Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., Morris Chestnut, Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne, Nia Long, Tyra Ferrell, Angela Bassett, Redge Green, Dedrick D. Gobert, Baldwin C. Sykes, Tracey Lewis-Sinclair, Alysia Rogers

Directed by John Singleton

Expectations: High. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to watch this.

Boyz n the Hood is hands down one of the best films of the ’90s. The fact that writer/director John Singleton was only 23 when he made it makes that fact all the more incredible. Jumping out of the gate with both feet running, Singleton creates one of the richest and thought-provoking inner-city films of all time. It might be boring to read a glowing review of a 21-year-old film, but I simply won’t be able to control myself. Boyz n the Hood is a masterpiece, plain and simple.

Boyz n the Hood is great because of its characters and the way Singleton treats them. I’ve always been a vocal supporter of black filmmakers telling black stories because I feel that it’s the only way to get to the heart of the matter. If a white man made Boyz n the Hood, he simply wouldn’t come at it from the same angle. I know I’m making broad, general statements and everyone is an individual, but all I’m trying to say is that I would rather invest my time in a story about a group of people if it’s coming from a member of said group, that’s all. Schindler’s List is Schindler’s List because of Spielberg’s personal connection to the material and Boyz n the Hood is no different.

Anyway, the characters! Singleton opens the film in the 1980s when a 10-year-old Tre Styles gets into a fight at school and is sent to live with his father, Furious. Allow me a short sidenote: How badass is the name Furious Styles? Only an actor with grace and power can pull that shit off, and Laurence Fishburne does so flawlessly. Furious refuses to take any shit from Tre, instilling in him responsibility and the knowledge he needs to succeed in life. His neighborhood presents a host of other options, ones which Tre’s friends are more susceptible to without Furious to guide them. This might seem like an average set-up for a gangland coming-of-age story, but Boyz n the Hood manages to transcend its simple framework and get inside the characters so deep that when one of them passes on, it feels like a real death. I watch a lot of movies where people are murdered, even main characters, but I rarely feel like anyone has actually died. Singleton manages to capture the varied emotions and the intense feeling of loss that the death of a loved one brings, and it’s absolutely crushing to watch.

What’s also absolutely crushing about Boyz n the Hood is the acting. Everyone, and I mean everyone, turns in a phenomenal performance. The writing is strong, and the direction is the top-shelf goods, but without acting to bring it all home to the viewer, we’re nowhere. Singleton’s casting is impeccable, and pegging Cuba Gooding, Jr. as the promising kid and Ice Cube as his bad influence neighbor from across the street is brilliant. The two actors play off each other like old friends and both show they have what it takes to become the fine actors we know they have become. Sure, he’s playing a character that’s close to home for him, but I don’t wanna hear nothing about Ice Cube being a shitty actor. Watch Boyz n the Hood, and then say that shit, bitch! We got a problem here?

But by far, my favorite character was Furious. Laurence Fishburne has always been a favorite actor of mine, but this has to be, hands down, my favorite performance of his. Part of it is how much I loved his character, the voice of reason opposing gentrification and senseless violence against one’s own people. Part of it is Fishburne’s quiet portrayal that’s brimming with intensity just under the surface. Part of it is just that smooth, sexy voice of his. Fishburne is nothing short of fantastic here.

Beyond the coming of age story, Boyz n the Hood is about how violence only leads to more violence. For the most part, it’s a character drama that contains very little in the way of crime or criminals. It carefully sets up its characters and the world they live in with such vivid detail you might think you’re watching a documentary at times. So when the violence does finally come around, it hits hard and fast just like in real life. Even though you’ve known it was coming the whole movie, the resulting pain and sadness aren’t diminished in the slightest. The film opens with some statistics about black-on-black murders, followed by the first image of the film: a stop sign on the corner. The message is clear right from the get-go, but the journey that it takes to prove its point is one of true heart and integrity. I’m in the interesting position of never having seen another Singleton film too, so I will definitely be checking out more from him based on the strength of his storytelling here.

