BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991)

  • Director: John Singleton
  • Writer: John Singleton
  • Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Nia Long, and Regina King
  • Accolades: Slate’s Black Film Canon, 2 Oscar Nominations (Best Director – John Singleton, Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Tubi, Free Streaming with subscription to Netflix or Amazon Prime, Buy or rent with Amazon Video or YouTube

John Singleton first developed the story that would become Boyz N the Hood as part of his application to USC film school. As soon as he graduated in 1990, Columbia Pictures immediately bought the script, apparently hoping to duplicate the low-budget financial success of the previous year’s Do the Right Thing. Singleton only agreed to the deal on the condition he could direct the movie as well. Years later, he recounted to reporters that he “had no idea what he was doing,” which resulted in his shooting the movie completely in sequence (that is to say, the scenes were actually shot in the order they are shown in the movie, which nobody ever actually does), and only shooting single takes of some scenes. Angela Bassett would later describe taking him aside early on in the process and telling him, “you know, you really are in charge, you can make us do it again if you want.” This gives the whole thing what a modern art museum might call a “naive quality,” but it didn’t keep the movie from becoming a big hit. Singleton went on, at age 24, to become not only the first African-American to ever receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director, but also the youngest person ever.

Boyz N the Hood was not the sort of movie that was being made in 1991. It depicts a slice of life over a period of several years in South Central Los Angeles, in which several young men try to navigate a world where they could be shot at any moment. This can lead to major issues even when you have good intentions, which most of the main characters in this movie do most of the time. In one of the movie’s more memorable scenes, the main character of Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) breaks down in tears in the arms of his girlfriend (Nia Long), crying that he is “so sick of this.” What he means, really, is being a young Black man in 1991. Less than a year after this movie hit theaters, the same LA neighborhoods where it was shot would be gripped by the 1992 L.A. Riots. John Singleton was standing outside the LA courthouse as the Rodney King verdict came down, sadly predicting that there would be violence.

For many, this movie was either their first really authentic look into this world, or the first time they saw their own world on the big screen. Most of the actors involved (with the notable exception of Laurence Fishburne) were making their major movie debuts, including Gooding, Long, Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Regina King, and even Angela Bassett, who had mostly been on TV before this. It is a warts-and-all view, down to the heroin-addicted woman whose baby wanders into the street. Yet it is clear Singleton is heavily influenced by the idealistic teen movies of his childhood, like Stand By Me. There is even a scene where a bunch of kids walk down some railroad tracks and one of them asks the others if they “want to see a dead body. The difference being that in South Central, they just have to go around the corner, and there’s a dead body, yep.

Singleton may not have quite had the hang of directing actors, but the “writing what you know” is evident throughout. When a recruiter from USC shows up to talk to football star Ricky (Chestnut) about a scholarship, he and his entire family talk completely differently than they do the rest of the movie, what today would be called “code switching,” because they’re trying to impress the guy. But that works both ways. All the men in the movie exist in a culture of toxic masculinity. At one point, Ice Cube (as “Dough Boy”) gives a long monologue about how “If God was a bitch, then there wouldn’t be wars and shit, because bitches don’t think of things like that.” As Regina King’s character immediately points out, he can’t help but refer to women by epithets like “bitch” and “ho,” even when having a conversation that is otherwise sort of respectful to women.

Singleton did crib many of the details from his life and those of his friends growing up, which shows in how specific some of them are. Like the guy who even as a grown man is sucking on a pacifier for some reason, or Dough Boy’s friend Chris, who rides around in a wheelchair because of a gunshot wound, while wearing a hat that just says “I’m Chris” for the entire movie. Nobody ever comments on this. In the early scenes, boys eleven or so years old fight over whose “woman” the girl the same age across the street is, which includes them yelling to each other that they’re going to “stick their thing in her.” The movie isn’t trying to shock us with how terrible these kids are, it’s trying to show us what kids in this time and place are actually dealing with, trying to fit in with a world that they don’t actually understand.

Fishburne and Bassett are memorable as Tre’s parents. She takes him to live with his dad, whose name is “Furious Styles,” but ends up as a successful (for his neighborhood) loan officer. She thinks he needs to learn to be a “real man.” Later, we see that this involves Fishburne flamboyantly sniffing his son, to see if he’s “had some pussy.” Yet Fishburne also gets long, didactic monologues about how the white people want them all to kill each other. In one scene, Tre’s mother berates him for answering the phone with “Who this?,” but when she asks to speak to his father, we hear that’s exactly how he answers the phone, too. This, again, passes without comment.

To make the perhaps-inevitable comparison, Do the Right Thing is a better-made movie, and I think probably has more to say about life in America in a larger sense, but Boyz N the Hood may have done more to change the movie industry. It even spawned a full-on parody a few years later starring the Wayans brothers, Don’t Be a Menace in South Central While You’re Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. Singleton was never able to live up to its success again, but he directed eight more movies over the next few decades. These included not only several more dramas set in South Central LA, but also a remake of Shaft and 2 Fast 2 Furious. Unfortunately, Singleton passed away in 2019 after suffering a stroke at the age of 51.

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