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Non-Review Review: Boyz N The Hood

Boyz n the Hood remains a powerful, moving and depressing piece of cinema. Director John Singleton has arguably failed to match this impressive debut effort, but there’s no shame in that. Most directors will go entire careers without offering a film that so effectively captures a slice of life. Reportedly based on a lot of the director’s own experiences growing up in South Central L.A., it’s a very strong and very personal piece of film, and one that hasn’t been diminished in the years that followed its release.

As happy as Larry?

Life in Singleton’s version of South Central L.A. is nothing short of bleak, an empty and violent struggle that many of the residents attempt to cope with in their own way. Some succumb to drug addiction. Much of the cast is seen drinking “Olde English” malt liquor, a brand of alcohol that was criticised at around the same time for specifically targeting African-American and Hispanic consumers. Others plan to get out of the neighbourhood as quickly as possible. Some try to assert control over their lives through violence and brutality.

Adopting the format of the tried-and-tested coming-of-age tale, Singleton introduces us to four young kids growing up in that urban environment, dealing with the harsh social realities of Los Angeles life. We then join the kids again as they reach adulthood, knowing that there’s really no chance that these stories will have anything approaching a happy ending. There’s something of a certain tragedy about all this unfolding, to the point that even the person watching the movie for the first time can’t believe it will end well.

The other side of the tracks…

Violence and brutality are everywhere. An innocuous argument in a school classroom evolves into a series of death-threats. “I’ll get my brother to shoot you in the face!” one smart-mouthed kid threatens Tre. Tre responds, pulling no punches, “Get your punk ass brother, b!tch, I’ll get my daddy. At least I got one, mother&#!%ker!” The teacher, perhaps the most significant caucasian character in the cast, is shocked and appalled by such outbursts, but they seem to come naturally.

The older teenagers even pick on the younger kids, bullying them and stealing their football. It doesn’t matter that the teenagers have enough money to buy their own football. After all, it’s not the football that’s important, it’s showing that you are strong enough to take whatever you want. On his first night living with his father, Tre goes to the bathroom while a burglar prowls the house. Later on, when Tre shows up looked especially fancy and successful, his friends observe, “You look like you selling rocks.” There’s something tragic that the most successful individuals in this bleak urban landscape are the drug dealers.

Cool as Ice (Cube)…

Singleton recognises the external factors that contribute to the decline of the neighbourhood – indifferent authority figures, lack of opportunity, no facilities – but he also acknowledges that some of the responsibility has to fall at the feet of the residents. A girl asks Doughboy, “Why every time you talk about a female you say bitch or whore or hootchie?” It is the other residents of the neighbourhood who make it such an unpleasant place to live and those attitudes are constantly reinforced by members of the community.

Singleton suggests that the solution must come from within the Hood itself, rather than waiting for the outside world to intervene. It is Furious who pretty much saves Tre from throwing everything away. By making the choice to raise his son, Furious provided Tre with a strong male role model and support figure, something that Doughboy very clearly lacked.That choice to be there for his son was a tough one, but it shows a character who is willing to take responsibility for hi actions, and one who doesn’t get caught up blaming others for his situation.

Righteous Furious…

Laurence Fishburne’s Furious is a powerful and a fascinating creation, a well-read and self-educated scholar who isn’t afraid to use force (as an absolute last resort). While he’s smart enough to understand the external factors that have contributed to the decline of the neighbourhood, Furious also knows that the solutions must be internal. There’s a dignity and poise to Fishburne’s performance that remains as powerful today as it ever was.

Those outside this environment don’t seem to understand the way things work at all. One of the smartest things Singleton does, perhaps diffusing the potential for ham-fisted racial commentary, is by allowing most of the cast to interact with African-American characters outside the ghetto. The college scholarship guy is casually talking to Ricky when a young child walks into the room. Being polite, and making conversation, the guy asks, “Your little brother?” Ricky responds, “No, that’s my son.” There is a very awkward silence, as it’s clear that the possibility never even occurred to the admissions officer.