Boyz n the Hood and New Jack City are movies about black criminals, but both come from a place of hoping to better the people who see it, instead of simply glorifying the gangster lifestyle. The first half hour of Boyz n the Hood also suggests what might be if there were a black-focused Stand By Me or The Goonies, and while Attack the Block was definitely in that vein, I can’t ignore the fact that all the kids in that were delinquents performing petty burglary and other similar offenses. Again I’m generalizing, but I’m just beating around the bush trying to say that we need more ethnic equality in film. There are loads of incredible actors of all races out there just dying for a shot at playing a role based solely on the quality of their performance. Boyz n the Hood features a host of great performances and is an absolute triumph.

10 comments to Boyz n the Hood (1991)

  • It’s just a shame that Singleton’s career post-BNTH turned out to be something of a fizzer – a lackluster Fast & Furious 2, a terrible Abduction with Taylor Lautner, and his remake of Shaft was all over the place. I’m not convinced he’s a top quality filmmaker, like, say, Spike Lee, but I wait to be proven wrong. I haven’t seen this film in years, and barely remember much about it, so I’ll have to rewatch this at some point.

    • Yeah those later period Singelton movies are definitely the sad “I’ll take anything” phase of his career, but I think many of the films he made directly after this like Poetic Justice and Higher Learning are generally well regarded. Spike is definitely a better filmmaker just in terms of the amount of quality films, but it feels like he might be heading into his own sad phase shortly, as he’s currently deep into a US remake of Oldboy.

      Definitely give this one another go, it’s excellent.

  • Man, the early 90s! Rewatching this along with New Jack City only serves as a reminder of what a fantastic renaissance period this was for black films and filmmakers. There was a genuine push for social consciousness and honest to goodness pleading to solve the problems that were (and are still) prevalent in the black community. Not that there are no great black films or filmmakers today, but there is a potency that is lacking when compared to the movies of this period.

    And man, good observation on the whole black Goonies / Stand by Me thing. I guess I never saw the whole “Wanna see a dead body?” scene as a launchpad for a film of that type, but it makes perfect sense. Wow, I would love to see a movie like that!!

    Also, kudos for making the statement about black filmmakers making black films. It’s simply the truth, and needed to be said. The comparison to Spielberg and Schindler’s List is a complete validation of your point.

    • Dude there was so much about the early ’90s that this movie reminded me of. Fuckin’ Georgetown Hoyas and Starter gear? I totally forgot about that shit. But yeah, it was such a great time for black cinema, just a wealth of ideas and great, relevant stuff coming out. Because it proved popular the industry got behind it in a big way, which killed it and indirectly led to shit like The Glimmer Man (hahahaha, which I just found out is from the same director as that shitty gorilla movie from the mid-90s Born to be Wild!)

      I would love to see a resurgence of great black cinema, or even a high profile black director making anything. I mean we have Tyler Perry (who I have a desire to get into, mostly because I see countless negative reviews of his work in the blog world that I feel are completely unfair, even having not seen anything but one movie.) Lee Daniels, the guy who made Precious, which was good but I feel like it got popular in the mainstream because it reinforced stereotypes. Steve McQueen (yep, that’s his name) seems to be getting a lot of buzz for his movies with Fassbender (which I haven’t seen). There’s a great quote from him from The Hollywood Reporter’s director’s roundtable where he brings up the subject of black opportunity in Hollywood and everyone is speechless.

      There’s definitely some new talent out there, but it’s not enough. And I know they’re out there, trying to get a shot at it. There’s just so little opportunity. On another note, where my sistas at? Not only does cinema need more female directors, it needs any black female directors. They gotta have stories to tell, right? The only thing I can think of is last year’s Pariah, which looked awesome but I haven’t seen yet. I think there’s a mentality in white culture that fails to see this as a problem because they themselves feel represented. They think “but they have their movies too” because of the general segregation of black movies. Where black people are expected to come to movies with predominant white casts, black-cast movies are “urban” and “not for everyone”. Fuck that, that’s just bullshit “separate but equal” thinking. And it’s always gonna be that way unless some major shit changes. This bothers me on such a deep level and I hope I see the shift during my lifetime.

      Anyway, if you haven’t seen Attack the Block I think you’d really enjoy it. It definitely delivers some of that fun ’80s “kids vs. monsters” vibe with a more urban feel.

  • This film is superbly directed by Singleton, and even though he hasn’t been able to quite capture all of the same fire he did with his latest efforts, I still think he has it in him to make something remarkable. The only problem is that he hasn’t really had that opportunity with shit-fests like Abduction, Baby Boy, and Shaft, among others. Good review Will.

