Monday, February 01, 2010

How to Survive In South Central

by Odienator

For all pieces, go here

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.

Hitchcock isn't the only director who likes to make cameos.


Steven Boone said...

This is another one I thought you already got around to-- and another one I'd like to see on Special Edition liner notes.

I was 18 when I first saw Boyz N the Hood, and it definitely kept my eyes wide. I do remember Singleton calling it "my American Graffiti" at the time, which is striking when you think about how carefree/wistful Graffiti and how nightmarish Boyz is.

Superficially, Boyz N the Hood is exactly what NWA said it is, an afterschool special. They meant it as a dis, but I think the film's televisual simplicity is exactly what generates its power. It's a stealthily claustrophobic flick. I remember my heart and stomach trading places when Tre found a shotgun pointed his face-- just by walking across the street. Such a quiet scene.

It was the birth of the hood movie, and at the time I thought the hood filmmakers that followed would learn its storytelling lessons, which basically come from John Ford and Italian neorealism, among others. But no. No silences or deceptive surfaces in most hood flicks, just hot ghetto pyrotechnics. (Shoulda known better: Star Wars begat shit like The Black Hole and Battle Beyond the Stars, not the next 2001.) Even Singleton became a part-time action director-- though a lot more clever and character based than most.

As for Menace II Society, I was definitely more affected by it than you were, but mostly because the Hughes Brothers are so skilled at creating tension with their prowling, sidewinding camera. But their cynicism and random sense of character (sociopath one minute, hero the next) show them as unserious next to Singleton.

Machelle said...

Wow, Odie, way to start the Mumf with a bang! I come back every year, and can't wait to see what adventures you have in store for us.

odienator said...

VenetianBlond, welcome back! You won't be disappointed this year; I've got some good stuff in the next few weeks.

Boone, you're right about Boyz using its "afterschool special" feel as the means to its success. It's downright old-fashioned, and I think that's what Singleton was going for, and it's what got him the Oscar nod. It feels like an old studio picture where they get to cuss and show titties.

Of all the hood movies to come from this, there are few I can say I liked. I truly hated Straight Out of Brooklyn, but I thought Tupac saved Juice. I did enjoy Menace for the most part, but I don't think it's "the corrective" to Boyz. And despite having a great title, Don't Be a Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood just wasn't that funny.

Ali Arikan said...

You know, I just might have to revisit this masterpiece tonight. Wonderful stuff, mate.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

I'm glad you're still here, too, Odie.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

I haven't seen this since college, back when the Hughes Brothers camera flourishes impressed me more than the TV-movie-ish BOYZ. Your terrific essay makes me want to give it another look, though---what seemed square then might seem humanist now. And I was always really impressed by Ice Cube in this movie---the scene where he pretends to be drunk so his brother will look better was the kind of subtlety that I hadn't expected of a rapper-turned-actor.

I'd be curious to hear what you think of CLOCKERS. Coming out in the midst of the "hood movie" craze, it always struck me as the antidote---a movie about project crimes whose sympathies were entirely with the guys just trying to get by at fast food jobs. I also appreciated the satiric contempt with which it regarded the gangsters' macho code---Delroy Lindo's whining equivocation when he thinks Phifer might talk is a stiff rebuke to a whole lot of gangster movie posing, from WHITE HEAT to the present.

And… what do you think happened to poor John Singleton? He's not the first director to have a hugely promising debut and nothing but disappointment after (though I cherish a secret hope that LUKE CAGE will be awesome). But… any thoughts on how it all went so wrong? Or did you think BABY BOY was a return to form?

odienator said...

TFB: I'd be curious to hear what you think of CLOCKERS. Coming out in the midst of the "hood movie" craze, it always struck me as the antidote

I was going to write about Clockers, but I decided to choose a different Spike Lee movie for later in the Mumf. I have a big tie to Clockers in several ways: Richard Price's novel takes place in a fictionalized version of my hometown, Jersey City, in a projects not far from where I lived. I read somewhere that some of his character influence came from the guys who ran drugs in that area--guys I knew. Reading Clockers, I saw some similarities between these guys and Price's characters.

Clockers was the movie I thought would get Spike his Oscar. Not only does he fully indulge his Scorsese jones, executive producer Martin Scorsese is there to help him get it right. The film is probably Spike's most confident picture, both in its lensing and the chances it takes. The sequence where Keitel and company examine the dead body is brilliant; it is so misunderstood as a scene of racist cops, but that's not the point at all. These guys have seen so many murders that humor is the way they stay sane. The scene is extremely gory, but Lee's camera is a morbid co-conspirator, employing similar tactic to keep you from turning away. The weird camerawork during Keitel's later monologue is jarring but somehow fits with the performance.

I've written before about Lee's opening credits sequences and how they set the stage for what is to follow. Clockers is the Hell to Crooklyn's Heaven, ghetto corruption and innocence tied together not only by the Universal logo that spins before them, but also by Delroy Lindo's turns in both films. Unlike the Hughes Brothers, Spike Lee can never be accused of being trivial nor romantic about violence. His depictions are graphic and rarely fun. Lee's makeup guys realistically recreate the dead bodies that populate the opening credits of Clockers, to the point where I, a veteran of seeing bullet-ridden people in the street, was almost sick. It sets the stage for just how violent Clockers, and the world it inhabits, is.

I'll save my comments on Lindo for my character actor piece on him, but I love how Lee uses him in his pictures. Boone will tell you how partial I am to the Clockers scene where Rodney destroys Strike's car, writing "BITCH YOU IS DEAD" on it. In case you miss how childish this is, Lindo reverts to toddler status by pissing in the car. His performance is a less ambiguous take on Cagney's last scene in Angels With Dirty Faces. What an underrated actor this man is. He and Harvey Keitel are two of my favorite actors, and Lee brings them together.

Strike's constant acid reflux is comical, but also symbolic. Regina Taylor's awesome scene where she comes after him for being around her kid is one of the film's best. She's a tigress protecting her cub, danger be damned.

Boyz and Clockers both belong in the coming of age hood movie time capsule. My only gripe about Clockers is its ending, which Lee said he needed as a symbol of hope. I would have preferred a more pessimistic bookend to his opening credits.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Hunh! I had always thought it was set in the Brooklyn Gowanus Projects, where the exteriors were shot and where there is, in fact, an incredibly sketchy candy store.

I would defend the end, though. Yes, it's a little optimistic in letting Strike walk away from all the ruin he's caused. But that optimism is undercut by Strike's ultimate incomprehension of why Keitel, or anyone, would actually care about his well-being. He may have gotten a second chance, but that final scene makes clear that he remains a broken person, who will never understand what less broken people feel.

And yeah, in this and Crooklyn, Lindo is an incredibly ego-free actor. It's amazing to watch someone with such a commanding body and voice portray men whose efforts to assert authority are ultimately farcical. It's often unremarked how Lee's obsession with manhood is always undermined by his jaundiced view of the posing that manhood's built around, and the nervous suggestion that maybe it's *all* posing. In Clockers, He Got Game, and Get On The Bus, he's always aware that even as young bloods look to the old heads for models, those old heads are faking it the whole time.

And yeah, Regina Taylor's scene is great. But the one that always kills me is Isiah Washington in the bar, when Strike talks him into the shooting. You can see so palpably the toll that being on the straight and narrow is taking, how hard it is to *not* be a gangster. It's a side of inner-city life that most hood movies never show us, and its presence here makes us react very differently to all the drugs'n'guns antics in every other hood pic.