Remembering John Singleton’s immensely powerful social drama
Almost thirty years have passed since the release of John Singleton’s controversial drama, and the movie has lost none of its power. In fact, it is hard to imagine a film of its nature existing in today’s PC climate. Back in 1991, the infamous LA riots were just around the corner, and mainstream hip-hop was more than just a vehicle for white-collar marketing. Following the emergence of gangster rap and a surge in suburban gang warfare, sections of the US media had transformed ‘black’ into the kind of reprehensible buzzword that had middle-class whites peering nervously over their shoulders. For those people, protest rap groups such as Public Enemy and N.W.A were a scourge beset on violent rebellion. They didn’t grasp the irony of it all. They didn’t accept the hardships and social ills that affect communities stripped of civil rights and demonised by sections of the mainstream media. It just didn’t fit the political narrative.
With his ‘War on Drugs’ campaign, US president Ronald Reagan would condemn inner city youths forced into lives of crime thanks to a neglected public education system and a social structure that relegated them to the sidelines almost as a birthright. After 15-year-old African-American girl Latasha Harlins was fatally shot in the back of the head by a convenience store owner for no apparent reason on March 16, 1991, which, along with the abhorrent instance of police brutality suffered by King, resulted in the first federal law enforcement response to a civil disorder in the US since 1962, president George W. Bush was equally damning, putting the blame squarely in the laps of rioters as the cops involved walked free. The fact that both incidents were caught on tape only highlighted the inherent disdain for black people in the US, one fuelled by the fires of media-spun rhetoric. It was a sad day for democracy and an indictment of humanity as a whole.
Boyz n the Hood was one of several productions released during the early 1990s that would become part of a sub-genre known as ‘hood movies’, films that challenged racial segregation and state oppression in a forthright manner never before witnessed. This was due to the emergence of a generation of gifted African-American directors who educated modern society on issues that had otherwise been suppressed. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing may have been the first to outline the tensions of a society on the bread line, New Jack City was arguably the film that first tackled the violence and drug culture hindering black, inner-city life, but it was Boyz n the Hood that truly spoke to audiences with its intimate, unbiased portrayal and startling performances.
Singleton had a huge hand in forging the level of authenticity prevalent throughout the film, refusing to warn actors before shots were fired to inspire reactions that were nothing short of absolutely genuine. Such an approach paid dividends, making him the youngest man of any colour to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director, a record then held by the brilliant and hugely innovative Orson Welles. Incredibly, it almost didn’t happen for him, Columbia pictures preferring to let someone else direct Singleton’s screenplay. In response, the fledgling filmmaker would tell producers, “Hell, no, I’m not gonna let somebody from Idaho or Encino direct a movie about living in south-central Los Angeles. They can’t come in here and cast it and go through the rewrites and know exactly what aesthetics are unique to this film.” It’s no wonder that a film of this calibre failed to materialise prior to 1991.
Furious Styles – Why is it that there is a gun shop on almost every corner in this community?
The Old Man – Why?
Furious Styles – I’ll tell you why. For the same reason that there is a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves.
Our story begins in the mid-1980s as Reagan was about to begin his second term in office. The president would implement his War on Drugs around that time, and his influence is highlighted by Singleton in the form of a series of presidential posters sprayed with bullet holes that capture the violent frustrations of an unwanted generation. Beneath those posters, the blood of a recently murdered man stains the sidewalk while loitering kids tease each other for not being down with street affairs. They know what kind of future lies ahead for them and are already goading each other into following by example. The financial disparity, sense of hopelessness and demonization propagated and disseminated by the US government and its privately-owned media platform had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Around that time, Reagan was promoting “a return to traditional family values”, a slogan that put further pressure on impoverished ethnic communities who were struggling to hold it together in the face of increased austerity. While ‘brain on drugs’ commercials warned against the hazardous effects of narcotics, harsher sentences were passed out for the possession of crack cocaine, a relatively cheap drug plaguing low-income communities, while laws for the possession of the relatively affluent powder cocaine were loosened. For anyone who didn’t base their opinions on the narratives of the mainstream media, the government’s intentions were clear: there was one rule for some, another for the rest, and Boyz n the Hood was a giant leap forward for those without a voice.
When we first meet protagonist, Tre, he is still in short pants, shipped off to live with his father in the hope of learning responsibility in the face of desperate tensions. Tre’s mother is played with steely vulnerability by the wonderful Angela Basset, who like most ghetto parents is terrified her child will die before he is able to become a man. There is no better teacher for Tre than his father Furious (Laurence Fishburne), a man of wisdom who never turns his back on his people, often taking to street corners to teach his gangster brothers about the role the government plays in weakening their resolve, turning every corner into a gun shop or liquor store as the threat of gentrification looms large.
Unlike his mother, Furious doesn’t try to shield Tre from his surroundings. He simply guides him as best he can with the hope that he will learn to make the right choices. The neighbourhood kids — his friends — are mostly on the road to ruin, but Furious is not judgemental. He understands that they are kids like any other, not monsters as so much media-spun rhetoric would have you believe. This is not an issue of race. Poverty breeds crime and crime breeds violence. If you maltreat a dog and deprive it of those things that are essential to its well-being, that animal will become a beast, and humans are no different. If kids are exposed to drugs and violence they become desensitised to it. When they walk the streets looking for dead bodies to stare at something has to give.
