Bucket List Movie #451: Boyz N the Hood (1991)
In 1991, John Singleton joined a very elite, very special group: the Wunderkind Directors Club. All right, you got me, I just made it up, but, darn it all, I think it should exist. Singleton, like Orson Welles and Stephen Spielberg before him, directed a successful, culturally significant film before the age of 30. Only 23 when he directed today's BLM, Boyz N the Hood, he was nominated the following year for the Best Director Academy Award, a full two years younger than Welles was when he was nominated decades prior.
But it's wasteful to just focus on Singleton's youth when he directed his magnum opus: Nearly a quarter of a century after its release (feel old yet? I do), Boyz N the Hood still feels fresh and relevant. Naturalistic, simple, and not a single embellishment to cushion its emotional impact, Boyz N the Hood holds up beautifully as not only good-old fashioned storytelling, but an unforgiving, thought-provoking expose on the lives of urban youth in brutal, early '90s South Central.
The film opens in 1984, and young Tre Styles ( Desi Arnez Hines II) has been sent to live with his father, Furious, (Laurence Fishburne) after disrupting his class once again. To be fair, his teacher was blandly droning on about the utterly false story of Thanksgiving, so it's hard for me to fault the kid. If Tre's old neighborhood was hard (in a sneaky parallel to Stand By Me, Tre takes his friends to see a dead body of someone recently shot), Furious's neighborhood is even worse. Break-ins, shootings, ineffectual police, and drug dealers are a way of life. If bullies take your things, well, you're up the creek. When a crackhead's toddler wanders into the street, she is retrieved and taken to safety without anyone batting an eye. If Tre and his friends Chris (Kenneth A. Brown), Doughboy (Baha Jackson), and Ricky (Donovan McCrary) haven't shed their innocence already, they're on the verge of doing so. Innocence isn't an option in a place like this.
Skip ahead seven years, and we see how our protagonists have grown: Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a reasonably clean-cut every-guy with a solid future. Doughboy (Ice Cube) has been released from prison, but is in no rush to leave his drug-dealing ways behind him. Ricky (Morris Chestnut), who is also Doughboy's half-brother, is a talented athlete with a shot at a football scholarship. He is also a young father of an infant, and his girlfriend lives at home with him. Chris (Regi Green) is now wheelchair-bound after a gunfight.
Boyz N the Hood is mainly a character study and slice-of-life parable, and Singleton, like any good writer, gives his audience credit by presenting his characters in an objective light so we can draw our own conclusions. Truthfully, though, every moment in Boyz N the Hood rings true because few characters are either completely good or completely bad. Tre is a boy scout compared to most of his friends, but he is just as prone to jerky, teenage douchebag behavior as anyone else, such as pressuring his Catholic girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long) to have sex. In fact, he is so ashamed of his virginity, he even tells his own father a phony anecdote about a one-night stand he had. Doughboy may be a reprobate who resents his mother's favoritism towards Ricky (can't fault him for that, either), but he also loves Ricky and would go to the ends of the earth to protect him. Furious is a smart, insightful man who raised a decent kid, but he is also prone to conspiracy theories and rather hypocritical behavior. I confess I have issues with a scene, early on in the film, where a burglar breaks into his house, and Furious aims a gun at the man, shoots… and misses. When Tre tells him he should have shot him, Furious then tells him that it would have been wrong, that it would have contributed to the death of another black man. Um, Furious? You had the gun, you aimed, and you fired, and most people don't aim and fire a gun with the intent to miss.
Much like Do the Right Thing, tension bubbles beneath the surface, ready to ignite. But while Do the Right Thing tackled racial tension between blacks, whites, and pretty much everyone else, Boyz N the Hood is in some ways more tragic in revealing the racial tension that can exist in a single, predominantly black neighborhood. There are older gang members who still antagonize Tre and his friends, culminating in a fateful night that will irrevocably determine their futures.
Boyz N the Hood dares to ask pertinent questions that, to this day, still don't have simple answers. How much does our environment influence us? Is society to blame for others' ills? When is society to blame, and when does the individual shoulder the blame? "Blame" is always the key word, isn't it? While it's not an unreasonable debate (indeed, it's really much more complex the more you think about it), I pose a lot of questions: what does it matter who's at fault? Once we've pointed the finger successfully, where do we go from there? Is it really productive trying to find who's at fault, be it a handy scapegoat or the genuinely guilty party? Shouldn't people, working either as individuals or as communities, instead be more concerned with stepping up and doing what's right? Something, or someone, is responsible for making us how we are, but is the origin of a tragic story really all that important?
But these are just the inane questions of a vapid dilettante ill-equipped to theorize on these issues. Obviously it's a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum that's too difficult for someone like me to write about. Since I agree with the cliched (but no less true) writer's credo to "write what you know", I will say this: Hollywood needs more black writers and directors who, like Singleton, actually know how people talk, act, and live. The cast of Boyz N the Hood is rock solid, and like these characters or not, no one hits a false note. I was too young for Cuba Gooding Jr.'s early films (hell, I still haven't seen Jerry Maguire), and am more familiar with his, shall we say, less than stellar later work, such as Boat Trip, Daddy Day Camp, and, of course, Snow Dogs. Anyone remember how the comic strip The Boondocks seemed to dredge up Snow Dogs at least once a week? But I'm not trying to bust Gooding's chops; even the greatest actors have some stinkers under their belts. No, I take issue at the dearth of good roles for black actors in Hollywood. There has been some improvement, but not nearly enough. Why aren't there more well-written romances, period films, and dramas for black actors? I was thrilled that Lupita N'yongo won for 12 Years a Slave, but it was still the role of a slave. I want to see her in kickass leading lady parts, and if there's any justice, they'll be coming her way. It took Gooding a while to live down his post-Oscar slump, but he's come out on the other end in recent years, so good for him. He, Ice Cube, and Morris Chestnut have a natural dynamic and chemistry; you really feel that these men grew up together.
Tiresome Observation of the Day: Apparently, Laurence Fishburne and Samuel L. Jackson are often mistaken for one another. This just baffles me. Aside from the fact that they look nothing alike (certainly not to me), their acting styles couldn't be more different. While Jackson's specialty is swaggering cool married with hair-trigger aggression, Fishburne has always projected an eerie, icy calm that is in some ways more menacing than Jackson's onscreen persona. It's funny how different people's perceptions can be.
Boyz N the Hood was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2002, earning its rightful place in cinema history. It's an excellent debut film, made by a young man who knew all too well what life in South Central was like. I mentioned earlier about writing what you know, and John Singleton did just that, and it paid off.