Once Upon a Time in South Central LA: Boyz N the Hood’s Enduring Power

Boyz n the Hood poster

John Singleton’s immensely powerful coming of age drama still endures more than 30 years on, and will long continue to do so


Movies as powerful, important and enduring as John Singleton’s controversial drama Boyz N the Hood don’t come around too often. Not only was it revolutionary, portraying characters that are typically demonised in a manner that was intimate, relatable and free from bias, it arrived at a crucial juncture in modern American history, tackling issues that are as prevalent today as they were when Maryland passed the first law banning interracial marriage in 1664, when congress passed the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, when former middleweight boxer Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter was wrongly convicted of a triple murder in a bar in Paterson, New Jersey in 1966, and, most recently, when George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota while being arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, a very conscious effort was made to sully the man’s reputation, news and social media outlets unearthing as much dirt as possible in an attempt to justify the actions of correctional authorities mired in systemic racism. Floyd, like many low-income minorities who are treated as an afterthought in American society, had a criminal record, a fact that was disseminated with vulgar self-satisfaction. Such behaviour suggested that a man’s imperfections were enough for eternal condemnation. The fact that social inequality is all too often at the root of such crimes was conveniently overlooked.

The characters in Boyz N the Hood, who exist mostly in a self-contained black community extricated from direct white comparison, was arguably the first movie to tackle the issue of minority crime in a way that was free from the moralising extravagances synonymous with mainstream cinema. Singleton’s marginalised suburbs are certainly the product of white control, but the film explores the self-perpetuating violence inherent, presenting us with kids who are forced to fend for themselves from an early age, who are drawn to gang warfare on a reactionary level, many becoming victims without ever entering the game. Despite media sensationalism and correctional discrimination, most residents have never fired or even held a weapon, but as highlighted by our protagonist’s close shave while returning home from a neighbourhood barbecue, they can wind up facing the wrong end of a shotgun for simply crossing the street.

Our story, told during two other notable periods of black history, begins in 1984 as Ronald Reagan, a former onscreen cowboy who spoke to 2nd amendment enthusiasts with Charles Bronson values, is about to begin his second term in office. With his ‘War on Drugs’ campaign, Reagan would condemn inner city youths forced into lives of crime thanks to a social structure that relegated them to the sidelines almost as a birthright. His influence, highlighted by writer/director Singleton in the form of presidential posters sprayed with bullet holes, captures the frustrations of an unwanted generation. Beneath those posters, the blood of a recently murdered man stains the sidewalk while loitering youths tease each other for not being down with street affairs. In the classroom, depictions of police oppression and death decorate the walls in crayon. These kids know what kind of future lies ahead for them and are already goading each other into following by example.

I’ll tell you why [there’s a gun shop on every corner in the black community]. For the same reason there’s a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves.

Furious Styles

Reagan’s presidency coincided with the nation’s ‘crack epidemic’, a time when African-American communities were damaged irrevocably thanks to a readily accessible and comparatively cheap form of cocaine dubbed ‘crack’ or ‘rock’. The emergence of the highly addictive drug, a result of the government turning a blind eye to importation during the Iran-Contra affair, led to soaring inner city crime rates, abject poverty and the dissolution of the family unit, the very issues that threaten to spell the end for our four protagonists. Some, who saw drugs as their only viable route to wealth in an era of Wall Street decadence, would exploit their own communities for personal advancement, turning the ghetto into an urban wild west that saw rival gang members gunned down in their droves. Their victims suffered equally hopeless fates. Rather than attempting to understand addiction, the government invested in the prison construction boom, imposing obscenely unfair penalties on minor possession, a generation locked up and exploited like livestock.

The kids of Crenshaw are kids like any other; it’s their environment that sets them apart. Most are fatherless and lacking a positive influence, the stench of crime and addiction permeating summer days of an ever-dwindling innocence. The film’s protagonists, a foursome inspired by Rob Reiner’s similarly tragic coming of age drama Stand By Me, are typical adolescents ― lazy, rebellious, misguided and impressionable ― characteristics that are a regular part of growing up, but the kind that will get you killed in the volatile suburbs of South Central Los Angeles. A then-rookie Singleton, who admitted to improving during the course of the film’s linear shoot, delivers an almost identical shot to one featured in Stand By Me as our four boys walk a train track in search of a fallen gangster decaying in the weeds of some desolate stretch. “Ya’ll wanna see a dead body?” Chris asks. In Reiner’s film, the same question inspires a moment of quiet awe. In Boyz N the Hood, Doughboy nonchalantly replies, “Yeah,” as if his answer was never in doubt.

