Boyz n the Hood is a movie so fraught with cultural significance that it's hard to remember if it's any good. Upon its release, it was immediately hailed for its startling depiction of gang violence in South Central L.A. But then, in a sort of nightmarish Purple Rose of Cairo twist, the violence jumped from the screen to the audience. All around the country, at scores of theaters showing Boyz, acts of violence--shootings, stabbings, brawls--heaped gasoline on the already burning controversy surrounding the cultural influence of gangsta rap and its glorification of the gangsta lifestyle. Less than a year after Boyz' release, racial tensions boiled over and rioting swept through the very neighborhoods where the film's action is set. And while it would be absurd to claim that Boyz had anything to do with the start of the unrest, the riots made it clear that the rage and frustration depicted in the film was eerily on the money. So, more than a decade later, in a completely different racial climate, with gangsta rap now as mainstream as mac-and-cheese, does Boyz n the Hood still play? Yeah, in a very raw way, it does.
Writer-director John Singleton was only 23 when Boyz hit the big screen in 1991, and if the intervening years have brought anything into sharper focus, it's his immaturity as a writer. Boyz is a sledgehammer of a film -- powerful, but hardly subtle. Singleton centers his story on the character of Tré Styles, who's about 11 in the opening sequence. After Tré gets into a fight at school, he's taken to live with his father, Furious (Laurence Fishburne), who has a better shot at teaching him how to be a man than his mother (Angela Bassett) does. Tré's best friends are Doughboy -- a tough, pudgy, troublemaking little kid -- and Ricky -- Doughboy's good-looking, athletic younger brother. As the sequence winds to a close, Furious' paternal influence keeps Tré out of trouble while the fatherless Doughboy ends up being arrested for shoplifting.
Boyz' first half hour self-consciously mirrors Rob Reiner's Stand by Me, the filmic equivalent of Wonder Bread. Tré, Doughboy, and Ricky wander down railroad tracks, get harassed by older boys, and go see a dead body, just as in Stand by Me. Throughout these scenes, Singleton does his best work. There is a universal quality to the young boys' dreams and anxieties, their hunger for adventure and curiosity with the world. The ugliness that surrounds them, the drugs and violence and racism, sharply contrasts with their innocence and basic humanity. What doesn't fly as well are Furious' intermittent sermons to Tré. They feel less like a father teaching his son than a filmmaker teaching his audience.
Boyz then jumps seven years into the future. Tré (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is now a bright, responsible young man with a great future. Ricky (Morris Chestnut) is a star athlete who hopes to nail down a football scholarship to USC. Doughboy (Ice Cube) is a gangsta who's in and out of the jail and drinks 40s all day long. Once again, their experiences are in some ways typical -- Tré's trying to lose his virginity, Ricky's worried about school, Doughboy wants his mom off his back -- but in other ways disturbing -- worrying about drive-bys, living next door to crack dens, being harassed by racist cops. What changes, though, is that as Tré, Ricky, and Doughboy grow into manhood, they cease to be spectators to their environmental terrors, as they were when they were kids. Instead, they're drawn into the violence as active participants. For them, the fray is unavoidable.
Here lies the real drama of Boyz n the Hood. Singleton, who grew up in South Central himself, has a firsthand awareness of how staggeringly difficult it is for a child to overcome poverty, violence, drugs, racism, etc., and emerge a healthy, successful autonomous adult. For this reason, his excesses -- and there are plenty of them -- are understandable.
Singleton was nominated for two Academy Awards for Boyz -- one for Best Original Screenplay and one for Best Director, beating Orson Welles by two years as the youngest person ever to be nominated for the latter award. And while Singleton will never be considered in Welles' class as a director, or as a writer for that matter, his work on this powerful film deserved all of the commendation it received. Singleton had his fingers on the pulse of South Central at a time when it desperately needed help. It's too bad we didn't listen to him soon enough.