I met an acquaintance of mine recently - a woman with many years' experience working in the world of feature films - and she had just read a piece I wrote called "Making Movies Matter." In it, I lamented the current state of mainstream American film, a product which seems farther removed from real people and real problems than at any point in the medium's history. (And yes, I am counting the Great Depression years.) She reminded me that we are approaching the 25-year anniversary of a movie that did matter a great deal when it was released, the debut feature from writer-director John Singleton, Boyz in the Hood (1991).
It's easy to get distracted when remembering Boyz in the Hood. For one thing, along with Francis Ford Coppola's The Outsiders (1983), it boasts the most extraordinary cast of new (or mostly new) actors assembled for a movie in the past thirty years. Almost all of the principals - Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Angela Bassett, Nia Long, Regina King - were making their feature debuts, or at least their serious feature debut. The cast also included several veterans - most notably Laurence Fishburne, who proved to be a towering figure in the overall landscape of the story.
The movie was also caught up in the controversy that raged at the time over the value of gangsta rap. The movie's title came from a rap song written by Ice Cube and performed by Eazy-E and NWA in 1987. The following year, when NWA released their seminal disc Straight Outta Compton, there was a public uproar over the apparent violent anti-social message attributed to gangsta rappers in general.
By the time Singleton's movie came out, echoing much of what Ice Cube had been writing about both as a member of NWA and as a solo artist, it was hard for some to disentangle the art from the reality, a riddle that still vexes guardians of public taste to this day. But with the bit of perspective that time allows, it is easy to see how spot on its message was, and remains.
Boyz in the Hood is a drama about three young men growing up in South Central Los Angeles. One of them, Tre Styles (Gooding, Jr.) lives with his father, Furious Styles (Fishburne). Tre is very smart, and Furious makes it his mission to educate him to the ways of the world so that he can grow up and not be dependent on anyone. He cautions his son not to join the army, as Furious himself had done, because there is nothing there for a black man. He goes on about the importance of education. Tre's friends are half brothers Ricky (Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube). Ricky is a football star hoping to get a scholarship to USC, while Doughboy has been in and out of juvie throughout his teenage years.
During the course of the story, there will be gang-related violence and tragedy. But one of the most interesting things about watching the movie many years after its release is how little of its run-time is devoted to such things. Signs of trouble hover all around - women are treated poorly as a matter of course, vulgarity is a constant, as is the cold 40 which seems permanently attached to Doughboy's right hand. There is a palpable aura of danger. But apart from a brief fist fight in which the ten-year old Tre engages during the prologue, there are no actual physical fights during the first two-thirds of the story. There is some trash talking, but the majority of the film consists of barbecues and college recruiting and SATs and standard family quarrels. And talks about life, usually from Furious directed toward Tre. Indeed, the most disturbing moments during those first two-thirds of the movie come in a scene between Furious and two police officers who have been slow to investigate a break in at the Styles home. This volatile relationship between the residents of South Central L.A. and the LAPD was something Ice Cube wrote about repeatedly in his rap career.
In other words, the majority of Boyz in the Hood is not concerned with drugs and gangs and violence. It is concerned with people trying to grow up and raise families in difficult, realistically grounded, conditions. Eventually, the drama will revolve around senseless gang-related violence, and when it does, it manages a crucial feat. Watch Doughboy in the aftermath of a tragic murder toward the end of the movie. He is the most violent and nihilistic of the main characters - the one most likely to seek revenge. But Singleton is very careful to take his time with Doughboy's reaction. His initial impulse is not to seek revenge, but to consider the future. He wants an infant who has been subjected to the horrors of the climactic events removed from the room. He wants to comfort his own mother. He is unable to accomplish either thing. When he finally snaps and decides to turn toward violence, we can read it as a senseless perpetuation of this insanity, but we never lose sight of the fact that this is a complex character driven by complex forces. Societal issues combine with his personal sense of loss, betrayal, and impotence, to compel him to act. We see all the same impulses in Tre's character, but with a different upbringing, Tre will make a different choice.
Boyz in the Hood can be prone to didacticism, and its villains are not particularly well-rendered. But Singleton has the good sense to give most of the oratory to Furious. Not only does that allow the brilliant Fishburne to handle those difficult passages, but it also makes internal sense; Furious is trying to educate his son and what father is not prone to speechifying from time to time. He also has some exceptional small moments, such as the scene in which Tre's mother (Bassett) argues with Furious over a certain parenting decision. They are in a nice restaurant and as their voices begin to rise, she warns him to shut up and listen to her before she does something to make a fool out of both of them. It is an exceptional moment revealing how the most intelligent characters in the story realize the potency of self-destructive behavior when faced with intransigence.
American film has a very insulting and disappointing history when it comes to depicting people of color on screen. In the wake of the race-baiting Birth of a Nation (1915), African American cinema enjoyed a very brief and very small period of growth with producers like Peter Jones and William Foster and Noble Johnson carving out a small slice of the market for themselves. This fledgling growth was snuffed out by the economic pressures associated with advent of synchronized sound in the late 1920s, and for many years, only one African American producer, Oscar Micheaux, was able to stay in business. Though the mainstream studios began giving somewhat bigger roles to African America performers (almost exclusively in musicals), you rarely saw realistic minority characters on screen. In 1964, Michael Roemer, a German ex-pat who fled the Nazis as part of a Kindertransport, made Nothing But a Man, a solid melodrama which portrays a regular African American man (Ivan Dixon) struggling with realistically grounded problems. A decade later, young African American filmmakers from the L.A. Rebellion began to produce similar films that focused on real characters and avoided stereotypes. Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep would become the most famous.
But very few people saw Nothing But a Man or Killer of Sheep. In a similar vein, very few people saw 2013's Fruitvale Station, despite outstanding reviews and what should have been a star-making performance from Michael B. Jordan. Fruitvale Station grossed 16 million last year. In 1991, Boyz in the Hood grossed almost 60 million. That was an era in which mainstream Hollywood studios seemed at least somewhat interested in movies about real things, and not just in sequels about comic book characters.
My acquaintance thinks that Boyz in the Hood should be re-released for its 25th anniversary. She thinks its message is as relevant today - and maybe even more so - than it was twenty-five years ago. I challenge you to watch the scene between Furious Styles and Officer Coffey (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson) and not think of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. I challenge you to listen to Doughboy's final speech ("Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what's going on in the hood") and tell her she's wrong.