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.