Tre’s closest friends are the Baker brothers. They both have different fathers and as personalities are polar opposites. Ricky (Morris Chestnut) is momma’s favourite, a football-obsessed sweetheart with his eyes on the prize. His brother Darren (Ice Cube) is always in trouble with the law. Nicknamed Doughboy, his mother blames him for everything, constantly comparing him to his no-good father and clinging to his sibling’s potential as if it were an extension of her own pride. Despite his mother’s favouritism, Doughboy sticks up for Ricky to the very end. He realises his brother’s potential and is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. He also understands that his mother loves him dearly, and it is the pressure and fear that forces her to act the way she does. Mrs Baker is played with great magnetism by the hugely underrated Tyra Ferrell, whose colossal performance embodies the pride and determination of a society stripped of all dignity. There is no greater fear for a parent than being powerless to prevent their child’s death, and in a society where one in every twenty-one young men will die from gunshot wounds, the best a mother can do is hope and pray.
Doughboy – Yo, cuz, I know why you got outta the car last night… shouldn’t have been there in the first place. You don’t want that shit to come back to haunt you. I ain’t been up this early in a long time. I turned on the TV this morning, they had this shit on about… about living in a violent world. Showed all these foreign places… I started thinking, man, either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood. Man, all this foreign shit, and they didn’t have shit on my brother, man.
Not only does Singleton understand his subject, he lends affairs a quite astonishing sense of authenticity, one that goes beyond the subterfuge of startling, on-set gunfire. This is not cynical filmmaking by any means. It is desperate, violent and often heartbreaking, but its agenda is never polemical, its events never exploitative. It takes great skill, objectivity and insight to tackle a subject of such controversy so profoundly, and though the film is bold and unforgiving it is permeated by an almost nostalgic warmth, with a strong emphasis on community that refuses to delineate good from bad and instead focuses on the reasons behind society’s degradation. This is the suburban wild west, with impressionable gunslingers and corrupt law officials, a place where cold-blooded murder is not only accepted but embraced, and as long as those citizens are only killing each other, the state is willing to turn a blind eye. One inspired scene gives us a black cop who thinks nothing of sticking a gun in the face of his young brothers, his mind warped by the violence and ceaseless bias of the media, resulting in a man of great confusion and repressed self-loathing.
Jumping seven years to 1991 and there is little surprise in store for the movie’s now adult children. Crenshaw is not a place synonymous with change. In these ostracised areas of American society, things have a tendency to remain the same, and most don’t dare to leave their neighbourhood, others barely straying from their mother’s porch. Thanks in large part to the watchful eye of Furious, Tre is very much on the right track. Ricky is still on course for college football, but even he has fathered an unplanned child, while Doughboy is fresh out of jail and sucking back suds as if numbing himself to the inevitable consequences of ghetto life.
Doughboy is perhaps the most common tragedy to come out of this environment. Still a young man, he has already accepted his role as the bad apple and is seemingly counting down the hours, his place in relation to Ricky wonderfully juxtaposed in a scene where a college scout visits the Baker household to discuss the young hopeful’s future, only to be met by a rabble of drunken loafers hanging out on his mother’s porch. Doughboy is a snarling thug with jail manners, but he wants the best for his family and ensures his visitor safe passage in the most genial manner he can muster, a moment sullied by the oppressive sound of police helicopters, which do their best to overwhelm Ricky’s big moment, though a much worse fate awaits him in one of the most devastating scenes in modern cinema. Later, when Tre decides to pull out of a potentially fateful act of vengeance, Doughboy is not bitter or concerned that his friend thinks of himself as superior. He is gracious and full of understanding, knowing that his neighbour is capable of more and wanting only the best for his friend. A victim of social inequality he may be, but Doughboy is as selfless as they come.
In the years since Boyz n the Hood‘s release, inner city life has been commercialised to such a degree that Singleton’s characters have become impotent stereotypes, video games such as the Grand Theft Auto series glamourizing the very violence the movie condemns. Rap is no longer about survival, it is about greed and consumerism, and the world’s biggest corporations, the same who fund the media’s polemical onslaught, influencing government policies and shaping public opinion, have turned inner city violence into a generic commodity, exploiting violent culture with consumer goods and dreams of wealth and prestige.
Boyz n the Hood is the antithesis of such sentiments. Crucially, it is a movie entrenched in legitimacy, a social commentary of deep compassion and monumental importance. While the educated and resolute Furious spells out the sociopolitical ills of his brothers, the movie never condescends to its younger audience, and there is as much wisdom to be found in the incoherent musings of the young and fractious, who though lacking any kind of traditional education prove themselves capable of the kind of profundity that can only be acquired through raw experience. As Doughboy so devastatingly points out, “It just goes on and on, you know. Next thing you know, somebody might try and smoke me. Don’t matter, doe. We all gotta go sometime.”