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Boyz N the Hood

posted by Filippo on 7/24/01

It's rare, but sometimes audacity and vision can pay off.

John Singleton's Boyz N The Hood arrived in theaters amid an intense aura of encompassing controversy. Just a few short months ago, a single push of a camcorder record button confirmed what some considered a caterwaling  myth and others an out right fallacy -- that African Americans were routinely used as Tijuana piñatas and sometimes target practice.

The barbaric and inhumane video assaulted the publics consciousness and sent shockwaves throughout the country as indisputable proof of the disgusting underbelly of law enforcement was provided  for the world to witness.   Here were LA's Finest beating the black skin off of an unarmed and defenseless African American man, which looked more like somebody paying off a $5,000 dollar debt with ruthless loan sharks through their ass rather then Cops doing their job. African Americans just shook their heads and took the "I told you so" stance on the special antagonistic bond shared between cops and blacks, while America reacted with stunned disbelief  while simultaneously trying to play off the regular occurrence as an isolated incident. A year later It would take a bloody and deadly riot for even a morsel of justice.

This eye opening world wide collective epiphany segued wonderfully  in what would become one of the most defining movies of the 1990s. Much like the Rodney King video let America in on a nasty little secret Cops and African American's knew for ages. Boyz N the Hood allowed people to peer into a window people either didn't know existed, or ever wanted to acknowledge. A world where people got their hands on damn near everything except a diploma or check stub.

Before the world ever heard of a greaseball named Mark Burnett, or R&B hoes of the moment Destiny's Child, Singleton taught us the true meaning of Survivor.

Singleton's wonderfully accurate portrayal of the pratfalls of inner city life screams of a generation in decay, but fails to slip into the crutch of overdramatization and nonsensical excuses for the exhibition of violence and guns. "Boyz" is a simple enough coming of age story about a young mans journey from childhood to adult hood. With the only twist being South Central L.A effective city wide quicksand trap, shining the spotlight on a world where a simple trip to the store could be your last steps. No matter how vigorously you fought sometimes, you only found yourself deeper and deeper in an indescribable mesh of violence and melancholy. Factors wrought on by discrimination, unemployment, substandard medical care, housing and schooling, bleak economic factors such as deindustrialization which have paved the way for drugs, crime, and poverty. The Anti-American Dream so to speak. The frustration and aggression leaps out in almost every scene.

What makes this movie so powerful is that this isn't just a "black" story or an African American movie. The message that was conveyed is that this is an American story with American human beings (no matter how much people didn't want to admit it),  who are having their young lives destroyed and withered away without so much as a bat of an eye from most of America. It was also a wake up call for these same youths to stop the
violence and wake the fuck up.

The central issue in the movie revolves around Tre Styles played by a fresh faced unknown in Cuba Gooding, Jr. His father, Furious Styles played by Lawrence Fishburne. In order to create the amazing father to son dynamic, the movie takes an unconventional route against the quasi-conventional single Mom household, as Tre's mother exits out of the picture in order to better her life, and to let Tre's father teach him things only a man can.  Immediately the message of a single parent household is established and a theme throughout.

Furious knows the Vegas style stacked odds Tre is up against.  He instills values and disciplines in his son with his hostile brand of intelligence and wisdom. In the beginning Furious seems overly blunt and cold at times in some of his actions and warnings that his friends are headed down a path that will lead to either a  funeral or a prison cell. Only later would we find out just how needed his perspectives and advice were. Tre's best friends are Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube). Ricky is a nice kid, who seemed to learn from an early age that a football is his get out of the hood free pass. Doughboy even as a youth is magnetically attracted to trouble. There is no question his fate is probably sealed when he grows older.

I Make Dough, but Don't Call Me Doughboy

While Gooding and Chestnut put in an admirable performances, the showstealer without question is doughboy played by Ice Cube. Cuba Gooding, Jr., with his GQ good looks and soft spoken demeanor  seemed more tailor made for a token role in Beverly Hills 90210. Chestnut's mild mannered character at times just seems TOO out of place in the rough South Central environment. Ice Cube on the other hand was just years removed from the same environment from what he portrayed. 

In a stroke of genius, that provided the direct link putting visualization to gangsta rap, Ice Cube was cast to play the important and difficult character of Doughboy. It was a gamble to put someone so inexperienced in such a vital role, but it was a risky experiment that paid off.