When we first meet protagonist, Tre, he’s still in short pants, shipped off to live with his father in the hope of learning 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’s able to become a man. In a patriarchal society that views her as a second-class citizen, Tre’s mother is putting herself through school in the hope of landing a better job and moving to a safer area. Unlike the crack-addicted mothers who let their children wander the streets and offer sexual favours to street dealers, an almost ubiquitous stereotype propagated by the mainstream media during the country’s crack epidemic, the fiercely independent Reva Devereaux is a woman of unwavering dignity. The one thing she’s lacking is the ability to teach Tre how to be a man.

There’s no better teacher for Tre in that regard than his father Furious, a man of quiet wisdom and unyielding integrity who refuses to turn his back on his people, later 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. Today, gentrification is as rife as ever, a subject broached by Singleton contemporary Spike Lee in a 2017 interview with Vanity Fair, “I have a love-hate relationship with New York City, and the love will always exceed the hate,” the filmmaker would explain. “There are pros and cons to gentrification in Fort Greene now, where I grew up. Garbage is picked up regularly, there’s a police presence, and the public schools are a lot better than when I went. The question is always: why did the neighborhood have to change for that to happen? And, then, the thing that is not really probed is: what happened when people got displaced?”

Furious is just one example of Singleton’s unwillingness to descend into type. He’s a self-taught intellectual, a man who sees past media rhetoric, who realises that drugs didn’t arrive on American shores because of the black community. A lesser film would have glamourized gun crime, or, in the case of Furious, presented us with an unrealistic moral compass. Unlike Tre’s mother, Furious doesn’t shield his son from his surroundings, he guides him as best he can with the hope that he’ll learn to make the right choices and avoid the same hopeless fate that’s been endured by so many other young hopefuls. There’s no foolproof answer, no obvious solution, just degrees of possibility. Furious doesn’t trust anybody, even his neighbours, because he can’t afford to. He also doesn’t judge, understanding that people are products of their environment. Poverty breeds crime and crime breeds violence. If you maltreat an animal, depriving 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, something’s gotta give.

Furious has survived the hood by the skin of his teeth and continues to do so amid the threat of violence and robbery, recalling former friends who succumbed to society’s ills during many tender moments with a young Tre; he doesn’t want to see his only son go that way. Furious is tough in the eyes of the other neighbourhood kids, but responsibility is scarce in Crenshaw. As Chris tellingly points out when asked to rake the lawn for five dollars, he can make more than that slanging dope for his uncle. When an honest living stretches no further than shuffling French fries for minimum wage, temptation is almost impossible to resist.

The kids of Crensaw aren’t born bad, it’s just what’s expected of them. Chris is a cocky young slacker who’ll be confined to a wheelchair by the time he’s in his late teens, but there isn’t a bad bone in his body. The same can be said of a young Doughboy, who along with Chris is already running into trouble with the law for acts of petty theft, a result of the community’s deprivation and its impact on traditional moral values, which ultimately become unrealistic given a harsh enough environment. Despite his accepted role as the bad apple to Ricky’s football-obsessed sweetheart, Doughboy is fiercely loyal in the face of his mother’s obvious favouritism. The two have different fathers, both notable by their absence, but beyond petty quarrels the two are inseparable. Early in the movie, a ten-year-old Doughboy takes a beating from a local gangbanger in order to retrieve his brother’s stolen ball, a side of him that only his friends see.

Mrs Baker is portrayed by Tyra Ferrell in yet another towering performance of immense depth and intelligence, the kind that perfectly embodies the fierce pride and determination of a society stripped of all dignity. Despite always comparing Doughboy to his worthless father, she loves her son dearly; it’s the pressure and fear that forces her to act the way she does, her inability to prevent the inevitable resulting in nervous explosions of anger. Ferrell’s reaction to her son’s cruel, non-discriminatory demise late in the movie, a scene of unrepentant bluntness, is absolutely gut-wrenching, a confused maelstrom of hopelessness, despair and misdirected anger. There’s no greater dread for a parent than being powerless to prevent their child’s death. 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.

