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Watching Boyz N The Hood again recently, I was struck by something I never noticed before: This is my generation’s Cooley High. Granted, I saw Michael Schultz’s take on American Graffiti when it came out, but I was a kid who hadn’t yet experienced life in any form outside of skinned knees and Kindergarten naps. Boyz N The Hood arrived on the scene when I was 21, far more worldly and quite familiar with the East Coast version of the neighborhood it depicts. I don’t know how I missed the similarities between Cooley and Boyz, as there are many. I saw a lot of me in Boyz’ Tre Styles, and not just because I look like Cuba Gooding Jr.; and I saw myself in Cooley’s Preach. We were all smart guys in the ‘hood, looking to make something of ourselves amidst all the Satanic temptations our location had to offer.
John Singleton was not much older than 21 when he made Boyz N The Hood. The film he submitted to Columbia Pictures was a sad coming of age tale set in his neighborhood. The film was at times violent, but was first and foremost about the relationship between a teenager and the wise father trying to set him straight. Columbia Pictures cut a trailer for the film, and the result made Boyz N The Hood look like Assault On Precinct 13. Filmgoers expecting to see wall-to-wall violence were confused. This was no exploitation quickie. In fact, there was more violence going on outside the screen at movie theaters and malls than inside the screen during Boyz N The Hood.
Critics took notice of the film and its depiction of an environment given little screen time in mainstream cinema. At 24, Singleton became the youngest person nominated for Best Director, and the first Black person. As of this writing, he still holds both these titles. Lee Daniels, director of Precious, one-upped Singleton by being the first Black person nominated for a Director’s Guild Award, but I doubt he will join Singleton as a fellow directing Oscar nominee. My money is on Daniels being replaced by the guy who directed District 9, aka Ghetto Scrimps.
Precious and Boyz would make a good double bill—call it Boyz and Gurlz N The Hood. The timeframe, at least in the early passages of Boyz, overlaps with Precious’ 1980’s setting. We meet younger versions of Tre, Doughboy and Doughboy’s brother, Ricky. Ricky is never seen without a football, nor Doughboy without a baseball cap. Boyz spends a good half hour with these young boys, sending them on a Stand By Me inspired visit to a dead body (Singleton even has the boys walk along railroad tracks to get to it). We learn of their closeness, and we also learn of the issues that will plague them in later life. Doughboy likes criminal activity, and it sends him to Juvenile Hall for 7 years. Tre is intelligent but wants to belong so he acts up in class. The biggest stigma in the ‘hood, or at least in my ‘hood, was being smart.
When Tre gets into a classroom fight, Reva Devereaux (Angela Bassett) sends him to live with his father. She realizes that, at Tre’s age, he needs a man to guide him to adulthood. Tre’s dad is named Furious Styles (one of the great names in all of cinema) and is played by Ike Turner himself, Laurence Fishburne. When Singleton’s camera brings Furious to the screen, we can tell he’s a no-bullshit kind of Dad. Fishburne’s excellent command of his voice, especially its lower registers, gives his scenes more weight than any physical acting he could do. After talking to Reva, he tells Tre to rake the yard. When Tre protests, Furious adds more bass to his voice. It’s subtle, but even I was ready to rake the yard to keep Morpheus’ foot out of my ass.
After Doughboy’s arrest, Boyz flashes forward 7 years to his homecoming. Doughboy’s hat now sits atop the head of rapper and NWA cohort Ice Cube (making his film debut). Ricky has grown into a potential college football star in the guise of Morris Chestnut. And Tre is now a slightly unconvincing looking teenager played by my doppelganger. The homecoming barbecue is hosted by Doughboy and Ricky’s Mom (Tyra Ferrell), an angry woman who makes no attempt to hide her preference for her “good” son.
There are plenty of women at the party, including Regina King as the precursor of the character she’d play in Singleton’s next movie, Poetic Justice, and Brandi (Nia Long) as a good Catholic girl in a sexless relationship with Tre. Ricky’s baby mama is also there, and they seem destined to be together even as Ricky contemplates going to USC after graduation.
Singleton’s script spends most of its time calling these women bitches and hos, but at least he gives King a line questioning her screenwriter’s intent. Some have read a misogynist streak into the film, but it’s careful not to demonize its women, even giving them scenes of strength and comfort. After an altercation with the cops, Tre freaks out in front of Brandi. When Tre notes he never thought he could cry in front of a woman, Brandi gently tells him “you can cry in front of me.” And Furious may be the guy to help Tre become a man, but Reva has a short, excellent scene where she points out that Black women have been playing this role since the beginning of time. “So you are not special,” she informs Furious. “You may be cute, but you are not special.”