Ice Cube brought a dramatic sense of authenticity with his thin visceral delivery and commanding presence. Already one of  hip hop's most respected stars, "Doughboy" was the anchor that held the film's realness factor down, as he obviously needed no
prompting or motivation in playing any of the scenes convincingly. His strong willed and street tested attitude transferred flawlessly onto the silver screen, possessing an authenticity you couldn't learn in some two bit acting school from Franz the extra in Silver Spoons. He's seen it and lived it.  His character was multilayered and not treated as a mindless thug which another less experienced and ulterior motive minded director would have went for.

And that was one of Singleton's greatest accomplishments; humanizing what was believed to be inhuman. The young black male growing up in the inner city.

"Boyz" is peppered and packed with themes throughout the movie that anyone can relate to. First crush, blossoming teenage romance, virginity, dreams and aspirations, athletic achievements, the pressure of getting into college, lying about banging a fine ass broad - all interwoven into the delicately rough textures of growing up in a concrete Vietnam. 

The Polio (Cops) were given their just due, portrayed as another obstacle rather then their "protect and serve" motto. In a particularly chilly scene Tre encounters a black police officer who his father had a run-in years earlier. During a routine traffic stop, the officer accosts and threatens the life of Tre, painfully explaining to him just how insignificant, meaningless, and worthless his life is in his eyes. Leaven a shaken and crying Tre to go on about his business as if nothing happened. Only a directors first hand experience and knowledge could give such a scathing report on how black police officers are sometimes (more often) worse then their white counterparts.

The nightmarish ending was a mixture of emotions and showed Singleton was not looking for anyone's approval. Dramatic and dynamic it tugged at any thugs heart strings, as it was a sobering statement on the vicious never ending circle of self-destruction that snuffed out a promising and productive young life. But at the same time provided silver linings and expressed to young men growing up in that situation that you could control your own destiny. Difficult, but possible. The fade to black final scene providing mind numbingly depressing statistics. Compelling statement about the type of depression and hopelessness you would expect out of some third world country. Not the good ol' U.S. of A. A Generation locked down in a living breathing monster.

The aftermath:

John's evocative opus was a jolt of lightening throughout the world of pop culture, as it provided important commentary and correspondence. A movie spoke for the ghettos and the youth, the disillusioned the tired, and the systematical destruction of a group of young men.

Explosive, provocative, but more importantly a story well told and executed. "Boyz" envoked reexamination on how this unimaginable world exists. Touchy subjects got touched and molested as "Boyz" ran the gamut of emotions and issues. Racism, gentrification, black self-hatred, triumph and tragedy.

Critics were shaken to the core, as accolades were immediately heaped from almost every angle. Made for next to nothing, this was one of those seldom seen TRUE commercial and critical success. Although you can tell the critical part came with  reservations. The mood was somewhat darkened as some of the screenings attracted the wrong crowds and were marred with violence, which  provided reviewers an out to bash the movie and proclaim its advocation of the violence it so vehemently protests. The same culprits who shitted on Spike's Do The Right Thing, defecated on Boyz N The Hood without hesitation. Even without squeaking the wheels of the elite, "Boyz" was able to at least warrant nomination from the uppity and clueless academy.

Over time some of the sting was taken out of the movies impact with the substandard bathed in cliche knockoffs like Juice, Menace 2 Society and Jason's Lyric. The genre unknowingly became a self parody which paved the way for comedies and spoofs like Dont be a Menace in South Central while drinking your Juice in the Hood, and the ghetto classic Friday. 

The talent involved have found successful careers. Ice Cube has continued running with the ball handed to him, as he has carved himself a fine niche in Hollywood. Cuba hit it big with Jerry Maguire and snagged an Oscar (!) but thusfar has been unable to capitalize on the prosperity. Morris Chestnut has become a fine supporting actor.

John Singleton however has been spotty at best since the cinematic opus. Sometimes you only have one moment of greatness in you. Although one has to wonder if he just crumbled under the weight of the "next Spike Lee" billing.  Churning out efforts like Poetic Justice, Rosewood, and Shaft have done nothing to quench the palate he wet with his first offering. Singleton attempted to go back to his roots striking lightening twice with Baby Boy, an unofficial sequel to BNTH. Baby Boy lacked the grittiness of its 1991 counterpart, and seemed to represent the commercialized hip hop scene of 2001 (Tyrese is street now?) as well as the difference between Singleton the hungry director, and Singleton the successful fat cat director. Good movie, but not great. Regardless, a lifetime of average to mediocre films will never chip away at his 1991 masterpiece.

