditions, and define the allowable parameters of his existence.  This has never been so plainly and so sensitively revealed, as it defines black existence in America then and now, continually living under the thumb of white majority rule.  The film doesn’t so much tell a story as let one unravel before our eyes, conveyed with understatement, accenting naturalism and authenticity, though mostly shot on location in New Jersey, yet the images of low-down bars, streets and houses overrun by children, and rows of dilapidated tenements represent Birmingham’s poor black district, while the opening montage of a railroad section gang laying tracks was filmed during their earlier travels through the South.  Special recognition must be paid for the attention to black faces in the many close-ups, producing a depth and intimacy of images rarely seen before in filming black characters, where much of the underlying power of the film comes from the brilliant performances that allow viewers to immerse themselves in the predominately black cultural themes, like juke joints and church (featuring a brilliant gospel solo by Dorothy Hall), men getting blacklisted for standing up for themselves, where the only work available for blacks is back-breakingly hard labor that physically wears people out, where if they get injured or old, they’re of no use to anyone anymore, including themselves.  Without a job, forced to wallow in their worthlessness and self-loathing, their lives consist of sitting on their front stoops doing nothing, wasted in the mind-numbing void of alcohol abuse, where the only places blacks are allowed to live are dilapidated neighborhoods, where neglected children are the product of so many uncaring or absent fathers that a sense of worthlessness becomes synonymous with their deplorable living conditions, producing a righteous anger that eventually comes to define them.  This cycle of generational dysfunction hits Duff in the face like a ton of bricks, and he’s determined not to let it happen to him, where he chooses to be different, to be a responsible man, refusing to defer to white men, even at the cost of a job.  The film reflects the obstacles he faces, the anger, the indignation, the wretched helplessness he feels as he attempts to wade through the minefield of daily disasters waiting for him.  But never does he feel sorry for himself, or give up hope, but he does feel the sting of rebuke.  Their marriage is no picnic either and there are some rocky moments, but perhaps most significantly, this film offers no easy solutions.  Yet the profound depth of character is strikingly lucid, casting a harsh light on those blacks who do abandon their families, only making things that much more difficult for those they leave behind, perhaps removing the only hope they have, which weakens the already fragile state of broken black families and community.  Offering a dissertation on black masculinity, the film impressively reveals an inherent capacity for love while enduring endless racial threats, while also highlighting the significance and stability of female support, both emotionally and financially, becoming a brilliant depiction of a troubled life mirroring the upheaval of social change during the Civil Rights era, with details specific to the story’s time and place, which remain universally impactful, with the film being selected to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1993.