Of course I had to re-watch BOYZ N THE HOOD as part of the N.W.A celebration. Not only is it named after an Eazy-E song, but it’s the actorial debut of Ice Cube, and still, in my opinion, one of his best performances. (No offense, GHOSTS OF MARS.)
The lead, though, is future DTV master (and Oscar winner, but who cares?) Cuba Gooding Jr. as Tre Styles, a teen in South Central L.A. circa 1991. He lives with his dad Furious (Larry Fishburne, DEATH WISH II), a firebrand mortgage broker who works hard to instill discipline and responsibility in his son, and whose fierce attention to politics gets him called “Malcolm Farrakhan.” In one scene he drives Tre and his friend out to Compton to give them a big speech about gentrification and the importance of black-owned businesses. They’re impressed, but mostly just scared to be in that neighborhood. They’re happy to get back in the car and drive straight outta Compton.
Tre’s friends don’t have fathers, and most of them spend more time sitting on the porch drinking 40s than he does. One of them, Dooky, is always sucking on a pacifier. Apparently that’s because the actor, Dedrick D. Gobert, did that to stop smoking, but it definitely comes across as a symbol of men who never get around to grow into adults, or never get a chance to. These guys live something closer to the lifestyle described in the Eazy-E song than Tre does, but with less shooting and drug money and no hitting women as far as we see.
In the 30-minute childhood prologue, Tre’s friend Chris already has a gun. In the present that kid (Redge Green) has done time and is in a wheelchair. Doughboy (Cube) just got out himself, and kinda seems like the leader of the group. He drives the Impala, he gets in a guy’s face for pushing his brother, points at the gun in his waistband.
Rick (Morris Chestnut, UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY, HALF PAST DEAD) is their mom’s favorite, and seems to have the brightest future, with a football scholarship in the works. With Doughboy she’s always cursing, telling him he’s lazy and no good, but with Rick or Tre she turns into a sweetheart. They dress up nice and host college recruiters and it’s intercut with Doughboy and friends on the porch talking about bitches.
It’s clearly autobiographical for first time writer/director John Singleton, who was only 23 years old and not too far removed from a high school worldview. Therefore going to college or not is a matter of life and death, like they tell you at that age. It also deals with his mother (Angela Bassett, STRANGE DAYS) deciding to send him to live with Furious because supposedly a woman “can’t teach him to be a man.” I kinda think that’s horse shit, but we do see that something wasn’t working living with his mother, and Furious was a good influence for him.
Then there’s tension between the parents. To Tre and his friends you can see how Furious seems really strict (“Who he think you is, Kunta Kinte?” Doughboy asks when Tre has to rake the lawn as soon as he gets there) but you can see how his sweat-pants-wearing, “Who dis?” phone answering ass annoys the shit out of mom. I like how Furious tries to have a mature relationship with her. When she drops Tre off Furious sits in the passenger seat to talk with her, like an old friend. Later they meet for dinner at a fancy restaurant and Furious puts on a Huxtable sweater (p.c. term for “Cosby sweater”) which I get the feeling is a gesture for her. They still get in an argument, though.
It’s definitely a movie more about boyz than girlz. Other than his mom the women are pretty lightly sketched. The rapper and Ice Cube collaborator Yo-Yo has a cameo at Doughboy’s welcome home barbecue (as well as a song on the soundtrack about what a good mom she has). And Regina King is around a little bit as one of their few female friends, Shalika. She would later appear with Cube in HIGHER LEARNING and FRIDAY, and do the voices of both of the main kids on The Boondocks, where she would have this conversation with a character played by Mos Def:
By the way, Tre is the most fashionable dude in the movie. He gets a discount on clothes from somewhere, and Doughboy tells him “You look like you sellin rocks.” But he’s the only one whose style ages horribly. Everybody else has Raiders hats, jeans, Hoyas sweatshirts, pretty timeless. Meanwhile, poor Cuba’s wearing this stuff:
I think people remember this as a “don’t join a gang” movie even though nobody’s specifically in a gang and the primary victim is a “good kid” trying to go to college and having nothing to do with gangs (his biggest temptation is joing the Army). It’s also a coming-of-age deal with horny Tre always talking about girls – “Catholic girls are supposed to be one of the biggest hoochies” – and wanting to lose his virginity but his girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long, IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK 2) wants to wait until they’re married. So he wants to get married just to get laid, one of the problems with that particular moral code. Yeah, having sex when you don’t know what you’re doing could ruin your life. But same with getting married.
The boyz just want to have fun, have barbecues and drive around playing music, as happens not just on Crenshaw but in every white suburb, hick town or AMERICAN GRAFFITI type movie. But they have to worry about assholes from other neighborhoods or in police uniforms pointing guns at them over nothing. (The n-word using bad cop in this, by the way, is pointedly black.) When both of these things happen in a row Tre comes to Brandi, claims to be okay, then shadowboxes and cries “I’m sick of this shit!” A potent illustration of the frustration.