It's naive to think that ills would dissipate because of a movie, but its disheartening that the messages for positivity which were stressed, has for the most part fallen on deaf ears.

Although being predisposed to failure and tragedy while having nothing but roadblocks placed at your every avenue in life offer up a confluence of forces designed to make succeeding in life almost impossible, it takes personal responsibility to bring one self up. Young men to this day are still engaging in the behavior this movie so thoroughly denounces. Black men, killing their own. Hating their own. Its the old Willie Lynch theory. Residuals of a slave mentality. This self-defeating attitude wrought out of institutionalized racism continues to rear its ugly head at every turn. Even in prosperity as "house niggas" who get a little cheese, buy a nice house, live in white neighborhoods and get some white pussy most often come to the conclusion that they ain't black no more, doing whatever possible to denigrate their own, and distance themselves from their own race (see: Clarence Thomas). All in all, just picking up the torch that the Plantation owners, the overseer, The Klan, and "the man" dropped.

On the worldwide unity front, while most of America loved the movie, they still wanted those black people anywhere but near them.

Boyz N the Hood becomes Boyz in the Suburbs?

For hundreds of years, in order to justify the nightmarishly ruthless dehumanization and resistance to provide basic human and equal rights, blacks were portrayed as the remorseless savage. Less refined, less moral, less civilized. That stigma still lingers
as in the last half of the 20th century there has always been a subtle but strong message taught. Danger, drugs and violence is poor, black and brown. The "boys in the hood" so to speak.  It fosters an environment of racial profiling and unarmed innocent blacks being shot to death by police. America, If you stay far enough away from those elements, you will be just fine says the message. In droves, America has taken heed to that indoctrination by finding shamefully cleaver and malevolent ways to combat the post civil rights movement era.

Impenetrable walls of social boundaries have always been erected, and disabilities imposed though different means to keep neighborhoods and schools as an exclusive crossbreed of a Norman Rockwell painting and a Friends episode as humanly and illegally possible. That utopian society of no black faces and no worries has taken a huge hit with the rash of deadly school shootings - as the perpetrators have come from a seemingly unimaginable source: Privileged and middle class white youth.

When the hail of bullets and violence slowly crept towards the lily white suburbs - when South Central became a small suburb in Colorado, when the "Boyz in the Hood" became the "Boyz in three car garages" the mood started to change. Social crusaders weren't so quick to pass off the perpetrators as violent thugs who should be sent on a one way ticket to hell with a prison pit stop, rather martyring the young men as innocent pawns in the game of life. The story started to hit too close to home.

Arguments are now being designed to strip away the personal culpability from killers. On almost every Television news and discussion show, we get a parade of psychologists, analysts, and experts to tell us why bullying gave a young adult *ahem* no choice but to bring a rifle and shoot up the school. These reactionary arguments are based out of social prejudices and politics. The media identifies with the killers, and feels the need to play name the excuse. They slap them with labels like "the boy next door," "All-American." Only time a person of color is ever referred to as an All American its only because he can dunk a basketball.

Maybe we are just trying to create a whole new victim class: The Young male who has it made, but commits genocide because He got a D- in geometry class, or because the school jock made a joke at his expense. Lets give it a nifty scientific name, while we are at it. Gap Rage!

Politicians and soccer moms, who have had their two story houses and roast beef themed dinners disrupted play a game of sophisticated manipulation, pinning the children's violent transgressions on whatever hot button excuse they can think of. Everything from video games to Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation circus to Marilyn Manson latest demonic album get the accusations and fingers of doom hurled and pointed their way. One place it never gets pointed is at themselves or their children. You almost get the feeling that we are all supposed to know that the perpetrators are indeed victims who are not capable of the same things those poor minority kids are, unless they are coerced by some undeniable force.

Nobody was willing to excuse away the violence in the inner cities on something as utterly ridiculous and trivial as video games. Just lets get tough stances on everything from violence to drug possession, shuttling young men off to prison assembly line style at an astonishing speed.

As an example, there was a video tape shown of a brawl between black youths at a Football game a few years ago. Although the ages ranged from 14-17 they were all quickly expelled from school and harsh criminal charges were filed. Ok, fair is fair, and wrong is wrong. Have to pay the consequences. The big problem was the media's portrayal of these youths as thug life incarnate - lock em up throw away the key.

