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Top 100 Films #83 – Boyz n the Hood (1991)

 

071116-celebs-ways-boyz-n-the-hood-changed-hollywood-still-2#83. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Directed by: John Singleton
Written by: John Singleton
Starring: Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Morris Chestnut, Larry Fishburne, Angela Bassett

The first time I saw John Singleton’s 1991 masterpiece Boyz n the Hood was last February for our Black Directors marathon.  I went in with relatively low expectations, as I had heard a number of mixed things about the project.  After multiple watches, I was blown away by the performances, the atmosphere, the message, and the relevance of the film – and completely unprepared for how much it would affect me emotionally.  It instantly became one of my all-time favorite films, which should say a great deal about how powerful its message is. Boyz n the Hood stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as Tre, a young black man living in the notorious Crenshaw district of Los Angeles.  Tre and his girlfriend have plans to attend college together in the Fall, finally able to escape from their unpredictable and occasionally dangerous lives.  Before they can go, Tre and his best friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut) try to make the best of their situation, hanging out for one last summer. The true star of Boyz n the Hood is Ice Cube’s Doughboy – who brings much of the emotional weight to the film.  John Singleton’s film served as the first on-screen appearance for successful rapper Ice Cube, who delivers a career-best performance as the good kid gone bad Doughboy.  Aside from some excellent performances, John Singleton’s script is incredibly genuine and original, clearly coming from a place of respect and understanding.  Boyz n the Hood packs an emotional punch without ever feeling preachy or sentimental, which is important in a film with such an important social message.  The film lead to John Singleton picking up Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay – making him the first African American nominated for the award, and the youngest person nominated for both.  Boyz n the Hood is a truly important and entertaining experience that still feels sadly relevant after 25 years.  To read my full thoughts, you can check out my review of Boyz n the Hood here.

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Black Directors Feature #8 – Menace II Society (1993)

MPW-26165Menace II Society (1993)
Directed by: Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes
Written by: Tyger Williams (Based on a story by: Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes, Tyger Williams)
Starring: Tyrin Turner, Jada Pinkett, Larenz Tate, Samuel L. Jackson, MC Eiht, Glenn Plummer

Following the enormous success of John Singleton’s hit Boyz n the Hood, films set in South Central Los Angeles were going for a dime a dozen, and the hood drama was becoming all the rage in early 1990’s North America.  In 1993 – just two years following that hit – the Hughes Brothers, Allen and Albert, made their high profile directorial debuts with the surprise hit Menace II Society.  The film takes a great deal of thematic and stylistic inspiration from the aforementioned Boyz n the Hood, which was the case for a great deal of films of the time.  The twin brothers capitalized on its success the same way Gordon Parks Jr. did with Super Fly after his father’s hit Shaft was met with such widespread acclaim.  The pre-production and casting phase of the movie went through various stars before shooting could begin, with hugely popular rappers MC Ren of N.W.A. fame and Tupac Shakur both attached to the project at some point.  Tupac’s involvement is perhaps most notorious, as it resulted in a lawsuit after the hip hop star assaulted one of the film’s directors following a series of arguments about the religious views of one of the film’s primary characters.  The film stars future big names like Jada Pinkett, Samuel L. Jackson, and Larenz Tate.  Shot on a budget of only $3.5 million, Menace II Society was a modest hit at the box office, raking in a very impressive $30 million and ensuring that Allen and Albert would find Hollywood careers soon after. Menace II Society was made with positive reviews upon its release, helping the small production slide into a more mainstream audience.  The film was noted for its gritty portrayal of young black Americans in South Central, holding no punches when it came to the violent content displayed on-screen.  It received an award at the 1993 Independent Spirit Awards, and was regarded by many critics as one of the better films to see a release that year.  The Hughes Brothers have continued to work in Hollywood since their successful debut, directing hits like Dead Presidents, From Hell, and most recently The Book of Eli.  In 2013, Allen Hughes would make his solo directorial debut with Broken City, temporarily leaving Albert to work on projects of his own.

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Tyrin Turner (Caine) and Larenz Tate (O-Dog) in 1993’s Menace II Society.

We follow young Caine Lawson (Tyrin Turner) as he struggles with living life in South Central as a young, underprivileged man of color.  Caine’s father was killed in a drug deal, and his mother is currently a heroin addict.  The young man has grown up with his grandparents, who are proud of what he has accomplished despite everything.  What they don’t yet know is that Caine is a drug dealer himself, and associates himself with a group of young gangbangers.  After being an accessory in a brutal convenience store shooting that his friend Kevin (or O-Dog) (Larenz Tate) triggered, Caine’s life as a young dealer will never again be the same.  After being carjacked and seeing a friend killed, Caine, O-Dog, and A-Wax (MC Eiht) track down the murderers and kill them, furthering the cycle of violence.  Caine and O-Dog are soon recruited by a local thug named Chauncy (Clifton Powell) for more petty crimes, but are arrested after the police are tipped off about their activities.  Caine is suspected by the police for taking part in the convenience store killings, but the evidence is too shaky to prosecute the young man.  Soon after being released, Caine finds out a fling of his has resulted in a pregnancy, and his partnership with Chauncey quickly begins to deteriorate after aggressive behaviour from both parties.  Will Caine and his friends be able to escape from the hood lifestyle that has claimed the lives of so many of their peers, or will the cycle of violence make its way back to them?  Find out in The Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society.

