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« Best Shot(s): Gentlemen Prefer Blondes | Main | Doc Corner: 'Zero Days' is One of the Year's Best »
Tuesday
Jul122016

Boyz n the Hood Turns 25

Lynn Lee revisits the John Singleton classic on its 25th anniversary.

Four young boys walk along a railroad track, idly chatting but in search of something specific.  They find what they’re looking for: a dead body.  A group of older boys arrives and harasses them.  The most pugnacious of the younger group fights back in a way that foreshadows his destiny as an adult.

Stand by Me?  No, Boyz n the Hood, which opened in theaters 25 years ago today.  And the parallels are no mere coincidence. Writer and drector John Singleton was intentionally referencing the earlier Rob Reiner film – perhaps as much for the differences as the similarities between the two narratives of boyhood and the cultural spaces they occupy...

Yet that scene also encapsulates why Boyz n the Hood drew such a powerful response when it first premiered and why it still resonates across racial lines today.  Even though it’s about the very specific experience of growing up black and male in south central L.A., it also struck a more broadly familiar chord as a narrative of growing up, period.  True, the fears and threats that beset Tre Styles were darker than what many moviegoers had ever known, but they were framed by a perspective anyone could embrace: the bright, thoughtful, basically centered kid who still feels the pull of wayward impulses and conflicting influences.  Who couldn’t empathize with that kid and, by extension, with his yearning to escape the endless cycle of death and vengeance?

That capacity for empathy struck me especially sharply as something we could all use a good deal more of these days.  The film feels surprisingly fresh even today, late ’80s synth-heavy soundtrack and hip-hop fashions notwithstanding.  What also surprised me is how quiet it is, quieter than I remembered.  Although it opens memorably with darkness, gunshots, and a sobering statistic (“One out of every 21 black American males will be murdered in their lifetime”) and ends with brutal execution-style killings, it’s no Menace II Society or any of the other similarly themed movies that followed in its wake.  Gang culture is all around Tre (played as an adult by Cuba Gooding, Jr.), but more often in the background, like the air he breathes, except when it’s punctured by flickers of dread – a car passing and slowing down, a window rolling down – or bursts of senseless violence.  While that makes the climactic killing scenes all the more wrenching, the most effective moments are still the quiet ones: The awkward visit of a college football recruiter to the home of Tre’s friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut).  The final scene between Tre and Ricky’s brother (Ice Cube, excellent).  The few scenes between Tre’s parents (Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett), divorced but deeply invested in their son’s welfare.  Every one-on-one scene between Tre and his father, underscoring one of the movie’s overarching themes - the supreme importance of having a good father.

Therein lies the chief conundrum of the film, for me – what to make of its treatment of women?  

For the most part the movie portrays the female characters, the mothers and girlfriends, sympathetically, and has little use for the casual misogyny of gangsta culture.  Yet the women in the movie tend to stay on the sidelines of the story.  While Bassett makes the most of her limited appearances as Tre’s mother Reva, the long and short of her role is to turn the parenting over to his father once he starts acting out.  It’s implied there are other considerations at work, too, such as Reva’s desire to pursue her own education and career, which she appears to do successfully.  Still, it’s hard not to read her decision as ultimately vindicated both by Tre’s eventual success and by the contrasting example of Doughboy and Ricky, whose single mother (Tyra Ferrell) does the best she can but seems to have no idea how to deal with the more difficult of her two sons—and ends up losing them both.  The moral is a little too clear: boys in dangerous circumstances need the firm and steady guiding hand of a father, without which they’re doomed to succumb to the worst of their environment. Or, as Reva tells her ex-husband

I can’t teach him to be a man.  That’s your job.”  

And teach he does; no one pontificates quite as well as Fishburne, who vests his character with gravitas without, somehow, becoming too insufferable.