Singleton’s filmatism is strident to the point of corniness, but it’s mostly a good corny, I think. He opens with a statistic about black-on-black violence, the sounds of gunshots and crying, then a dramatic zoom-in on a stop sign. You know?
Then a young Tre and some other kids investigate the site of a shooting where bullet holes and blood are sprayed across a wall of Reagan/Bush “4 More Years” posters. Four more years of the socio-economic conditions that lead to this shit. I get it.
At the end Singleton has the words “INCREASE THE PEACE” on the screen. I think some of this is the influence of Spike Lee – how else do you explain a character named Furious Styles? – but it’s also the times. It was different back then. It was cool to wear your heart on your sleeve. For crying out loud, there’s a song on the soundtrack by teen group Hi-Five called “Too Young,” where the young singer laments that because he’s a kid “the EPA won’t listen to what I have to say.”
Still, I wonder what happened to make this John Singleton so completely disappear. After BOYZ it was “positivity” minded POETIC JUSTICE, polemic HIGHER LEARNING, African-American history primer ROSEWOOD. You can see why this guy would want to do SHAFT, and BABY BOY… and then poof, he was gone. I can’t picture him doing those heartfelt movies again. Can you?
Don’t get me wrong. I love 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS, and it doesn’t get enough credit in the evolution of the series. It introduced Roman and Tej and tested the waters for continuing with new characters, less drag racing, and more absurdity. But who’d’ve thunk the director of that and ABDUCTION once cared so much he couldn’t help being preachy? He’s on the opposite end of the pool now.
I think the heavy-handedness – which got him an Oscar nomination for best director, something Lee never got – is kind of endearing, maybe because it’s coming from a young guy. But to be fair the movie’s not without subtlety. Like, I like how this so-called hood movie has young Tre, Doughboy, Rick and Chris walking along the train tracks to see a dead body and getting picked on by grown up dudes, positioning it as nostalgic Americana like STAND BY ME.
Compared to a real gang movie there’s not much violence. What Singleton does is put a face on statistics like the one he opened with. You get to like this guy and experience the loss along with his friend, his brother, his mom, his girlfriend, his son. You see the choices he makes, the mistakes he steers clear of, the potential he has, just to lose his life over some stupid shit. It would be hard to misinterpret this one SCARFACE style. We’re in the shoes of the guys crying and dragging the dead body home to his mama.
When that happens Doughboy, who’s done nothing but fight with his mom, instinctively knows to be protective of her, to put his arms around her, to be Rick. And she smacks him away and says it’s his fault.
It might be. He did escalate the conflict by showing his gun. But Rick was already yelling at those guys for pushing him, it could’ve come to that anyway. Later the shooters drive slowly by the house to threaten them. Doughboy stands with his arms out, either like “What?” or “Go ahead, shoot me.” He’s not even there when they shoot Rick. If he had been it probly would’ve been him they shot.
Oh yeah, Rick did try to get him to go get the milk for him, in which case maybe he would’ve been the one to die. But Rick was the one who was supposed to get it in the first place. Doughboy was right to say no.
There’s alot to praise about this movie but I think #1 on the list is the rookie acting performance by Cube. Incidentally, there is an inside reference to his feud with N.W.A when Doughboy and friends beat the shit out of a chain-snatcher wearing a “We Want Eazy” shirt. So Eazy was nice to overlook that when complimenting the movie in that scene in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON.
I’ve always liked this movie but I probly never gave it enough credit. I think of it as being more simplistic than it is. I mean, if it was straight up “be like the good kid, not like the bad kid” then how come they made Doughboy obviously the coolest of the three leads?
Doughboy is a great character because he represents all the bad decisions in this movie, but he’s generally a nice kid. He seems to be smarter and more aware than his knucklehead friends and try to keep them in line, but he also has a chip on his shoulder about his family life, and I don’t think he has it in him to be like his brother anyway. As the song says, “Knowin nothin in life but to be legit.” He stands up for himself and his friends in the way he thinks he needs to, but this gets some of them killed.
Cube is really funny and charismatic in the role, and you root for him against those drive-by guys, even though he’s sort of Tre’s bad influence friend. But I think it’s the last scene that makes this movie a classic. It’s the next day, after the shit went down. Doughboy walks across the street to Tre’s and talks to him slowly, quietly, sadly about how he’s feeling, having lost his brother, having gotten revenge, and still feeling lost. It almost reminds me of the end of FIRST BLOOD when Rambo lets all his feelings out, but it’s much more subdued. Singleton’s tastes may be 2 furious for you now, but you can’t take this away from him: as a young man he wrote and directed that scene, and got that sensitive performance out of Amerikkka’s Most Wanted.
I think BOYZ N THE HOOD holds up pretty good. But don’t quote me, boy, ’cause I ain’t said shit.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.