There’s a lot to admire about The Hughes Brothers’ debut feature, especially because of its status as a first-time project from both men.  Menace II Society feels incredibly competent in the way it’s directed, with its camera never stopping for too long, and instead constantly moving and jumping around as Caine’s situation gets more and more dire.  The editing and cinematography are two more elements to be appreciated, especially because of the relatively low budget of the film.  South Central feels hot and grimy during the movie’s many daytime scenes, with its night scenes giving a sense of dread and mystery lying in the darkness of the hood.  The very large problem with Menace II Society comes in the form of its script, which is far too problematic for this to be a “good” film in my books. Where Boyz n the Hood realistically portrays young people in desperate situations doing desperate things, Menace instead opts for a great deal of incredibly violent sequences that don’t do anything to further the stakes at hand.  There’s absolutely nothing subtle about any moment found in Menace II Society – in fact, I’m not even sure if the film would know the definition of the word.  The characters suffer greatly from poor writing, with not a single character except for Caine’s grandparents and lover being sympathetic in any way. When the violence erupts on screen, you feel absolutely nothing for these young men. There’s no sense of hatred, despair, or empathy – instead, even the most brutal moments are met with a shrug of the shoulders and the hope that maybe the next scene will be more impactful.  But that next impactful scene never comes.  The performances found in the film are surprisingly good, especially given the material they’re left to work with.  The standout performance comes from Larenz Tate, who plays O-Dog.  Tate’s young character is truly despicable in almost every scene of Menace II Society, never making a single good or unselfish decision in his actions.  He views violence as an afterthought, and never seems to hesitate when acting out violently.  Tate’s performance is delightfully fun to watch, despite the very clearly horrific things he’s doing.  Samuel L. Jackson’s brief showing is also a delight, but is ruined by more senseless and emotionless violence found in the film’s screenplay.

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Larenz Tate as O-Dog in The Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society.

Menace II Society is an ambitious and incredibly well-made directorial debut from two men who clearly have great chemistry together when working behind a camera.  Unfortunately, it learns nothing from its admiration of Boyz n the Hood, and instead uses the opportunity to festishize hood violence.  The film’s script is a tragedy, as it eclipses some very good performances from a talented young cast, and a well-made picture on most technical levels.  If you’re looking for a highly dumbed-down version of Boyz n the Hood, this one may just be up your alley!  If you’re looking for something a little more substantial and meaningful, especially in the realm of African American filmmakers, then I would steer clear.  Menace II Society is not recommended.

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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.

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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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February Theme – Black Directors (An Introduction)

spike-lee-reaches
With February being Black History Month, I’ve decided to go with something of a broad theme to celebrate.  Our theme for this month will cover nine great and/or highly influential films made by black filmmakers, spanning the blaxploitation boom in the 1970’s to the black independent movement of the 1990’s.  I’ve decided not to cover modern day black filmmakers, as I will more than likely revisit the theme in upcoming monthly marathons.

The directors being covered this coming month all made a giant splash in their industry, whether it be the early independent scene in America, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood filmmaking, or the African filmmaking scene in the French-speaking country of Senegal.  The films covered explore themes of racial tension, economic and social struggles faced by the black community through modern history, and create iconic characters whose influence is still being felt today.

Filmmakers being covered include:

  • Senegalese legend Ousmane Sembene, who is considered to be the father of African film.  His career spanned spanned five decades, creating some of the greatest African movies ever made.
  • Gordon Parks, one of the first major African American filmmakers to find success in Hollywood.  He pioneered the “blaxploitation” genre with the Shaft series of films.  His son Gordon Parks Jr., killed tragically at the age of 44, will also be covered.
  • One of America’s most underrated black filmmakers, Charles Burnett.  Burnett’s film Killer of Sheep took decades to be released on a wide scale because of music rights issues.  His influence on black filmmakers is undeniable.
  • The controversial auteur Spike Lee, who broke into the scene in the 1980’s with groundbreaking films like She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing.  Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X found mainstream critical and commercial success, and propelled Lee to become arguably the most successful African American director in history.
  • The 1990’s saw a sudden spike in original, stylistic, and highly influential African American films like John Singleton’s Oscar-nominated Boyz n the Hood, the Hughes Brothers’ independent hit Menace II Society, and F. Gary Gray’s stoner comedy Friday.

The schedule for February’s Black Directors Marathon is as follows:

#1 – Shaft (1971) (Gordon Parks) (Feb. 2)
#2 – Super Fly (1972) (Gordon Parks Jr.) (Feb. 5)
#3 – Touki Bouki (1973) (Djibril Diop Mambéty) (Feb. 8)
#4 – Xala (1975) (Ousmane Sembene) (Feb. 12)
#5 – Killer of Sheep (1978) (Charles Burnett) (Feb. 15)
#6 – Boyz n the Hood (1991) (John Singleton) (Feb. 19)
#7 – Malcolm X (1992) (Spike Lee) (Feb. 22)
#8 – Menace II Society (1993) (Albert & Allen Hughes) (Feb. 26)
#9 – Friday (1995) (F. Gary Gray) (Feb. 29)

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