Paternalism and didacticism aside, there’s no denying the major cultural impact of Boyz n the Hood, both in its influence on African American filmmaking and its demonstration that movies by black directors who weren’t Spike Lee and starring all-black casts could be mainstream hits.  It was Oscar-nominated for best director and best screenplay, losing to Silence of the Lambs and Thelma and Louise, respectively. While Singleton, who was only 23 at the time he made the movie(!), hasn’t quite captured the zeitgeist in the same way since then, he’s enjoyed a solid career – as has most of the cast, albeit some in more checkered fashion than others.  (CBGJ, looking at you.)  Still, one can’t help look back at the success of Boyz n the Hood and wonder if there will ever be anything quite like it again: a movie about black experience, made by black people, that was embraced by such a wide swath of non-black moviegoers.  I sincerely hope so.  We need a movie like that, for these times, more than ever.

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Reader Comments (9)

God, thinking about this movie makes me yearn for a Tyra Ferrell comeback (Empire notwithstanding). She is SO GOOD.

In my youth I much preferred Menace II Society (Boyz In The Hood felt so preachy in comparison) but Fishburne, Ferrell and Ice Cube always keep me coming back...

July 12, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterkermit_the_frog

Is there something inherently wrong with gender roles? Whenever a non-black person writes about black movies from America, they often note the retrograde gender politics, as though black people or black male filmmakers are the ones who are misguided and need correcting.

July 12, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

3rtful, I honestly don't know how to answer that. That's why I said I really don't know what to think of the gender politics, especially of raising children under the kind of circumstances portrayed here. It's a tricky and fraught question.

Also, as a person of Asian American descent, I know something about retrograde gender politics and minority culture. Not saying it's the same, just that I'm not coming into this with any kind of false cultural superiority.

July 12, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

I've always argued that Fishburne's Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ike Turner was partly because he wasn't recognized for Boyz. He is the anchor of the film, it's heart and soul. Given who was nominated and won in supporting actor that year, both he and Samuel L. Jackson (Jungle Fever) were robbed.

July 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNewMoonSon

So, did Tina and Ike Turner become Cuba Gooding's parents?

July 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Craver -- it's actually the opposite. Big Screen Ike and Turner were reincarnated from the Boyz n the Hood cast

July 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Ooh child
Things are gonna get easier
Ooh child
Things'll get brighter...

Man, that scene where the father sings along with Five Stairsteps' song on the radio,
as he and his son, Tre, drives past Doughboy's house, just as Doughboy and Little Chris get arrested.
That scene, I haven't seen it in years, has stayed with me.

So good! - what the fuck happened, John Singleton?! - you could've been a contender, you lousy Taylor-Lautner-sell-out, you!.

July 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

3rtful - but gender roles are also mentioned on this site for plenty of films, not just black-centered ones, so i think it's fair to say the writers here apply that lens pretty equally.

I haven't seen this movie in a long time and should probably watch it again.

Even though it's not nearly as good as this and gets a bad rap, I also enjoyed Poetic Justice, Singleton's follow-up. And yes, I'm a Janet fan, but I also liked how it gave us a female protagonist who was an introverted, complicated, prickly but vulnerable poet. How often does that ever happen? Plus Tupac Shakur, Regina King and Joe Torry all did good work as well.

July 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

NewMoonSon: Would he have been a better nominee and winner than any specific nominee that year? Almost certainly. And I only have him as sixth place (6-10: Fishburne, Boyz n The Hood, Joe Morton, T2, Keitel and Pitt, Thelma and Louise, Richard White, Beauty and the Beast) on my 1991 Supporting Actor ballot. My ballot?

Jean-Claude Dreyfuss, Delicatessen - 5th
Ted Levine, Silence of the Lambs - Silver
John Mahoney, Barton Fink - 4th (I don't HATE Michael Lerner, but he's too one-note and not quite funny enough to fully earn that nomination in comparison to this work. Yes, I know it's very close to Martin Crane (so close that I'd expect this is what got him that part), but...Martin Crane.)
Gary Oldman, JFK - Bronze
Donald Sutherland, JFK - Winner

July 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

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