No sympathy, no love, just dogged in their persecution. Jesse Jackson (one of the few times his mugging for the camera was just) was righteously incensed. You didn't hear the incident pinned on Lara Croft, or the latest episode of Raw is War. No politicians scrambling for positive solutions. No humanizing stories of their past childhood, interviews with family and friends, tours of their homes, sweet home movies of when they were young, or especially cries for a lighter sentence. Just out of sight, out of mind, go to prison where you belong. Same can be said for recently convicted 14 year old Lionel Tate. Even ripping a major headline out of the paper, tell me that if you take the suburban Mom who in cold blood brutally murdered her five children and morphed the exact same situation only this time it occurs in the projects by Tanisha that there would still be the weak excuse conceiving "not actually her fault" general consensus.

This lightly cloaked and shrouded double standard is surprising in the least. The media may be blind to a lot of things, but certainly not race and dollars. As long as TV networks and the print are predominately Anglo-Saxon dominated, you are going to get their viewpoints. But there is a more insidious side here.

Now that white (and more importantly) well off wealthy to middle class lives are in the crossfire, its a state of emergency affair. Teachers, community leaders, politicians, entertainers, the common citizen have all bandied together to make a change. Legislation and programs are constantly being passed and created in order to curb the violence. A true public out cry to stop the insanity. Great I say. Nobody should have to wear a bulletproof vest to Math class. One problem, where was this concern when poor black children lives were at stake? When the pigmentation was darker? When the wallets were a little emptier? The deadly violence now demands our attention and care now. The underlying message is clear, if you read between the lines. One group of life is more valuable then another. The times have changed, but not the message.

Sorry to burst anyone's bubble but violence is in the heart of every race, neighborhood and economic class. Like an ill wind that sweeps through every town its not just confined to the races or neighborhoods that certain people want in order to make themselves feel more comfortable. Making stars out of the perpetrators, excuse making, avoiding repercussions, and laying the blame at every doorstep except the murderers is doing more harm then good. I assure you. The media is just facilitating the killing by telling them its not * their* fault. Putting more bullets in the proverbial chamber.

Most seem hesitant to tackle tough issues. Gun control. The resurgence and increase in hate and racism. Parents who are more concerned with keeping up in the rat race, then raising children. The appalling sense of entitlement among some of the Starbucks gulping generation who expect life to be handed to them on a silver platter with gold silverware therefore not being able to cope with even the slightest negative resistance that comes along with life. There is just something so inherently wrong about hearing and reading excuse after excuse for murderers whose environment encourage and breed success. I don't care how close a story hits to home for TV executives, anchors, and politicians. Shit is insulting my intelligence

On the other side of the spectrum you have to acknowledge that far too many of the black, brown, and poor youth feed off of their violent image and environment, and do nothing but perpetuate the stereotype. Although its easy take a "Holier than Thou" attitude when I am not the one starving, and existing in the pressure cooker known as inner city living, it is not as cut and dry as saying hunger pangs win over the conscience. There have been countless ghetto success stories. Roses growing out of concrete. Its just easier and sometimes more profitable to succumb to the streets.

Nobody is lifting a finger to help, no question, but the again those same people aren't going to be the ones who are doing the bid or lying down in a casket. Just a supercilious and mysterious smile cracks their faces. Doing a puppet dance for them. This keyboard is not a pulpit, and I don't want to come across as a preacher, but Cats of this generation have prided themselves with the overused phrase "Keepin it real"....really now. Some just seem intent on monopolizing ignorance. The failure is ultimately self-imposed. 

Maybe there are degrees of acceptance that need to be worked out here. Considering the mountain of excuses in the defense of the privileged, imagine if these same youth were trapped in a lifestyle where melancholy and despair were orders of the day. Excuses would come with relative ease as they effortlessly flow out of mouths. Plenty of sympathy and empathy. So then why don't we look at the inner city that way and try to implement meaningful social programs, decent housing, and adequate education. Just view the inner city as rich kids who just spent a couple of hours too many in the sun, and were hit hard by the stock market crash.  Farfetched, I know.

The inner city is part of the American civilization and culture no matter how far people tried to distance themselves from it, or make ghettos out to be menageries. Just animals live there. It is pretty sad that the victims had to transfer skin color and economic class for America to take notice of the deadly violence and respond with meaningful action. For violins or helping hands to get busted out when the problem ceases to be dark and poor. Here I was thinking this was supposed to be an era of equity and fairness.

People can disguise the unsettling truth all they want, but one day everyone is going to have to look in that mirror of their own conscience. Black, white, rich, poor, it doesn't discriminate, it waits impatiently while people live their lives content with sleeping through it rather then just waking up. Sorry, John (circa 1991).

- Filippo




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