Boyz N The Hood doesn’t cover new ground in terms of structure. We’re well aware, especially if you’re familiar with the world Singleton inhabits, that little slights have a way of becoming lethal altercations. The film builds to such an altercation, and we know it’s coming, just not when. The direction is occasionally clumsy, but there are several scenes that showcase a confidence not normally seen in a debut. A cross-cutting between the daily routine of our three main characters is well-executed. We see Tre trying to get skins from a Catholic School Skirt wearing Brandi, Doughboy and his homeys (one of whom is in a wheelchair thanks to a drive by) shooting the shit, and Ricky doing his football routine in the hopes of getting out of South Central and “being somebody.” When someone breaks into the Styles residence, Furious turns into Dirty Harry and Singleton’s camera is as nervous and excited as we are. “Somebody was praying for that fool,” Furious says of the robber, who barely escapes with his head.
Singleton also keeps us off-guard. The sound mix on Boyz N The Hood captures the noises of the ghetto. We hear people arguing and cussing each other out offscreen. We hear children playing and helicopters going by. On occasion, and without warning, we hear gunfire. It’s loud, and all the characters flinch as much as we do. The gunfire is like a noisy soothsayer, getting closer and closer to those with whom we’ve invested interest, portending doom.
Danger doesn't just come from the criminals. Boyz N The Hood shows that the cops are equally dangerous. Singleton makes an unusual, though not always inaccurate, move to show the Black cop as the instigator of threats and violence against the citizens, even if they are not guilty of any crime. One of Gooding's best scenes is his run-in with the same Black cop that his father insulted several years prior. The cop berates Tre and pulls a gun on him. Gooding is motionless as the cop accuses him of being in a set. I never noticed until this last viewing that, as Gooding is laying on the hood, tears are rolling down his face.
Little slights become lethal altercations. Ricky collides with the neighborhood gangbanger-slash-poser at a party, and after Doughboy comes to his brother’s defense, the gangbanger wants revenge. Several times in the film, cars stop and the characters stop too, looking around to see just what the driver plans on doing. After this happens a few times, we too are on edge whenever a car stops. Early in the film, this gangbanger pulls a shotgun on Tre, and eventually the scene repeats itself, but this time the guy’s not playing. As a result, Ricky winds up being cut down in his prime, just like Cochise in Cooley High. This entire sequence, and the one that follows when Tre and Doughboy bring Ricky’s body home, have a tremendous power. I’ve seen this film numerous times, and every single time, I’ve been affected by the scene. All the actors, especially Ferrell’s devastated Mom, wring out every ounce of emotion.
When I saw Boyz N The Hood at the Newport Center Mall Theater, two things happened that I’ll never forget. Doughboy immediately goes gunning for the men who shot his brother down, and when he finds them, he and his cohorts mow them down in a hail of bullets. Doughboy even risks capture by jumping out of his car to pump more ammunition into the dying bodies. The audience I was with cheered loudly, and applauded. I was sitting next to an older Black woman, and I could hear her saying “no, no, no! They don’t get it. They don’t get it!” She meant the audience. They didn’t get that we were seeing the circle of violence being unbroken, and for that we shouldn’t be cheering. Furious points out the same issue earlier in the film, but the audience’s bloodlust disregards it.
The other thing I remember is walking out of the theater and into an altercation between several people. One person pulled a knife and proceeded to plunge it repeatedly into the person who stood not four feet away from me. This made the news and cast a stigma over the film; some saw it as inciting violence. The person who was knifed was just a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time—it was some form of gang initiation--and had he not been there, I might have been the person who got shanked as someone’s entrance exam.
Boyz N The Hood’s last scene is a showcase for Ice Cube, whose acting here put us on notice regarding his skills. Ricky’s murder breaks your heart, but Doughboy’s final speech shatters it even further. Singleton employs a cheesy device to denote Doughboy’s demise, but every time I see it I’m never unmoved. He’s not speaking for himself in his final scene, he’s speaking for all us hood denizens who eked out an existence in places like South Central, Newark and other places.
Black History Mumf is all about my confessions, which I wrap up and hide in these pieces. Growing up, I was Tre minus the bad temper. I was the smartest kid most of my friends and family knew, and for that I was ostracized, beaten up, and ignored by the girls. They went for the guys I knew who sold drugs. It seemed like everybody I knew was up to that, or stealing cars, so I wanted to participate as well. I wanted to belong, to be popular, to have the girls like me too. But every single time I tried to get involved with shit I had no business involving myself, the other parties would make me go home. “Go home,” they’d tell me. “You shouldn’t be here. You’re going to be somebody.” I hated them for that. It still stings a little bit when I type this now, which is fucking absurd because I really should be thanking these people for shooing me away every single time. If they were still on this plane, I could thank them for keeping me from their fate. This movie reminded me of how lucky I am. I may or may not "be somebody," but the one thing I know for sure is I'm still here.
Your homework assignment:
Rent Menace II Society and discover why it’s a lesser film than this. It’s almost derailed by the Hughes Brothers’ immature penchant for exploitative violence in lieu of character development. I can’t say I felt an ounce of emotion for anybody in Menace, and all I got out of it was that some of my friends call me O-Dog to this day.