Boyz n the Hood was one of several productions released during the early 90s that formed part of a sub-genre known as ‘hood movies’, films that challenged racial segregation and state oppression in a forthright manner never before witnessed. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, released in the summer of ’89, took a semi-comedic approach to simmering racial tensions in a multicultural New York City, a shock finale tackling police brutality head-on. Four months prior to the release of Boyz N the Hood, New Jack City took a stylized approach to the perils of gang warfare, Wesley Snipes’ charismatic drug lord, Nino Brown, ruthlessly exploiting the black community during the city’s crack epidemic. Though Mario Van Peebles’ film questioned the influence of white power on the black community, the character delivering the classic line, “Ain’t no Uzis made in Harlem,” during the film’s climactic courtroom scenes, the gangs consisted of larger-than-life characters with no real backstory. It made a statement, a bold one, but it didn’t inspire direct understanding or empathy.

Of all those movies, Singleton’s startling debut stands tallest, thanks in large part to a realist approach to inner city crime that explores cause and effect, one elevated by a largely unknown cast of actors, two of whom would go on to become future Oscar winners. Cuba Gooding Jr, who plays an adult Jason ‘Tre’ Styles III, would go on to have a formidable career thanks to his breakout turn, bagging an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Cameron Crowe’s 1996 sports drama Jerry Maguire. More than a decade later, Regina King, who plays Shalika, would land the Best Supporting Actress award for the 2018 romantic drama If Beale Street Could Talk. Lawrence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, Tre’s parents in the film, would receive Best Actor/Actress nominations, once again starring alongside each other as Ike and Tina Turner in the critically acclaimed 1993 biographical drama What’s Love Got to Do with It. Boyz N the Hood also marked the silver screen debut of rapper Ice Cube, a controversial figure at the centre of black America’s struggle who Singleton had his heart set on from the very beginning, the two having met back in 1989 when the filmmaker was a directing intern on The Arsenio Hall Show.

Ice Cube, who wasn’t particularly interested in making the transition to acting at that point in his career, was so terrible he almost blew the opportunity to break into a business he’d further embrace as the years rolled by. “Go home and read my script,” Singleton would tell Cube, real name O’Shea Jackson. “I’m going to give you one more shot, because [the producers] don’t want to hire you, and I’m dying inside. I know you’re good. I know you can do it.” After reading the script, the rapper admitted to having an epiphany. “Damn, they’re actually going to make a movie about how we grew up. I didn’t know how we grew up was even interesting enough to be a movie. But the way John captured it, it was like cinematic beauty… I know these characters back and forth. I can play any of these guys. I could have played [Cuba Gooding Jr’s] part. I could have played Ricky. I could have played any of them, you know what I mean? Because they were all people I grew up with and knew.”

Singleton works miracles with his rookie cast, inspiring truly engaging and relatable performances in a manner that would have made influence Rob Reiner, another filmmaker renown for his people skills and ability to handle and motivate cast members, incredibly proud. It was like reliving a young Martin Scorsese crafting Mean Streets for a new generation. Incredibly, given the Academy’s track record for erring on the side of political caution, Singleton would receive two Academy Award Nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Director, the latter making him the youngest man of any colour to receive such an accolade (23), a record previously held by the brilliant and hugely influential Orson Welles. Johnathon Demme’s sensational serial killer sequel Silence of the Lambs would pip Boyz N the Hood to both awards. Both films were later chosen for inclusion in the National Film Registry for being, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, but there’s no doubting which of the two is more important as an artefact of American film history. The fact that Paramount initially tried to ditch Singleton for a more experienced director, finally conceding to the power of his conviction, is a minor miracle.

Furious: [after robbery attempt on his house] Somebody must have been praying for that fool, ’cause I swear I aimed right for his head.

Young Tre: You shudda blew it off.

Furious: Don’t say that. Don’t say that. It just would have been contributing to killing another brother.

