At its heart, ‘Boyz n the Hood’ is a coming-of-age story — Ultimate Movie Year
Singleton humanized the experiences of young blacks in America and made growing up in an urban environment as necessary and consequential in the telling of our nation’s history
“Boyz n the Hood”
Released July 12, 1991
Directed by John Singleton
Where to Watch
Roger Ebert called movies machines for empathy. One of the clearest examples is the remarkable directorial debut of John Singleton, 1991’s “Boyz n the Hood.”
A story about young boys growing up to reach the verge of adulthood, “Boyz n the Hood” is not your average coming-of-age story for one straightforward reason: it is about black children. It shouldn’t seem like a big deal, but it is, because up until 1991, the coming-of-age drama in cinema was almost exclusively the story of white children and teenagers. More than anything, Singleton created a film that opened the door to humanize the experiences of young blacks in America and made growing up in an urban environment as necessary and consequential in the telling of our country’s cultural history as a white rural community.
The time frame of “Boyz n the Hood” occurs in the mid-80s to early 90s in South Central Los Angeles, a location where most of America doesn’t know much about outside of seeing stories about murders, drugs, gang shootings, and black-on-black crime in the news. Tre (played by Desi Arnez Hines II as a child and Cuba Gooding Jr. as a teen) moves into the neighborhood to live with his father, Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne), bringing a performance worthy of one of the great all-time character names). Tre befriends stepbrothers Ricky (Donovan McCrary as a child, Morris Chestnut as a teen) and Doughboy (Baha Jackson as a child, Ice Cube as a teen), and they grow up navigating many of the same things all adolescents go through — life, love, school, the future. But here, they have to deal with the potential of getting killed for any perceived slight, whether it’s from a gang member or a police officer.
Singleton was a fresh graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school when he sold the script for “Boyz n the Hood” in 1990. He was determined to direct the movie and, citing the story as a passion project influenced by his childhood, to make sure his point-of-view would not be lost by a white director.
“I went into film school with a certain focus,” Singleton told Spin magazine in 1991. “I was going to make films about my people in a way that was never done before. I was going to be like a filmic soldier. I was going to learn the importance of subtext, of character, and of plot. I was going to learn everything I needed to know and to be a bad mothafucka coming out of film school. I just internalized it. I said over and over, ‘This is what I want.’ And it happened that way.”
That’s one of the benefits of black filmmakers filming black movies because you’re going to get a more honest and less conventional viewpoint than you would from a white filmmaker guiding the ship. Singleton brings his own lived experience to tell the story of his characters as humans, not representatives of a race that, for good or ill, would always be in the back of the mind of a non-black filmmaker. It makes a difference for viewers too. Whenever a non-representative filmmaker makes a movie about a diverse demographic, there is always at least a small level of disconnect because you’re engaging with a story that already has a conventional, majority point-of-view filter on it. As an example, it’s hard to imagine a white filmmaker making a more honest and better movie about black neighborhoods than Singleton did here.
“Boyz n the Hood” plays melodramatically, and I’m not sure if that was an intentional choice by Singleton or something attributed to the director’s youthful inexperience. And yet, the movie as a whole still works because of Singleton’s point of view, treating each character with humanity and not judgment. We encounter several characters in the story who make a series of bad choices that led them to the state they’re currently in. Still, the movie also acknowledges that other circumstances played a role as well. The addicted mother doesn’t get there without somebody like Doughboy selling drugs to her, and Doughboy doesn’t have those drugs unless another person brings them into the community. It goes to the heart of the speech Furious Styles (again, such a great name that you can not write out the full version every time) makes to Tre and Ricky that the deck is already stacked against them, which is why they must continue their education and development to reverse the trends.
Several new black stars came out of this movie based on their performances. As the lead character, Gooding Jr. is skillful in playing multiple facades as a young adult who knows he lives in a neighborhood where he’s supposed to be hard externally but is still a vulnerable boy inside. The balance that makes Gooding Jr. feel so real as Tre is Fishburne as Furious Styles. Fishburne had steady work as an actor, appearing in diverse projects from “Apocalypse Now” to “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” but it’s his performance in “Boyz n the Hood” that takes his career to the next level. After more than a decade of black men being demonized as absent fathers in media and politics, Furious Styles stands as direct opposition to that notion, as he raises Tre with love, discipline, and wisdom. After movies long ignored, dismissed, or diminished good representations of black fatherhood, Fishburne’s Furious Styles has become as impactful as Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch.
Another revelation is Cube. He came to fame as a rapper, first as a member of the N.W.A., and then as a solo act. “Boyz n the Hood” is his acting debut, and it’s a good one. Cube has a presence about him that jumps off the screen and manages to be believable in every scene he’s in, whether he’s threatening, compassionate, or even heartbroken. Cube is an immense talent who’s able to channel and humanize that N.W.A. persona he established as Doughboy and then reversed many of those expectations four years later as Craig in “Friday.”
“Boyz n the Hood” had an impressive box office debut in the summer of 1991. It placed third for the weekend, behind the second week of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” which was the juggernaut of the year, and the re-release of Disney’s animated “101 Dalmatians.” It did, however, earn the highest per-screen average for the weekend, $12,091, for a total of $10 million, good enough to edge out the other new release, “Point Break.” Good word of mouth kept “Boyz n the Hood” a strong performer throughout the summer, concluding its original domestic run with $57.5 million.
Not bad for a low-budget debut for a black director. It also maintains approval ratings in the mid-90s on Rotten Tomatoes amongst audiences and critics.
“‘Boyz n the Hood’ is torn straight from the city section of any major metropolitan newspaper,” wrote Desson Howe in The Washington Post. “A warning about neglected black men, it will often tear at the heart too — at least, when it doesn’t feel like the rap equivalent of a classroom lecture. These points, however, touch some raw nerve endings in black America; they need to be made. Singleton adroitly lets the emotions wash over the didacticism, his feet placed squarely on direct experience and timeliness. If you don’t live in or near one of these neighborhoods, just turn to the news at 11 to see.”
A few months after its release, Singleton broke a few industry records when he became the youngest person and first black filmmaker to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director (He also received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay). He would have a solid career as a film director, mixing personal and commercial projects and later television shows, before his sudden death in 2019.
While “Boyz n the Hood” was his most impactful work, Singleton’s passing led to a reassessment of his other films, many of which continued to speak for the black experience. The success of the 1991 film opened more doors to black voices working in film, which is a net positive for “machines of empathy.” In divisive times, movies like “Boyz n the Hood” can lead us to understanding.
Next Week: “The Dark Knight”
Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on July 15, 2021.