Tuesday, January 10, 2017
CANON OF FILM: "BOYZ N THE HOOD"
BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991)
Director/Screenplay: John Singleton
In 1991, John Singleton was a Senior in USC film school finishing his thesis paper, which was a screenplay for a film based on his own personal experiences living in South Central L.A. His professor gave it an A, and then passed the script up to a friend of his at Paramount who read the screenplay and gave the author a 3-picture deal, before his graduation. That screenplay was “Boyz N the Hood,” and with the subsequent film, he earned two Oscar nominations, including Best Director, which made him the youngest to be nominated in the category at age 24, and the first African-American to be nominated. (As of this day, there's only been two that have achieved that mark, Singleton and Lee Daniels for "Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire", that might change soon though)
Titled after an N.W.A. song, the movie begins with police sirens and radios, along with statistics of gun violence in inner cities, before showing his first image of the film, a giant red stop sign. He's not being subtle, but he is powerful. The first part of the movie follows a young Tre (Desi Arnaz Hines II) getting into a fight in school, and his mother, Reva (Angela Bassett), fearing that he will become another gang member, decides to let his father, Furious (Laurence Fishburne) take care of him. This seems dubious at first, since it appears as though Furious lives in a worst neighborhood and his first day living with his father, a burglar tries to steal from them, leading to Furious shooting at him, somehow missing. We also meet Tre’s friends who are very young, and how they’re treated, such as Darin and Ricky (Donovan McCrary and Baha Jackson), the two brothers with different fathers. One is coveted by his mother and grooms him to be an athlete, while she ignores the other who’s already heading for jail partly to get attention, mostly because he knows it’s what he’s supposed to do. We flash forward seven years later, and there’s a great scene where we get reintroduced to the characters at a Summer block party get-together. Ricky (Morris Chestnut) is a high school athlete, who already has his girlfriend and one-year old living with him and his mother and his brother, now mostly referred to as Doughboy (Ice Cube) is celebrating getting released from prison by playing cards with another friend of theirs, Chris (Kenneth A. Brown when Age 10, Regi Green when he's an adult) when Tre comes to the BBQ in an overly snazzy outfit with a buttoned shirt all the way to the top. Chris, very suddenly we see him roll out slightly from the card table at the sight of Tre. No explanation of how he was paralyzed is ever given, and Singleton knows it isn’t needed; it's one of my favorite uses of a writer knowing when to only give enough information and not too much since a lesser writer would've felt the need to fill in blanks. Here, everybody knows what happened, we can guess in our minds and probably be close to right; it's just part of the world they live in.
Singleton based Tre on himself, and all the other characters as people he knew from his neighborhood, like a crack-out mother who constantly leaves her child in the middle of the street, and even a Black police officer, Officer Coffey (Jesse Lawrence Ferguson) who torments the other African-Americans in the neighborhood, as a way of dealing with his own anger; this was a particularly fascinating casting choice in the early nineties, when the L.A. Inner City and Police were practically at all out war. (The movie was released a year before the riots, but was released after the Rodney King incident) The movie shows us how with Furious, Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) learned the life lessons needed from his father to be the man that his mother couldn’t teach him to be, and we see how everyone else was raised and how there futures played out. All the while, constant gunshots are fired randomly, and helicopters continually peer through the streets with their lights acting like a jailhouse spotlight. The events that lead to the film’s violence-ridden climax are not shocking, but they’re still quite devastating and unexpected. The violence in the movie is not glorified but is viciously realistic, and the characters' reactions to the violence is almost as disturbing. Some seek help, others are helpless, others seek revenge and vengeance in a never-ending circle of violence disguised as justice, and in a way it’s touching just how Singleton cares for each one of his characters. They aren’t all particularly articulate but they’re all conscious of the situation around them, even if they don’t understand it, they all seem to know, probably more than anything else, their places in it. Unfortunately, the more often I see this film, the more I realize it’s as much about one’s destiny as a Greek play. There’s two great monologues in the film, one by Furious where he explains the socioeconomical context of ghettos and how they work that's powerful enough that I've seen it taught in Sociology classes, the other is amazingly more poignant, it occurs during the movies final scenes, when a ghostly Doughboy realizes how the news always shows footage of foreign countries but never shows the ghettos of America.
"Boyz N the Hood" is as much about Americana as “American Graffiti,” is, only it reveals an Americana that, especially at the time, had not been shown much of on film screens and is a confident first feature from an artist who’s obviously gifted way beyond his years. Along with Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and the Hughes Brothers "Menace II Society", and several others "Boyz N The Hood" helped usher in the first mainstream emergence of prolific young African-American directors, and the astonishing part of why that era of films remains so strong and important is how they did it. Not by doing anything too complex, just following the first rule of screenwriting: Write what you know.