Black Directors Feature #6 – Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Boyz_n_the_hood_posterBoyz n the Hood (1991)
Directed by: John Singleton
Written by: John Singleton
Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Larry Fishburne, Nia Long, Angela Bassett, Tyra Ferrell

From the dirty streets of 1970’s New York featuring pimps, prostitutes, dealers, mobs, and crooked cops, to the corruption and confusion of the Senegalese government and its people, we arrive in the hoods of 1990’s South Central L.A., with our first truly modern film of the marathon.  Instead of the complications involving crooked and underage officers of the law, high-scale drug pushing, and complicated governmental affairs, we see young men and women risking their lives on a daily basis, just living from day to day.  Given few opportunities by the leaders of their country and the educational establishments of the time, many of them are forced to take up arms in order to defend themselves and their families from hostiles.  Director John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood was an incredible and unique vision at the time of its release, garnering universal acclaim from critics and audiences.  The film was praised for its terrific lead and supporting performances, the tight and concise screenplay with little wasted moments, and for its down-to-earth and unsentimental look at the urban lives of young black Americans.  Boyz n the Hood would go on to earn over $55 million at the box office in its North American release, all this on a meager $6.5 million budget.  On top of its massive critical and box office success, at just 24 years old John Singleton would become the youngest person ever nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards, as well as the first ever African-American honored with the nod.  The film earned nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, but lost to the much more popular The Silence of the Lambs and Thelma & Louise, respectively.  Despite not picking up any major awards, Boyz n the Hood and director John Singleton have been honored in other historically significant ways.  The film now sits in the American Library of Congress’ National Film Registration, and has gone on to influence two generations of black filmmakers in America and abroad.  It’s also notable for jump-starting the career of future Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr., and served as the big screen debut of N.W.A. rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube.

boyz-n-the-hood-original-1

Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and Ricky (Morris Chestnut) in 1991’s Boyz n the Hood.

Boyz n the Hood follows the life of young Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who we see grow up from a potentially troubled but intelligent young man, to a responsible young man with the successes of adulthood within his line of sight, and all the potential needed to become something truly great.  After getting into a fight at school and disobeying the rules set by his intellectual mother, Tre is sent to live with his somewhat estranged father Jason (or “Furious”) Styles (Larry Fishburne) in order to have a responsible and influential male figure in his life.  The downside to living with his intelligent and responsible father is now having to grow up in the ghettos of the Crenshaw district of South Central Los Angeles.  Tre grows up with friends Doughboy (Ice Cube), his step-brother Ricky (Morris Chestnut), and Chris (Redge Green), and the four of them regularly see and hear things like shooting, drug dealers, gangs, and burnouts.  After establishing our principle cast and the neighbourhood these boys are living in, we jump seven years into the future.  We come to find out that Doughboy has just recently been released from prison, and is now a member of the Crips, Tre’s friend Chris is in a wheelchair after complications from a gunshot wound, and Doughboy’s brother Ricky has a young son and is being scouted for a scholarship by a local university.  The four of them reconnect in many ways, but all parties involved know just how different they all are from each other, and just how much hood life has affected their lives.  Eventually, Tre and Ricky are put in immediate danger after inadvertently getting involved in business between Doughboy and his Crip friends, and Ferris (Raymond Turner) and his gang, members of the rival Bloods.  Can Tre and Ricky live up to the potential that their family and friends see in them, or will the violent and complicated hood lifestyle of South Central L.A. ruin their chances at a truly good life?  Find out in John Singleton’s Oscar-nominated Boyz n the Hood.

After hearing about this film for years and often unfairly dismissing it as just another dated 1990’s social issue movie, I’m so incredibly glad to say that I couldn’t have been further away from the truth.  Boyz n the Hood is hard-hitting, emotional but never hackneyed, and features an incredible cast and crew of people who should have had far more successful careers than they’ve had to date.  This is a truly memorable and heavy experience, which is something I never expected to see – especially from a first time director and a cast of young and relatively inexperienced actors.  The real shining beacon here is John Singleton, who both wrote and directed the film.  His script has incredible weight to it, but is never afraid to use comedy and lighter moments to develop its world and the characters living in it.  Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy all feel like three-dimensional character, and it helps the film’s heavier moments feel that much more impactful.  Recurring themes like the aggressive and racist police officer reminds the audience that little changes in this neighborhood, and creates a sense of hopelessness and despair.  You want so badly to see these young men and the people in their lives succeed, but you can very clearly see how much of an uphill battle it is.  Singleton’s direction is far more restrained than most first time directors have ever been, never afraid to linger on a scene for a few extra frames in order to get a point across.  The acting is another commendable aspect of the film, especially in performances from Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Tre, and Ice Cube as Doughboy.  Both men are starring in their first leading roles on screen, but have the presence and command of far more experienced actors.  It’s a shame that Cuba’s career went so downhill after his Oscar win for Jerry Maguire, because he’s incredibly talented as both a dramatic and comedic actor.  It’s so easy to get behind Tre as somebody with a great deal of potential trapped in a confusing world, mostly because Cuba plays him perfectly as a brave and idealistic young man.  Ice Cube’s performance as Doughboy made me long for more dramatic roles from the former rapper, because his performance steals the show in the film’s climax.  You can see the pain in his eyes in every scene, especially in moments where he interacts with his more successful younger brother, and his mother who is clearly playing favorites.  He quickly goes from being an unlikeable character to somebody you desperately hope can escape from the lifestyle he’s made for himself.  Another standout supporting player is Larry Fishburne, who plays Furious, Tre’s father.  Furious is the most positive influence these young men have in their lives, and he does everything in his power to make sure that his young son doesn’t end up like so many others in the neighborhood have.  Fishburne brings his wealth of talent and experience to the role, and perfectly suits the wise young father-figure who watches over the neighborhood, damning the community for their constant infighting.  His passion and frustration is clear in every single scene Fishburne is involved in, and his scenes in the final act help remind us just how much is at stake here.

Laurence Fishburne Boyz n the Hood

Larry Fishburne as Furious in John Singleton’s classic Boyz n the Hood.

If you can’t tell from reading this, I loved every minute of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood.  It has an incredible message that still rings true to this day, and is a subtle and touching look at the lives of relatable young people in a perilous situation.  While it’s undeniably full of social commentary, every second of it is handled gently.  It’s a film that should still be shown to young people around the world, as it’s a damning condemnation against violence and hatred, especially within America’s black community.  Boyz n the Hood is masterfully written and directed by a filmmaker who I hope has a resurgence someday, because his work on this movie is truly remarkable.  The acting from the entire cast is incredible, especially in its highly emotional final act.  It’s a relevant and entertaining look at a lifestyle that is often ignored in Hollywood, and is absolutely an essential film from its time period.  John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood gets my highest recommendation.

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