Historical Circuit: The Enduring Legacy of John Singleton’s Poignant ‘Boyz n the Hood’

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ACCA 1991: During the recently concluded awards season, the Hollywood Reporter published an interesting article in honor of the success of “Get Out”. In it, all of the African-American directing nominees in the history of the Oscars gathered for a candid discussion about their experiences in the industry. Before even reading the article, the accompanying photo was already telling in two significant ways. Firstly, the paltry 4 nominees couldn’t even fill a single year’s quota of nominees. And secondly, the oldest nominated film represented was “Boyz n the Hood“, released just 27 years ago in the summer of 1991. Though the blaxploitation movement had already emerged out of the civil rights movement and Spike Lee had given us the seminal “Do the Right Thing” two years earlier, it wasn’t until “Boyz n the Hood” that a black director finally received that public stamp of industry approval.

Singleton’s achievement was indeed a major milestone in the history of black film. And what made it all the more remarkable was how unapologetically black it is. Here was a film titled in the vernacular of urban slang, with an uncompromising view of the African-American struggle and no white savior in sight. Instead, the film revolves around the life of a young man named Tre, growing up in the predominantly black neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles. Beginning in his early childhood, the story charts his coming of age into manhood, as his mother and father fight to keep him on the straight and narrow path as drugs, violence and endemic poverty plague his community.

From the first frame to the last, Singleton never shies away from those harsh realities of Trey’s environment. Indeed, the film opens with a depressing statistic – one out of every twenty-one Black American males will be murdered in their lifetime. It goes on to state that most will die at the hands of another black male.

Such acts of violence, therefore, become an integral part of the plot. But Singleton never uses it for gratuitous entertainment. “Boyz n the Hood” is thankfully more nuanced than that. Underneath the survivalist narrative of its gritty urban drama is an unabashedly sentimental coming of ager, including opening scenes reminiscent of “Stand By Me”.

Indeed, some detractors derided the film as an “after-school special”, largely due to the writing of the father character Furious Styles. But Singleton constantly justifies his preachy nature, creating an atmosphere of omnipresent danger through several small details, like the intermittent sounds of the roving LAPD helicopters. Furious Styles’s world-weary perspective is, therefore, key to understanding and appreciating the film.

Furious is truly a highlight of the story, played with an understated but commanding authority by Laurence Fishburne. A role model par excellence, he is conspicuously the only father in a film that prominently features an array of mothers. Among them is Furious’ estranged wife and caring mother Reva, brilliantly portrayed by Angela Bassett. Establishing an undeniable chemistry, Fishburne and Bassett would go on to earn their first and only Oscar nominations two years later as a more volatile couple in “What’s Love Got to Do with It”.

But the duo were already Oscar-worthy here and they weren’t the only ones. The film’s defining relationship is that between father and son, a love that was palpable thanks to the sincere bond expressed by Fishburne and breakthrough star Cuba Gooding Jr. After bit parts in “Coming to America” and “Sing”, Gooding was a revelation in his first major role. His kind face and the innate vulnerability of his performance were perfect for his tumultuous character arc, which begins with a young Trey getting in trouble for his violent temper and eventually sees him eschewing those negative expectations of black men. Echoes of Trey Styles can be seen in subsequent depictions of black male characters, most recently Jason Mitchell’s ambitious Brandon on Showtime’s “The Chi”, who similarly struggles to break out of the cycle of violence after the agonizing murder of a loved one in Chicago’s South Side. Furthermore, Gooding’s persona as Trey surely paved the way for his later casting as another atypical black man. Namely, O.J. Simpson in “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson”.

Gooding Jr. wasn’t the only actor who benefited greatly from the film’s success (it grossed an impressive $57.5 million in North America on a $6.5 million budget). Perhaps its most impressive cultural influence is how many of today’s beloved black stars can trace their film careers back to this incredible ensemble. Indeed, the film marked the debut for current Emmy darling Regina King, as well as Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut, who were cast as brothers and Trey’s closest friends. Coming full circle, Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr. would later revisit the setting and era to play his father in his own acting debut “Straight Outta Compton”. And finally, Nia Long has described her role as Trey’s girlfriend Brandi as her “first real movie role.”

Ultimately, all of these supporting characters proved indispensable to the film’s lasting power, as Singleton treats them with the same level of empathy afforded to the main characters. Indeed, even Ice Cube’s deadbeat Doughboy is heartbreaking when he laments that the rest of the world doesn’t care about what’s going on in the hood. And therein lies the film’s greatest triumph. For at least those 112 minutes of its running time, John Singleton made us all care deeply about the “Boyz n the Hood”.

GRADE: (★★★★)

Vote for “Boyz n the Hood” and any other films from 1991 in the Awards Circuit Community Awards nomination round!  Open until Saturday, April 7!