US Release Date: 07/12/1991
Directed by:John Singleton
Cuba Gooding Jr. in Boyz in the Hood.
When this movie came out in 1991 it was a surprise hit for first time writer/director John Singleton. It helped spawn a new genre of movies showing the lives of young blacks living in inner-city environments rife with the horrors of gang violence, crack addiction and AIDS, all of which peaked in the early 90's. This movie, along with Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, represent the best work of the genre.
Boyz n the Hood provided a launching pad for many black actors. Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, Nia Long and Regina King were all relative unknowns before doing this movie.
The story opens in 1984. Ten year old Tré Styles moves from his mom's house to his dad's in inner-city Los Angeles. He makes friends with the Baker brothers; they live across the street. Ricky is the jock and Doughboy is the fat kid who's bound for trouble. In an homage to Stand By Me there is a scene where the boys go to see a dead body near some railroad tracks. This beginning section of the movie does a great job of introducing the various characters, all of whom will show up again later on.
From here the story jumps to the summer of 1991. Tré and his girlfriend Brandi are planning on heading away to college in the fall. Ricky is hoping a football scholarship will be his ticket out and Doughboy is just getting out of the pen. Several events lead to a tragic climax as these characters spend a pivotal summer together.
This movie is particularly impressive when you consider that John Singleton was 23 years old at the time and this was his first feature film. The story really grips you and though some of the dialogue seems a bit preachy today, think back to the early 90's. The murder rate in the urban areas of this country was at an all-time high. Singleton exposed the problem without glorifying the violence as some later movies would do.
Cuba Gooding is very good as Tré, but in my opinion Ice Cube is the real star here. He is the emotional center of the story. The morning after Ricky is killed Doughboy comes over to see Tré and he makes a statement about the news on television. “Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what's going on in the hood. They had all this foreign shit. They didn't have shit on my brother, man."
It's the best line in the movie. Not because of the actual words but because of Ice Cube's somber, matter of fact, delivery and because we have come to know these characters so intimately. Boyz n the Hood is one of the most impressive writer/director debuts in Hollywood history.
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Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr in Boyz n the Hood
Boyz n the Hood was indeed an impressive first film for John Singleton. What makes it so good is how socially and politically blunt it is. One of the first scenes features bullet holes in a Ronald Reagan poster that one of the boys puts his middle finger up to. It is hardly a subtle statement, but some of what this film says is in fact quite conservative in thinking.
I had my ass handed to me when I wrote in my review for The Kids Are All Right (2010) that, “It takes a man to make a boy into a man.” It is one of my most thumbed down reviews. Do the people who thumbed me down object to Tre’s mom telling Tre’s father, “I can’t teach him how to be a man, that’s your job.”? Another pearl of wisdom is spoken by Tre’s father to Tre, “Any fool with a dick can make a baby but only a real man can raise his children.”
As Patrick wrote, it does become a bit preachy at times. Tre’s father gives a lecture to Tre, Ricky and some passerby’s about how, “They want us to kill ourselves.” so they put gun shops and liquor stores on every corner in the hood. An old black codger refers to the young black males in the crowd and says, “Ain't nobody from outside bringing down the property value. It's these folk, shootin' each other and sellin' that crack rock and shit.” Tre’s father shuts him up by insisting it is the fault of the people who bring the drugs in from overseas. As with Higher Learning (1995), Singleton’s view of the police is that they are nothing more than a gang of racists with badges, even if the policeman in question is himself black.
Although it is a bit interesting seeing how the people in this film look at the world, I found it more entertaining when it got off the soap box and just let these characters lives unfold. They all live in a dangerous world that has very little hope. They carry guns and threaten each other as much out of boredom as they do at some childish attempt at demanding a form of respect.
The fact that Tre, out of all the other boys in the hood, turns out okay says much about where Singleton stands on the issue of fatherhood. Very few of the father-less young men featured in this story have any sort of a chance at a decent future. If any message comes through loud and clear is that boys need their father. My favorite scene is when an angry Tre gets a gun and his father tries to get it from him before he does something that he may regret. “GIVE ME THE MOTHERFUCKING GUN, TRE.”
Singleton may get up on his high horse a couple of times but he spreads the blame around. According to this film, they (rich people?) keep the blacks in the hood down but so do the crack whore mothers and the ignorant young men who know only violence as a way of trying to get respect. Boyz n the Hood is an honest, heartfelt look at people living in a world that most of us are too scared to ever visit, let alone live in.
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Ice Cube in Boyz N in the Hood.
I'll third the motion that this is an impressive debut for Singleton. With it he became, at just 24 years of age, the youngest person ever to be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards and also the first black person to be so honored. Although he has continued to work, he has never managed to recapture the success he achieved with this first film, perhaps because it was so personal to him, being based on his own life and his relationship with his own father.
Patrick mentioned one of the early scenes that is a direct homage to Stand By Me where the young boys go to see a dead body. Actually the movie is book-ended by scenes that tip the cap to that earlier film. Both films end with the main character watching their friend walk away and then fade from view followed by the information that they both died in the future. There are other similarities, such as both of them being a coming of age story for a group of friends, one of whom lives in the shadow of a more popular, football playing older brother, while others in the group are fighting against their destiny. And while each film is tied very specifically to their time and place, their themes are universal.
The other movie this film reminded me of was The Outsiders. Not only are the stories and the characters similar, with obvious parallels between Tre/Ponyboy and Dallas/Doughboy, but they also both feature a cast of actors who were mostly unknown at the time their film was released, but who would go on to stardom.
My brothers mentioned that the film gets preachy, but really that's only in the scene where Laurence Fishburne as Tre's father performs an impromptu lecture to a group of people. It doesn't even matter if you agree with his statements, it's a scene that should have been cut. The old writing adage is, "show, don't tell" and for the most part Singleton sticks to that philosophy, apart from this one scene. The only other moments that seem out of place are the two brief nude scenes. I'm not being prudish and perhaps part of my reaction to the nudity is just that in the decades since this film was released on screen nudity has become rarer, but neither moment is necessary to the story.
As Eric wrote, clearly Singleton is making a statement about the powerful effect a father can have in his son's life, but he doesn't just limit it to fathers. With Ricky he shows that a mother can also have a positive effect. She dotes on Ricky, loving and encouraging him, while maintaining an antagonistic relationship with her other son, Doughboy. Yes, Ricky ends up with a son while still in high school, but compared to most of his contemporaries he's a paragon of virtue and one of the few with a shot of getting out of the neighborhood. Tre and Ricky are the only two male characters with a future and it's no coincidence in the script that they are the ones shown to be most affected by their parents. This message of parental responsibility carries far more resonance than Fishburne's speechifying.
The thing that Singleton manages so well with this film is to make its message universal. Most of us will never know what it's like to grow up in the ghettos of South Central L.A., but we can all relate to these characters and their struggles anyway. It's why this story remains just as powerful today as it was when it was released 25 years ago.
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Photos © Copyright Columbia Pictures Corporation (1991)