Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: July 12, 1991
Directed by: John Singleton
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
As a rule, young black men in mainstream Hollywood movies are scripted by well-paid writers who may or may not have ever actually met a young black man. They mostly just script a lot of “yo” and “whassup” and “word,” along with a heaping helping of completely unreal stereotypes that wouldn’t be out of place in the bonus footage from “Birth of A Nation,” and enjoy the rave reviews for “gritty realism” and “courageous portrayals” written by entertainment columnists who call the police when a twentysomething black man gets lost in their neighborhood.
John Singleton was good enough to put at least a partial stop to all of that. For one thing, he is black and actually grew up with friends who resembled characters from “Boyz n the Hood,” which, it turns out, is a huge advantage in writing and directing a movie like “Boyz n the Hood.” Of course, some of that legitimacy rubs off when it’s discovered that Mr. Singleton’s parents were actually a mortgage broker and a pharmaceutical sales rep, so maybe it’s racist to assume he knows the experience of real ghetto kids just by virtue of his skin color. These things aren’t learned by racial osmosis, after all. Regardless of where John Singleton learned the street game, “Boyz n the Hood” has the virtue of being far less of a minstrel show than typical portrayals of urban life from the same era-“House Party” leaps to mind.
The film follows the lives of a group of lifelong friends who are unlucky enough to be growing up in the shattered world of South Central Los Angeles near the climax of what history will unkindly remember as the crack wars. Gangs dominate the streets, drugs and broken homes are behind every front door in the projects, and hopelessness isn’t an abstract concept discussed by sociology professors but an oppressive blanket thrown over the lives of every spirited young person in town. Doughboy (played by the always-awesome Ice Cube) and Ricky (Hudhail Al-Amir) are two half-brothers who take radically different approaches to hood life. Ricky works hard for an athletic scholarship that would be his ticket out of the life he knows, while Doughboy gets ever deeper into the shady side of life. They and their friend Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr., about whom not enough good may ever be said) navigate the treacherous currents of being poor and black in the L.A. of the Crips vs. Bloods era.
Every one of the principal actors in this film brought his game face to every shoot. While Avery and Al-Amir came from basically nowhere-and promptly went back there after the film’s release-former NWA frontman Ice Cube managed to tentatively establish himself as an actual actor, as opposed to the kind of performer who only acts by creating a rapper’s persona and sticking to it in public and on TV while the checks are rolling in. Laurence Fishburne shows up now and again to chew the scenery good and hard in every scene he’s in. Imagine having a dad who will shortly go on to play Morpheus in “The Matrix;” he’s like that.
“Boyz n the Hood” hit mainstream America like a mugging. The ’80s are remembered as the decade of optimistic growth and cheerful smiles. That narrative was disrupted nicely by the loud and discordant shriek from urban America. The black, the white, and the Hispanic, not to mention the poor, the sick, and the gay, all wrecked the happy dream by screaming in pain so loudly that the polite middle class couldn’t help but notice what had been going on in “those” neighborhoods all these years. For once, people who had the money and the connections to buy themselves a place near the front of the bus were being forced against their will to listen to some of the people who were still stuck in back. “Boyz n the Hood” was a major part of that shriek, and for decades to come, it will be remembered as a major touchstone of the same era that was burned alive with the Rodney King beating and subsequent verdict, the People of California vs. Orenthal J. Simpson, and ultimately the repeal of what little social programs had survived into the ’90s. The virtues of “Boyz n the Hood,” as well as its hard-to-overlook faults, are inseparable from the reality of life in California at the end of the crack wars.