The controversy surrounding Boyz N the Hood following its release was both very real and wholly unwarranted. The film opened in theatres nationwide on July 12, 1991, after a positive response at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, pulling in a healthy $10,023,462 during its opening weekend, 17.8% of its total domestic gross ($56,190,094), but screenings were mired by real-life gang violence, 30 people injured and two killed across 12 states. This weaponised America’s right-wing media, who cried foul over the movie’s potential for copycat violence. It didn’t matter that Singleton’s film was the most compassionate and least violent of the ‘hood movie’ sub-genre, refusing to tread cynical ground when a lesser film would have stoked the fires with black and white delineations of good vs evil, Boyz N the Hood‘s success made it a prime target in an era of gangster rap and black youth culture rebellion, itself a reaction to real-life incidents of racial injustice committed and condoned by the City of Los Angeles.

Back in 1991, the infamous LA riots were just around the corner, mainstream hip-hop more than just a vehicle for white-collar marketing. During the late 80s, rap groups such as Public Enemy and Ice Cube’s very own N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) burst onto the scene with no-nonsense lyrics and hard-hitting videos depicting gang violence and police corruption in New York and Los Angeles, respectively, hit records ‘Fight the Power’ and ‘Fuck Tha Police’ painting vivid stories of death and destruction, an indictment of systemic racial prejudice that incited riots and actually led to increased police violence. ‘Fuck Tha Police’, in particular, became a protest giant, re-emerging in a post-George Floyd #BlackLivesMatter environment of near civil war on the streets of America.

As NWA member MC Ren would recall about his days growing up on the streets of Compton, “It seemed like all throughout junior high school, high school, [police] would just fuck with you for no reason. It was like, if you black, you young, you in the hood, you in the ghettos of America, you just get fucked with. What you hear on the record is all the frustration, all the times getting harassed, getting pulled over for no reason at all, getting disrespected, having them try to disrespect your parents all because of your skin color. All of that builds up and you make a record. But we never thought the record would be around today with people still playing the record and into it. But shit, to me, it’s a perfect protest song.”

The ironies inherent in songs like Fuck Tha Police were misinterpreted, overlooked or simply used as ammunition amid a very real race war, the frenzy surrounding such artists leading to misguided fears within the Los Angeles community. For those glued to the daily diatribe of the mainstream media, groups such as Public Enemy and N.W.A were a scourge beset on violent rebellion, every African American a potential threat. On March 3, 1991, four months prior to the release of Boyz N the Hood, white American and Hispanic Los Angeles Police Department officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano were filmed mercilessly beating African-American citizen Rodney King following a high-speed chase, falsely accusing him of being under the influence, resisting arrest and aggressive behaviour, claims that were later disproven. Despite the overwhelming evidence, a jury acquitted four officers charged with using excessive force in what was a blatant disregard for justice and a slap in the face to African-Americans.

On March 16, 1991, less than two weeks after the Rodney King incident, 15-year-old African-American girl Latasha Harlins was fatally shot in the back of the head by a Korean convenience store owner for no apparent reason, a result of growing tensions between Black and Korean communities previously touched upon in Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Though convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the jury recommending a sentence of at least 16 years, judge Joyce Karlin went against the decision, sentencing Du to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine. In April 1992, a week before the L.A. Riots, a state appeals court, backed by a defiant George W. Bush, unanimously upheld Karlin’s sentence. What followed was the biggest example of civil unrest in the US since the Watts Riots in 1965, a six-day whirlwind of violence, arson, assault, looting and property destruction that resulted in 63 deaths, 2,383 injuries and over $1,000,000,000 in property damage. Once again, the government refused to take responsibility, dumping the blame in the laps of ‘thugs’ and ‘looters’. Crucially, the majority of the carnage was concentrated in the South Central area.

Tellingly, Boyz N the Hood opens to the sounds of gunfire and police reports of a possible murder. We don’t see the crime, but it’s there, in your face, ready to explode at any moment, or, to quote the late gangster rapper Eazy-E, “never seen like a shadow in the dark”. It’s a startling introduction, accompanied by the ubiquitous chaos of police helicopters and a quote that bluntly reads, “One out of every twenty-one black American males will be murdered in their lifetime. Most will die at the hands of another black male.” These are the sounds of 1991, not 1984, the interim seeing police brutality increase by more than 33 percent.

