John Singleton's landmark slice of South Central gangsta life, which reached international acclaim after its Cannes debut and garnered two Oscar noms for writer/director Singleton in 1991, still stings today. The emotionally powerful morality tale of how youth in the marginalized, poverty stricken African American "ghetto" of Los Angeles can turn to gang life in place of their absentee parents feels as poignant now as it did then.
Boyz in the Hood (1991) dir. John Singleton
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube. Laurence Fishburne, Nia Long, Angela Bassett
By Alan Bacchus
Singleton's point of view into this world is Tre (Gooding Jr.), whom we first see as a naive kid goofing around with his equally impressionable friends, Ricky (the All-American athlete star destined for a college scholarship) and Doughboy (the fatherless miscreant). Fast-forwarding, we see how some significant life decisions caused Doughboy to spend time in a juvenile prison for the murder of a fellow homeboy while Tre and Ricky grow up scot-free. But when the trio are reunited, Tre finds himself inescapably drawn into the neighbourhood gangster wars and drive-by shootings.
Watch the deftness of Singleton's writing. As Doughboy, Ice Cube is more than the aggressive firecracker of violence he could have been characterized as. Instead, Singleton and Cube create a complex, layered young man, both aggressive and spiteful of the world, but also sincere, comforting and understanding of his place in the culture. This can be seen in the final goodbye between Tre and Doughboy, a tearjerker of a scene. Doughboy and his crew drive to the mall to find the rival gang to avenge the death of their friend, but when Tre tells him to stop and let him out, Doughboy puts up no fight, quietly acknowledging that the violent path of revenge is not Tre's job, but his own. With few words, Gooding and Cube quietly acknowledge this complex, streetwise code of honour.
In addition to the race and social issues at hand, Boyz in the Hood also feels like a time capsule of early '90s pop culture that so greatly influenced style and trends throughout the decade. Again, look at Ice Cube, then a hardcore rapper in NWA, with his distinctly curled eyebrow, wearing all black, slurring his n-words with a snarling lip. He's badass L.A.-gangster personified and a walking fashion statement for legions of hip hop fans.
If the film didn't paint such a vivid picture of a small but fascinating subset of American life, and if it wasn't a pop culture trendsetting touchstone, it would still work as a universally poignant father-son story. The process of educating one's son to be a "man" is referred to a number of times, but it's more than just corny hyperbole; it's at the absolute heart of the violence. Laurence (then billed as Larry) Fishburne commands the screen as a strong guiding force for Tre, keeping him on the path of righteousness despite everything pulling him the opposite direction towards violence. This is the stuff of classic storytelling, and when acted with such strong, believable conviction, films like this last forever.
The 20th Anniversary Blu-ray contains featurettes and commentary from previous DVD versions, but the new stuff, and the treasure of this disc, is the newly produced anniversary documentary featuring the cast and crew looking back on their work and its influence on their careers. Ice Cube, Gooding Jr. Singleton, Fishburne and more provide intelligent, articulate ruminations on the film. Singleton candidly describes the somewhat negative effect his success had on him as a 21-year-old. Being put in the company of Orson Welles can give a cinephile a big ego and Singleton admits this. Sadly, Boyz is still the high water mark for Singleton, as he has yet to match the creative inspiration of this picture, a profoundly mature work from such a young person.