John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood is probably the best known of the so-called “hood films.” Dealing with events among the poor in South Central Los Angeles, this 1991 motion picture is a highly intelligent and endlessly engrossing piece of work. Singleton never would live up to the grandness of his debut flick, unfortunately, but the flashes of talent on display here are undeniable.
Inner city America is a place that too many people know all too well. It is, actually, a war zone. In Boyz n the Hood, the unceasing presence of helicopters and gunfire creates a tableau of madness often only seen in war movies. Singleton’s picture becomes a war film in that regard, telling us about the desperation and the bloodshed the characters endure with unflinching honesty. The chaos is the only constant.
We are told at the beginning of the movie that one in 21 black males will die of murder and that most of those males will be killed by other black males. We’re then taken to 1984 South Central and into the lives of a few young boys. Young Tre Styles (Desi Arnez Hines III) is sent to live with his father (Laurence Fishburne) in the Crenshaw neighbourhood. The realities of the streets influence Tre as he grows up and we revisit him some six and a half years later.
Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is somewhat of a success with a steady job. He’s managed to avoid the drug trade and the gangs. His friend Doughboy (Ice Cube) is not so lucky and has bounced around in and out of jail. Doughboy’s brother Ricky (Morris Chestnut) wants to be a football star, but it’s hard to escape the realities of the ghetto. Tre’s father is still a guiding light in his life, teaching him about the realities of the hood and of the racism that has divided the black community.
Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood doesn’t carry a singular narrative. It flows effortlessly through the lives of the characters, engaging us with their individual situations due to strong writing and marvellous acting. Ice Cube is a marvel and I’ve never seen Cuba Gooding Jr. better. The intensity these two young men bring is undeniable and they take their very different approaches to the streets to heart, giving us their all and providing three-dimensional characters with real motivations and real souls.
Fishburne’s Furious Styles is a character of tremendous stature. Styles is a father, leading Tre through the world he knows with calm confidence. He’s also a man existing in rather dire circumstances, but he’s learned to manage and he has more than a few tricks up his sleeve. Styles isn’t afraid to fire his gun at intruders and he’s not naïve about the problems of the streets. He knows the violence and he knows the business angles.
The movie also has a great deal to say about the nature of authority. The cops are useless in Singleton’s narrative, providing more of a provoking force than a protective one. While they are not the enemy, they are certainly of little help. With their relentless choppers, searchlights and traffic stops, they seem to get in the way of survival and of dignity more than they seem to serve and protect.
At the same time, there are no easy villains. There are no heroes, either. There are human beings, instead, and these human beings seem to be caught in a trap set in motion by years of crippling economic policy and discriminatory practices. These complexities are orchestrated with precision by Singleton’s unflinching direction and cutting screenplay.
Boyz n the Hood is an essential film with respect to understanding the inner city. It is an education of sorts, one bolstered by terrific performances and a careful, gritty script. Singleton would never again recreate the pure mood and brilliance of his debut, sadly, but it remains a fascinating glimpse at his talent and potential. The great performances from Ice Cube, Fishburne, Angela Bassett, and Cuba Gooding Jr. are also well worth a look for fans of wonderful acting.