"One out of every twenty-one black American males will be assassinated in their lifetime."
"Most will perish at the hands of another black male."
I wonder how much has really changed in the two decades years since the release of John Singleton’s debut directorial effort. Boyz n the Hood was a seminal expose on criminality amidst black youths; a beautifully orchestrated coming of age drama from a different mother; and an insightful look at the hypocrisy of the Government machines, who would rather invade a country thousands of miles away than address issues that are right on their doorstep: such as the plight of impoverished neighbourhoods, and the impact of everything from drugs to urban gentrification. And it’s still arguably the greatest Spike Lee film that Spike Lee never directed.
South Central, Los Angeles
The story kicks off in 1984, with 10-year-old Tre Styles misbehaving for the last time – his mother finally determining that the only person who will be able to keep him in line is his father; and therefore sending him off to live with the dad in Crenshaw, one of the neighbourhoods in LA. Furious Styles is more than happy to take responsibility for his son, but proves to be a strict task master and, over the ensuing years, the young boy learns life lessons the hard way. Ten years later and Tre has grown up to be a fairly responsible 17-year-old, thanks largely to his father. His childhood friends have since gone in different directions – Doughboy took the criminal route, and has just been released from prison; Chris followed him and (presumably) got shot for his troubles, now restricted to a wheelchair; and Ricky – Doughboy’s half-brother – is aspiring to be a professional American football player, but is seemingly naively oblivious towards the true horrors that life can throw at you. Even in their older years, Furious still tries to keep an eye on the boys, being the only father-figure still remaining on their street; and teaches them about the plight of poor urban areas, the damage that drugs and guns do to the neighbourhood, and the ramifications of the ensuing gentrification: which sees the rich (white) property developers buy up the properties that have lost their value due to the drugs and street violence; and how their investment money eventually leads to higher property values and taxes, which pushes out the poorer black inhabitants, who can no longer afford the rent. But after the group of friends gets into a confrontation with a street gang, their lives are changed forever.
“Why is it that there is a gun shop on almost every corner in this community? I'll tell you why. For the same reason that there is a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves.”
Taking his own personal experiences from growing up in South Central, and crafting them into a story which pays tribute to both seminal coming-of-age dramas like Stand By Me, and to the works of Spike Lee, John Singleton’s directorial debut is a timeless modern classic – one which earned him an Oscar Nomination at a time when it was pretty rare for black filmmakers to be acknowledged with any kind of awards for their work. Made when he was just 22 (a record age as well in terms of Oscar Nominations), it was a noteworthy turning point in terms of these kinds of stories, taking the usual childhood friends, who suffer life’s ups and downs and forge in different directions as they grow older; and turning it on its head by painting the alternative view of the equivalent black children, whose comparable experiences are perpetually tainted by racism, crime, and poverty; with nothing but contempt from the authorities, and little more than ambivalence from the Government. It’s tagline was originally “Once Upon a Time in South Central L.A.”, a nod to Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America (less so Once Upon a Time in the West) which follows a similar tale of childhood friends whose experiences on the streets – and with the authorities and rival gangs – determine both the direction of their lives, and their ultimate fate.
This is not an Aronofsky-styled tale of despair and desperation; ultimate doom and gloom (however good his films may be), but more a snapshot of life in these neighbourhoods, and what kids have to get through in order to just survive their childhood. Designed to be an eye-opener to the state of impoverished urban life right under our noses, highlighting the struggles that take place which seem to never get press coverage; and never reach the public’s attention because we’re too busy with international events – perhaps this message still applies to societies today, as the riots we had last month clearly demonstrate: we’re too busy worrying about the Stock Market and the FTSE 100, the current Middle East war, and who we’re going to invade next; in the meantime the situation on the streets back home is largely ignored which, eventually, leads to trouble. Lack of father figures, or role models other than their ill-suited peers, sees children from impoverished backgrounds – who don’t have the same opportunities as those in more affluent areas and from more comfortably wealthy families – forced to deal with the journey of life, only often without the same moral compass to guide them which parents and teachers should have instilled in them. And the only time we really sit up and take notice is when somebody sets fire to a car, because little else is deemed newsworthy. The kids depicted here – those who still exist in urban environments and council estates across the country – struggle to survive and escape the situation that they are often born into, and which society, as a whole, often turns a blind eye to.
