In these divisive times in which we live it’s incredibly distressing that John Singleton’s 1991 classic Boyz N The Hood is still as fiercely relevant as it is. A sizzling debut from a time where new, fresh and justifiably angry black voices were springing up everywhere, Singleton’s debut stands out as an impressively balanced slice of the black experience of America while simultaneously acting as almost as a kind of moral yardstick, educating as it tells it’s story.
It’s 1984 and life goes on in a Los Angeles ghetto for young Tre Styles, a intelligent but angry ten year old. Sent to live in South Central with his father “Furious” Styles in order to give him a strong male role model in his life, Tre hooks up with brothers Ricky and “Doughboy” and negotiates the streets where gang culture is rife. Mama’s boy Ricky is good hearted and adept at sports whereas Doughboy is far more streetwise and utterly fearless and the after following these kids through various experiences that include finding a dead body and a run in with a hostile black police officer, the group is temporarily split when Doughboy is arrested for shoplifting.
Jumping ahead to 1991 and Tre, following the wisdom of his father, has a good job, hopes to attend college soon and has a girlfriend, Brandi, whom he’s trying to bed despite push back from her Catholic upbringing. Ricky is seeking to get a football scholarship while raising a family in his single mother’s place despite he isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the drawer and Doughboy, thanks to various times spent in lockup is dealing on the streets.
As we follow the day to day lives of our main characters we learn a fundamental rule of the streets and that is that a bullet – either aimed or stray – is never too far away and a seemingly minor incident will tragically spiral until it claims the life of one of the three friends while putting the other two at a crossroads that will change them for the rest of their lives.
Quite possibly the most remarkable thing about Boyz N The Hood (apart from it’s jaw dropping cast) is how impressively measured the movie is, not only in bringing a sobering look at urban life in general but in how much the film acts like a moral and responsible guide for young black men in general. Mostly imparted from the lips of Lawrence Fishburne’s magnificently named Furious Styles (real name Jason), whenever he lays some of his honorable but stern wisdom upon his son he might as well be addressing anyone in the audience in a similar situation and in my experience, when Lawrence Fishburne talks, I usually listen. The result is an moviegoing experience that despite the constant threat of drive by shootings and the endless pulse of police choppers passing overhead interspersed with the occasional pop of gunfire, Singleton’s Hood is mostly a hopeful place to be even if the ending is laced with tragedy.
The characters are superbly balanced too with none of the cast painted in broad strokes; Ice Cube’s charismatic Doughboy may be a dealer of drugs (and death by the movie’s end) but he’s not anymore “evil” than Tre is “good” and instead acts as a cautionary tale in a world where black on black crime is horribly prevalent.
Another noticable aspect is Singleton’s refusal to pin everyone’s predicament simply on white people, yes, issues such as gentrification and the culling of African American communities through infighting come across loud and clear (Furious points out that every street corner has either a liquor store or a gun shop placed there like it’s some oppressive version of Monopoly) it’s made quite plain that that’s nowhere near the only problem. In a noticable scene Tre and Ricky run afoul of a brutal, violent black police officer who delights in pulling his gun on them just to delight in seeing how terrified they are.
The cast is electric with virtually every role filled by someone who you recognize went on to have long and varied careers. Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Lawrence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Regina King – that’s not what you’d call a list to be sneezed at…
In fact the only things that mar Boyz N The Hood are the occasional imperfection here and there that regrettably take you out of the movie. Picking on the ages of the actors portraying the characters on screen may come across as nitpicking but if Cuba Gooding Jr. was actually 17 when he made this film I’ll drink my own urine (spoiler: he wasn’t, so my diet will thankfully remain urine-free for the foreseeable future). In fact this goes for virtually the entire cast, none of whom age a day despite the 7 year time leap and while this does absolutely nothing to dilute the power of the movie, it does occasionally spur the odd spot of unintentional laughter.
Plus the movie’s treatment of young women is not as balanced as the rest of the film primarily as it’s chiefly told through the eyes of horny 17 year old young men. Even Regina King’s Shalika complains at one point “Why is it every time you talk about a female you gotta say bitch, ho, or hootchie?”, only to be told “‘Cause that’s what you are!” by a posturing Doughboy.
However, the film’s credentials speak loudly for themselves as an unapologetic wake up call to the world at large from a man with vision to spare. Say what you want about the fact that Singleton went on to direct guff like 2 Fast 2 Furious; Boyz N The Hood’s Oscar nomination for best director (and best original screenplay) made the filmmaker the first black man, not to mention the youngest man ever, to be nominated for the award and his legacy lives on in a film full of defiant heart and righteous conscience.