VHS Revival revisits 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 censored climate.
Back in 1991, the infamous LA riots were just around the corner, and rap was more than just a vehicle for white-collar marketing. Thanks to certain creative freedoms, the racially oppressed still had something of a mainstream voice, and movies were allowed to champion unpopular opinions long before the safety net of moral hindsight was put into place. Boyz n the Hood ushered in a new era of black filmmaking, inspiring a generation to pick up a camera and reveal the truth behind social injustice in American inner city life.
Fast-forward three decades and the themes featured in Boyz n the Hood have been stylized to such a degree that its characters have been reduced to impotent stereotypes. Anarchic innovators such as Dr Dre have grown fat and wealthy, while one of the movie’s stars Ice Cube has become a mainstay in cash cow comedies such as Are We There Yet?. In fact, the closest thing to Boyz n the Hood that exists today is the Grand Theft Auto video game series, a popular preoccupation which glamourises the very violence the movie condemned.
The story begins in the mid-1980s as then president Ronald Reagan was about to begin his second term in office. Reagan would implement his ‘war on drugs’ around that time, a cynical endeavour whose goal was to criminalise the poor rather than aid them, and his influence is highlighted by Singleton in the form of a series of presidential posters sprayed with bullet holes. Beneath those posters, the blood of a recently murdered young 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.
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.
When we first meet protagonist Tre he is still in short pants, and is shipped off to live with his father in the hope that he will learn about responsibility. 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 great 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-driven rhetoric would have you believe. It 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.
In spite of 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 21 young men will die from gunshot wounds, the best a mother can do is hope and pray.
Tre Styles – I didn’t do nothing.
Officer Coffey – You think you tough?
[pulls gun on Tre]
Officer Coffey – Scared now, ain’t you? I like that. That’s why I took this job. I hate little motherfuckers like you. Little niggers, you ain’t shit! I could blow your head off with this Smith & Wesson and you couldn’t do shit. Think you tough? What set you from? Look like one of them Crenshaw mafia motherfuckers.
Singleton not only understands his subject, he lends it a quite astonishing authenticity. This is not cynical filmmaking by any means. It is desperate, violent and often heartbreaking, but its political agenda is never biased, its events never exploitative. It takes skill and insight to tackle a subject of such controversy, and although the film is bold and unforgiving in delivering its message it is permeated with 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 behaviour. This is perhaps most apparent in the form of 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, there is little surprise in store in regards to what the movie’s children have become. Crenshaw is not a place that is synonymous with change. In these ostracized areas of American society, things have a tendency to remain the same, and most people never dare to leave their neighbourhood, while others barely stray 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 from the inevitable consequence of ghetto life.
Doughboy is perhaps the most common tragedy to come out of his 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 young hopeful Ricky is wonderfully juxtaposed in a scene where a college scout visits the Baker household to discuss his 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 passage in the most genial way he is able to muster as police helicopters do their best to overwhelm Ricky’s big moment. 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 instead gracious and full of understanding, knowing that his neighbour is capable of more and wanting only the best for him. A victim of social inequality he may be, but Doughboy is as selfless as they come.
Ricky and Tre may be the shining stars of a neighbourhood mired in futility but their success is far from guaranteed. Ricky has one route out of the ghetto, but Pro football is a long shot for any young man, and in the end it is probably easier for him to sign his life away to the army than it is to pass the SAT tests that his place at college depends upon, and that’s if he can make it out alive. So non-discriminatory is the violence that Tre can’t cross the road without having a shotgun shoved in his face, while the two of them are just as likely to catch a bullet from the very cops who are supposed to be maintaining order, but whose real objective is to bully and oppress.
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.
Crucially, Boyz n the Hood is a movie entrenched in legitimacy, a social commentary of great wisdom and monumental importance, and while the educated and resolute Furious spells out the sociopolitical reasons behind the 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 although lacking any kind of traditional education prove themselves capable of the kind of profundity that can only be acquired through raw experience.