    • Yeah, I would love to see Singleton come out with another one from his heart. As I said in the review, I haven’t seen any of his other movies, but looking at his filmography he definitely seems to have become a hired studio director instead of the artist seen here. But someone gave Singleton a shot at 23 and it resulted in this; I’m sure there’s some upstart kid out there with a fantastic eye for social commentary that could really deliver something special. I’d love to see Singleton make an artistic comeback, but I’d almost rather see a new voice emerge.

  • legwarmersandfannypacks

    There are so many eloquent points to your review, so I will try to keep my ADHD under control while I sort them out.
    First I will touch on something that is quietly beautiful…and that is the love and passion between Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Brandi (Nia Long). This is the kind of passionate love that is so easily broken between black couples because they are a witness to too much. The movie is so powerful because it was a story that many in that neighborhood had witnessed and were a part of but was so foreign to the kids growing up in the “Valley”.
    Furious Styles is a moving character. Watching a black man fight for his child and his future, stings my eyes. Laurence is a strong, sexy, and vigilant father. I loved the way you said that you feel like there is a death. We are left feeling the anguish of the brother, the mother, the friends. The movie is so masterful because of the characters and the death of an adored character. Many times you see movies where they kill the “bad guy”. We become so desensitized to death that we don’t care how it’s done as long as he is dead. What we forget is the lesson. Many people ask “Why do bad things happen to good people?”. The answer is…the lesson is more effective when it’s someone who was adored, loved, respected, idolized. In this film it was Morris Chestnut (whom is my celebrity crush). He was the “good one”, “the smart one”. He was going somewhere. Ice Cube was considered the “bad one”. We forget that it is sometimes our enemies that create the strength and fight in us to do better, to “be better”.

    The tragedy is that black on black crime continues to be perpetuated, but more subtlety (i.e. Drug Dealing). The subtle part is the lack of a quick, visual death, such as a gun shot to the head. Will, your review is thoughtful and provoking. You bring to the surface things that may have been forgotten. You said that “…Fishburne’s quiet portrayal that’s brimming with intensity just under the surface”. This is important to think about when reading about, writing about, or engaging with black men that seem angry. This movie wasn’t just an “action flick” or a movie about black people “acting ghetto”, it is a time capsule of what was really going on 14 miles away from Beverly Hills in the 90’s.

    • The love between Tre and Brandi is so tender and special in this film and I’m glad you brought it up. It’s elements like this that make Boyz n the Hood the rich, rewarding film it is. I don’t claim to know much about actual black culture, but your comments about their struggle to maintain the relationship through the neighborhood’s ebb and flow rings true. And Furious is such an incredible character. A man struggling against the unrelenting tide of crime at his door every day, fighting back with morals and education and responsibility. Like everything in this movie, his passion for his son feels so true. Like I said in the review, it almost feels like a documentary to me as it captures the time period so well, and its characters are so deep.

      Your answer to “Why bad things happen to good people” is a great, thought-provoking way to look at it. I usually just wonder why, unable to process anything other than random questions and raw emotions in real situations like that. But you’re right, it is more effective if the person was someone we cared about. I do want to add that I also felt such an intense sadness upon the closing moments when Cube fades away. I knew it was coming, it just had to be given the story, but it still hit me hard. It’s a vicious, neverending cycle. And I love your point about thinking about that intensity under the surface of black men in general, not just the character here. It’s making me think a lot, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that one.

      And it’s always blown my mind how close impoverished crime-ridden areas of LA were mere miles from the richest neighborhoods in the world. I remember one time driving around Anaheim and literally just down the street from Disneyland is like to worst part of town with all kinds of derelict buildings and decrepit homes with lawns every shade of brown. Such a stark contrast to the happiest place on Earth charging exorbitant sums of money for mere entrance into their fantasy world. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Disneyland, but the disparity between rich and poor in this country is just ridiculously out of control and has been for a long time.

  • A great film. Not one I would want to watch twice, just because it would get too depressing, but definitely worth watching the first time.

    • Indeed, an incredible film that is definitely heavy to the point of being too much to watch twice. I’m sure I will come back around to it though, it’s too good not to.

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