The ads for Boyz N the Hood, the debut of a 23-year old writer-director named John Singleton, treated the film as if it took place in another galaxy—a mysterious fiefdom far, far away. And so it does, set in a land as alien to most people as Mars: the inner city of Los Angeles. Boyz N the Hood went on to become a singular success among the spate of home boy hits that tromped through cineplexes in 1991, leaving sticky pools of jargon in their wake.
Singleton’s coming-of-age story sends its young protagonists hurtling headlong into tomorrow, forced to choose between manhood and forever remaining one of the “boyz.” His message is simple: taking responsibility for yourself and those you love is what a man does.
Boyz N the Hood was unique in confronting the soul-deadening shadows that loom so large over African-American youth, as well as the entrenched attitudes creating a chasm of alienation that may never be bridged.
Boyz N the Hood has as touch stones two varied film genres with a hard kernel of similarity at their centers. First, it is an heir of the social conscience films turned out by Warner Bros. in the 1930s—like The Public Enemy, I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and, most specifically, Angels with Dirty Faces. And secondly, it echoes the wave of black films that crashed into the American consciousness in the 1970s—such as Michael Schultz’s Cooley High, one of the finest. Both eras launched a clear-eyed assault on a societal ill, the disenfranchised of the ghettoes, and so does Singleton.
Boyz N the Hood implicitly indicts the Reaganite policies that turned South Central Los Angeles into a benighted zone worse off than Eastern Europe. Singleton chose the most straightforward story possible, told in an almost elegiac fashion. In this L.A. that he once called home, the despair is underscored by the continual pounding of chopper blades, reminding us that South Central is a virtual armed camp under perpetual patrol by the police. Teenaged Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), Singleton’s hero, wants nothing more than any other teenager—to hang with his homeys, clock the honeys and dream about a future. But unlike most other kids in the Land of Opportunity, his is a world where dreams are always brutally compromised.
Boyz N the Hood is not without hope, particularly as embodied by both Tre’s best friend Rick (Morris Chestnut) and his aptly named father Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne). Furious’s voice, a gravelly purr, is a stream of truth-telling, and a reminder of the possibilities that can be seized. Fishburne’s performance is a mixture of affection, rage and common sense, transmitting a world view gleaned from a wary squint. He rails, with low-key aplomb, about the constant surrender of power that African-Americans accept: gentrification and black-on-black violence—both about turf. For him, knowledge is the difference between victim status and self-determination. Through Furious, Singleton provides the film’s most important element—a burning pride that separates the strivers from those who give up, in the end the most necessary thing a father can pass on to his son. In counterpoint to the jumble of signals that could lead Tre astray, Furious is a strong, unerring drumbeat of what is right and true.
Ricky is a talented football player whose future in the pros seems assured, if he can squeeze past the SATs and get into college. His sweet openness is the light of the ‘hood, the upbeat flip side of the live-to-fight ethic embraced by his brother Doughboy (rapper Ice Cube), a baby-faced gangster whose eyes glint with a dull anger. By favoring Ricky over Doughboy, their mother unwittingly does more to destroy her family than save it. She is played by Tyra Ferrell, in what may be the best performance of 1991—complex, sure-footed and graceful, she conveys a womanly depth of emotion that must have gone far beyond what Singleton can possibly have envisioned.
Singleton strives to evoke a place most of us only see on the six o’clock news in tallies of drive-by shootings and the street value of drugs seized in busts. By distilling into palpable characters the real humanity and horror of that world, Singleton manages to place a street value on life—it’s priceless.