The power and pull of the thug, hip-hop life in South Central Los Angeles is depicted with intimacy and sobriety in 1991’s Boyz N the Hood, writer and director John Singleton’s autobiographical movie, which I saw at a 25th anniversary screening in Hollywood at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 (read about the festival here and my report on the creator’s interview after the review).
With a father named Furious Styles (Laurence, billed as Larry, Fishburne) and divorced mother Reva (Angela Bassett, Malcolm X) who thinks fatherhood is more important at a critical stage for her growing son, Tre (Desi Arnez Hines II as a child; Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a teen) faces the ultimate endurance test: to learn, grow and survive in LA’s hip-hop underbelly. Celebrating if not entirely glorifying rap, thug or hip hop culture, Singleton frames his coming of age plot with these two strong, distinctive parents in his movie debut.
The device works well in setting the context for Tre’s character development, which lies at the center of this culturally influential film. By depicting two types of parents on two different tracks in the world, yet with this child in common, the conflict over what choices Tre will make during the course of his childhood comes into sharper focus. As Tre’s life in the ghetto—which, with incessant helicopters over small houses on small lots with green lawns, looks and sounds like any other part of suburban Los Angeles—gets exciting, dangerous and complicated, Tre’s father’s and mother’s examples and lessons go against the culture.
One of the most effective aspects of Boyz N the Hood is its ability to depict Tre’s growth with multiple, simultaneous outcomes; his affiliation with thugs (i.e., actor Ice Cube’s gangster Doughboy), jocks (i.e., Morris Chestnut’s footballer Ricky) and a Catholic girl (Nia Long), thanks to Gooding’s strong performance, generates tension and suspense. The audience sits with this chronic uncertainty, which is what growing up in South Central feels like for Tre. The thrill of hip hop with its booming music and cars, the promise of earned opportunities through good choices, hard work and rational self-interest, the burgeoning, mixed and contradictory acceptance of black urban subculture in Southern California—all figure into the potent climax.
Eviscerating stereotypes with a leading male character who expresses his fear, pain, anger, sensuality and, more than anything else, confusion, Singleton recreates a pivotal passage of thug life with realism and elements of romanticism. Tre cries, runs, yells, swaggers, shuttles and moves like no other black man in previous movies. Boyz N the Hood is too naturalistic and therefore agnostic about the tragedies, near-triumphs and hollowed out cases of despair to make a lasting and thematic impact. The score is too much.
But its convergence and contrast of the pop-pop-pop of hip hop—everywhere around the world today 25 years after it was released with insidious street codes sup, waddup and aiight feeding off its death premise and spreading the worship—with Furious Styles’ guidance through fatherhood, urging his son to look a man in the eye and think before you speak, make Boyz N the Hood a singularly downbeat drama which puts modern American culture into wider context.
Writer and director Singleton appeared in a Chinese Theater at Hollywood & Highland for TCM Classic Film Festival 2016‘s 25th anniversary screening of Boyz N the Hood. He was interviewed by movie historian Donald Bogle, whom Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Chiraq) once described as the “most noted Black-cinema historian.” Bogle, author of Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Brown Sugar: Over A Hundred Years of America’s Black Female Superstars, also was one of TCM’s commentators for its seven-part documentary series on the history of Hollywood, 2010’s Moguls and Movie Stars. He has curated retrospectives on Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge and he teaches at both the University of Pennsylvania and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Bogle’s interview with John Singleton about Boyz N the Hood was a festival highlight. The Oscar-winning director and writer discussed his approach, his education and his goal to make “the best hip hop movie ever” which he arguably did, though he’s also made Poetic Justice (1993) and Hustle and Flow (2005). Recalling how he took the bus from South Central Los Angeles as a child to Hollywood and Highland to see “blaxploitation” pictures with black stars such as Pam Grier, Singleton described himself as an especially intelligent and intense youth. He said he’d watch movies without the sound on to study technique and explained that, during his education at University of Southern California (USC), he watched and studied contemporary and classic films such as The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). That informs the realism of his Boyz N the Hood.
But, with Bogle, whom the filmmaker clearly respects, Singleton went into detail. He talked about using a shot inspired by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, his deep concern about what he describes as black on black crime and an astute observation that most Hollywood movies depict black parents as older than they, in his experience, are, and thus deciding to cast the younger Fishburne-Bassett team as Tre’s parents, a decision that adds to the film’s credibility and potency. John Singleton also admitted to being scared on his first day of shooting, introspecting and providing himself with positive self-talk, such as looking out at the fog coming off the Pacific Ocean into Inglewood during production, which permitted the then-23-year-old to recreate in his mind the childhood upon which his movie is based, telling himself: “You can do this.” Singleton’s can-do individualism is evident 25 years later in Boyz N the Hood.