By now, our protagonists are at a crucial juncture in their lives, but they don’t embrace gang culture the way other films have depicted, it’s just there, as permanent and innocuous a fixture as the L.A sun. Instead, Tre, Doughboy, Ricky and Chris, despite the threat of death, be that from a gang member with too much time on their hands or a corrupt official with an itchy trigger finger, are enchanted by the allure of romance, summer days imbued with a cultural nostalgia, a familial tenderness of barbecues and kinship. Despite what society imposes on them, they’re still just kids.

A now paraplegic Chris notwithstanding, there’s little surprise in store for our four friends seven years on. Crenshaw isn’t a place synonymous with change, something we discover while perusing a welcome-home party for Doughboy after his latest stint in the slammer. He plans to stay out for good this time, sucking back suds as if numbing himself to the inevitable. In such neglected areas of American society, things have a tendency to remain the same; most daren’t leave their neighbourhoods, 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’s fathered an unplanned child, something his mother isn’t best pleased about, mainly because she senses more around the corner, his equally irresponsible girlfriend one more potential pitfall on the path to tenuous dreams. Tre’s momma is finally fulfilling her ambitions, has escaped the crime and the violence, but Tre has made a life for himself, is at home in an environment that is just as capable of love and compassion. As for Furious, his job is almost done, but his habit of rolling stress balls in borderline-impotent contemplation tells us that the biggest obstacle may still be ahead.

In reality, all three are little more than pipe dreams in a community that’s pushed out to the proverbial sea. Doughboy is the most common tragedy to come out of his environment. Still a young man, he’s already accepted his role as deadbeat, his place in relation to Ricky wonderfully juxtaposed in a scene in which 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, a gesture sullied by the oppressive sound of police helicopters, which do their best to overwhelm Ricky’s big moment. Later, when Tre decides to pull out of a potentially fateful act of vengeance, Doughboy isn’t bitter or concerned that his friend thinks of himself as superior. He’s 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.

The fact that we understand these characters and their situations on a personal level is what sets the movie apart, as is the fact that Singleton refuses to make the threat of violence and corruption, simmering on the plains of some occasionally glimpsed yet inevitable horizon, the movie’s focus. It’s the little details — the racist black cop, the intimate moment with the rival gang prior to Doughboy’s defining act of vengeance — that subvert expectation and make the movie’s tragic events so uniquely affecting. The dead-on observations of Singleton’s screenplay forge one of the most genuine depictions of life on the fringes of society, showing us that, even if you follow the right path, work hard and do your best to steer clear of the violence, the threat of tragedy is but a wrong turn away.

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.

Doughboy

Boyz N the Hood not only stands the test of time, in an increasingly corporate world of fake news and elite control, it’s an essential filmic time capsule that proves more vital than ever. It is desperate, violent, often heartbreaking, but its agenda is never polemical, its events never exploitative. Instead, Singleton highlights the role of the black community in overcoming a system that is designed to suppress and oppress based on something as meaningless as skin colour, the ultimate tool for convincing society that the problem lies with each other, not with those looking to prosper from the division of mindless hatred. It takes great skill, objectivity and personal insight to tackle a subject of such controversy so profoundly, and though the film is bold and unforgiving, it is permeated with an almost nostalgic warmth, with a strong emphasis on community that refuses to delineate good from evil and instead focuses on the reasons behind society’s degradation.

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’s about greed and consumerism, the world’s biggest corporations, the same who fund the media’s polemical onslaught, influencing government policies and shaping public opinion, turning inner city violence into a generic commodity and exploiting violent culture with consumer goods and dreams of wealth and prestige.

Boyz n the Hood is the antithesis of such sentiments. Crucially, it’s a movie entrenched in authenticity, 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. In fact, 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 just prior to his character’s closing fade-out, a nod to the future demise of Chris Chambers in Stand By Me, “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.”

Boyz n the Hood Logo

Director: John Singleton
Screenplay: John Singleton
Music: Stanley Clarke
Cinematography: Charles Mills
Editing: Bruce Cannon

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