“Something wrong?! Yeah. Just a shame you don’t know what it is.”
Integral to telling this tale was Director John Singleton’s personal experiences of South Central LA, the gang violence, the drugs on the streets, the appearance of the massively popular sub-machine-guns and machine-pistols, the bias of the education system, the shifting evolution of the neighbourhoods following gentrification, and the corruption of the authorities – in one scene we see how Tre’s father, Furious, confronts a burglar in his house; and when the police eventually arrive, the black police officer on the scene showcases utter disdain for both Furious and the neighbourhood he lives in, proffering a ‘shame you didn’t kill him’ attitude, as if he didn’t care what happened on the streets and generally hoped that black people would just wipe one another out. Apparently this came directly from Singleton’s own personal experience and, when we see the officer appear in a later, even more horrific scene, it is quite sobering to think about the treatment of certain individuals by some police officers.
Beyond this fantastic, authentic, diary-like alternative coming-of-age drama, founded in the real-life horrors of the streets, we get a whole host of then-newcomer actors, often in their breakthrough roles – delivering the performances which would go on to both kick-start their careers and, in some cases, still stand out as the high points in them. Cuba Gooding Jr. had his breakthrough role here as the young Tre, caught between the violence on the streets and the strong hand of his father, who seeks to teach him that there is more to life than that. Although he clearly needed a few more years to refine his talents (and then a further decade to squander them), and he does feature in a couple of marginally ineffective moments (the bit where he nearly gets run over is ridiculous – he should have seen that car coming a mile away and clearly just wandered negligently across the road; and he’s one of the prime suspects for crimes of fashion, along with most of the rest of the young cast, male and female, who look like they were dressed by Carlton), the potential is still evident even here, at a fairly young age. Morris Chestnut, who plays Tre’s friend, seeking to win a scholarship and escape to better things, is on suitably naive form, although he certainly didn’t capitalise on the part – going on to play in a couple of Seagal movies (Under Siege 2 and Half Past Dead). Then there’s Angela Bassett (Strange Days, What’s Love Got to Do with It?), who got her big break here as well, and hasn’t changed a bit in terms of power or elegance – she’s plays Tre’s mother, working perfectly opposite Larry Fishburne, during the scenes that they have together.
Fishburne himself is great – his early years (over a decade on from his breakthrough at just 14 years old in Apocalypse Now but long before he reached superstardom with The Matrix and then downward spiralled to now be utterly wasted on CSI) doing films like King of New York and this really showed his presence and innate ability to command respect; and his powerful speeches as Tre’s father, the superbly named Furious Styles, really punctuate this drama with poignancy and sincerity. But the real surprise comes in the form of none other than Ice Cube. Yes, rapper Ice Cube. Whilst the likes of XXX: State of the Union and Anaconda didn’t exactly do him any favours, there is no denying that here, in his debut role, he shows some true talent, and brings a certain authenticity to the proceedings with his honest and raw comments. Whilst the rest of the cast may have gone on to bigger and better things, Ice Cube still remains the most standout player amidst the younger contributors.
“Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what's going on in the hood.”
Boyz n the Hood, much like another 20-year old film I reviewed last month, Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, remains quite a telling expose into the ‘situation back home’, and, as with ‘Fourth of July, it also appears to have messages which have largely gone unheeded – history lessons ignored; tragedies destined to be repeated. Singleton may have had a downhill career ever since this (Shaft was a poor remake, even with Sam Jackson onboard), but most still remember him for this career-defining debut writer/director effort, which garnered wholly unexpected critical acclaim and commercial success, and which has now earned the film a place to be preserved the National Film Registry, for being ‘culturally significant’. And you can see why. Right from the first time Furious enters the picture; through to the first drive-by, and the first gang confrontation; to the exploration of the choices these youths make, and the limited options available to them; and to the tragic outcome which can befall even the most promising of them. From the corrupt police to the callous teenage killers; from the reluctant criminals to the desperate survivors – Boyz n the Hood told a story that either nobody had heard before, or nobody had listened to before; and it remains a timeless coming-of-age drama, a perfect Once Upon a Time... in South Central L.A.
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