Getting while the going’s Gooding…

The movie does feature a brutal and indifferent authority figure, as seems to be the rule in films like this. However, Singleton interestingly chooses to portray the African-American police officer as the explicitly racist officer. Interviewing Furious after the robbery, the cop comments, “Too bad you didn’t get him.  Be one less n&%@#? out here we have to worry about.” Noting Furious’ reaction, he asks, “Something wrong?” Furious responds, bitterly, “Something wrong? Yeah.  It’s just too bad you don’t know what it is… brother.”

It’s a nice touch, illustrating that such institutional bias is not a strict racial issue – that the class divide in Los Angeles in the nineties was not solely based on colour. The black police officer can refer to a common burglar using a racial epithet with as much contempt as a white police officer. It isn’t a distinction based primarily on colour, but on class. This police officer is contemptuous of this urban environment, so any black criminal is a “n&%@#?” It’s the way the system works. He’s an outsider looking in – just as corrupt and contemptuous as an racist dirty bag police officer appearing in any other drama like this, an authority figure getting off on the power he holds. Later on, he stops Tre, asking, “You scared now, huh? I like that. That’s why I took this job.”

To live and die in LA…

Parents urge their children to use birth control, but their appeals fall on deaf ears. Ricky’s mother warns him about his girlfriend, “Ricky, you make sure she taking them pills.  I don’t want a bunch of these around.  I’ll be the one taking care of them.” Furious even goes as far as to buy condoms for his son to use to prevent Tre getting saddled with a child to support at a young age. He even presses the issue. “You been using those rubbers I gave you?”

While Singleton does acknowledge the internal problems, he also explores those from outside the urban environment. After Tre and Ricky take the tests, Furious comments, “Most of those tests are culturally biased. The only universal part is the math.”Of course, that would become a national issue, but I think Singleton was way ahead of the curve in that regard. That said, there are moments when Furious’ observations cross the line from smart social commentary into the realm of conspiracy theories.

Parked life…

His argument about gentrification is as as astute as it ever was, and years ahead of its time, but his cynical believe that it’s a deep-rooted conspiracy, rather than merely the result of economic and political indifference, feels a little disingenuous. “The best way to destroy a people is to take away their ability to reproduce,” he argues. However, given how much time the movie spends exploring how poorly the residents of the neighbourhood are versed in contraception (and how often they end up fathering children they can’t support due to that), it does seem like Furious’ argument has a massive flaw. It’s a bit of a shame – because a lot of his other observations are smart and shrewd.

In many ways, Boyz n The Hood feels like something of a fluke. It is, undoubtedly, Singleton’s best film. It is also, arguably Cuba Gooding Jr.’s best role – with only his supporting turn in Jerry Maguire coming close. Ice Cube, similarly, has never been better. While Laurence Fishburne has a long string of successful and iconic roles, I think that Furious might just be the veteran performer’s most influential appearance. In short, it seems like all the elements of Boyz n The Hood seem to work almost perfectly, coming together to form a strange cocktail of a film that is far stronger than the sum of its elements.

It’s a crying shame…

Perhaps it’s the personal nature of the story that helps. It seems like Singleton is writing and directing a story that means a lot to him. While he doesn’t necessarily balance the good with the bad, he does manage to avoid drowning in a bleak and cynical ocean of depression. Yes, things are tough, and there’s no way that this movie has a completely happy ending, but there’s enough spark and life to the film to keep the audience watching.

There are moments of heartfelt and honest humanity found here. Most obviously in Furious’ decision to be a proactive and loving father to his child, but also in scenes like the “welcome home” barbeque, where the neighbours make sure that Tre can bring some food home to his father. I won’t argue that there’s enough good here to completely offset the bad, it does prevent the tragedy from completely overwhelming the film. There’s just the right amount of warmth and humour to stop the film from collapsing under the harsh reality of that life, and I think Singleton brings it to life perfectly.

Tre good, my young man…

Boyz n The Hood is every bit as powerful as it was when it first opened all those years ago. It’s still an emotionally affecting piece of film.

2 Responses

  1. Great review! One of the best films of the 90s and still incredibly powerful. Such a shame Cuba Gooding Jr didn’t capitalise on the potential he show here.

    • Yep. He ended up substituting for Eddie Murphy in Daddy Day Camp. Man, I feel sorry for the guy.

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