It’s hard to overstate the impact John Singleton’s 1991 film Boyz n’ the Hood had on black cinema. It helped launch the careers of a slew of prominent actors: Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding, Jr., (who would all go on to be Oscar nominees on other films), as well as Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, and Ice Cube. (Regina King, who remains the most criminally underemployed actress in Hollywood, has a bit part, as well.) It garnered lots of critical praise two Academy Award nominations, bestowing upon it broader cultural legitimacy. And it created a template for “authenticity” that other films aimed at black audiences tried to emulate, and did, for the rest of the 1990’s, with varying degrees of success.*
It’s a shame, then, that it’s such a crappy movie. [Spoilers.]
This shortcoming is due in part to the movie’s own success. It was a gut-punch when it debuted, but it’s impossible to watch it now without having any familiarity with all the tropes it spawned.
But let’s rewind. Boyz is a coming-of-age tale about a smart but undisciplined kid named Tré Styles (not a hype man for a hip-hop group, despite the name) who is sent by his mother to live with his father, Furious in order to ‘learn how to be a man.’ Furious is a real estate broker who is trying to get in on the South Central housing market before it gentrifies. He doesn’t eat pork. He tightens up high-top fades. He drops knowledge (and to underscore that knowledge is indeed being dropped, he points to his head when he does so). He seems to be the only father in a neighborhood rife with gangs and violence. This prompts a question: Is a place where masculinity and violence are so tightly tethered the kind of place where you’d want your kid to learn about manhood? Later we see Bassett’s character in a well-appointed spot somewhere else, calling to check in on Tré, who clearly would be better served by living with her, life lessons about ‘manhood’ be damned. She offers him the choice to move in with her. His father says Tré wants to say and the decision should be his. (Really, fam? ‘Cuz them drive-bys say different.)
Tré on the other hand, has a seemingly inexhaustible amount of free time. His closest friends are Doughboy (Ice Cube)** and Ricky (Chestnut), two half-brothers who are on different paths. Ricky loves football as a kid, and later we see him as a standout high school athlete being recruited by USC. He and his girlfriend have a son. Doughboy is the lesser-loved of the pair, and as an adult we see him fresh out of jail, flirting with returning to a life of crime. Their mother seems to think Tré can be a good influence on the two of them. Tré is dating Brandi (Nia Long), who doesn’t really matter at all in the film except that they eventually have sex after Tré comes crying to her after he is emasculated by a black cop who hates black people. Yeah. Problematic.
Let’s talk about this a bit more. The hood movie craze Boyz spawned primarily concern itself with the exploits of marginalized young black men, which didn’t leave a lot of cinematic space in which women could operate. The women in these movies were either conquests or sensitive, striving ciphers like Brandi, who wipe away their troubled man’s tears and fuck/nurse him back to health. Brandi is Catholic and is waiting for marriage to have sex and is trying to go to college — get it? she’s virtuous — but we know little else about her. When she finally has sex with Tré, it’s not clear why she’s decided to relinquish her staunchly-defended chastity. It’s simply meant to signal that Tré is becoming a man. She gets more lines than any other woman in the film, and is still completely expendable.
The movie’s violent climax (“RICKKKKYY!!!!!”) has become an iconic moment, but, well…why don’t the dudes who shoot Ricky then shoot Tré, who is right there and witnesses the whole thing? And as a witness, wouldn’t Tré need to be concerned for his own safety in the very immediate future? Why is he not being sent to live with his moms at this point? It’s also marred slightly a touch of heavy-handedness — Ricky’s mother finds out that he just passed the SAT and qualified to play ball. Get it? He was finna get out! And morally, it tries to have it both ways. It allows Tré to bow out of the impending bloodbath and be spared its consequences while still letting viewers sate their thirst for revenge by letting Doughboy murk the dudes who shot his brother. Gun violence is bad, but somebody gotsta die! Their respective rewards: Tré gets to go to Morehouse; Doughboy is shot to death. Increase the peace, yo.
While Boyz was the beginning of bigger and better things for much of its cast, it was something of a high-water mark for John Singleton. His filmography since has been a steady string of mediocrities (Higher Learning, Biker Boyz, Four Brothers, 2 Fast 2 Furious), and he seems to have settled comfortably into the role of a well-compensated Hollywood hack. It’s kind of heartening when you think about it: A black director can now helm mindless, unambitious summer action movies starring Paul Walker. Ladies and gentleman, we have arrived.