High Art or Hood Film: John Singleton’s ‘Boyz n the Hood’

When I was young there was a list of the movies we weren’t supposed to watch; movies too intense for our young minds, even in a suburban world where most of our parents let us watch The Terminator or Nightmare on Elm Street without batting an eye. These were movies like Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange, movies that weren’t necessarily the goriest or most violent, but that featured intense people in intense situations and behavior that seemed somehow more dangerous because the movies seemed to glorify the characters’ violent acts.

When Boyz n the Hood was released in 1991, I wanted to see it. All of my friends wanted to see it. We were all 11 or 12, and we all wanted to see it for the same reasons our parents didn’t want us to see it; it was about the hood. In the year of The Chronic, this was a movie that promised everything we wanted from gangsta rap: sex, guns, money, drugs, violence, all of those things that our parents wanted us to stay away from.

But Boyz n the Hood wasn’t the movie that I wanted it to be. It was something more, a cultural touchstone that allowed, heck, even wanted young white America to glimpse what life is really like in the hood, including all the highs and lows. It was a movie that was both entertaining and held fast to its convictions, even in the face of a critical public who did not quite understand what the movie was trying to say.

Boyz n the Hood is remembered as being the directorial debut of John Singleton, and for introducing the world to the acting talents of Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding, Jr. It is also remembered as a hood movie, a movie about poverty, and a movie that focuses heavily on the drug problems of the ghetto. In a mostly positive review of the 20th Anniversary Edition DVD, Noel Murray of the AV Club blames the film for its imitators, stating “in the years after the movie became a hit, young black filmmakers moved away from films about everyday life and real relationships and started telling sensationalistic stories about kids with guns.” National Public Radio’s Jimi Izrael stated that the film was about poverty and the lack of options that come with it. He characterizes main characters Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy as having to choose between long-shot college scholarships and careers as hustlers and drug dealers, and states that Singleton could have made the film in Appalachia, replacing crack with Oxycontin, and had much the same movie.

Some of these reviews are so far off that I wonder if we’re all watching the same movie. Boyz n the Hood is a coming-of-age film, an urban Stand By Me. Boyz n the Hood even goes so far as to reference Rob Reiner’s film in a scene with Tre and his friends walking along the railroad tracks as one of them asks, “Do you want to see a dead body?”

Boyz n the Hood was Singleton’s first film. He wrote the script based on his own experiences growing up in South Central Los Angeles. Singleton said in a 2011 interview with MTV, “…if I can get this in a film, a little bit of what this is, that life on film, then I think I’ll have something that will have a hard effect on people.” At 23, directing his first feature film in South Central with a young cast, Singleton did everything he could think of to get realistic performances, reportedly firing gunshots on set without warning, and filming amidst the very real violence of the neighborhood. Singleton had to use trucks to block streets where cameras were rolling and worked under threats of drive-by shooting by an actual local gang.

But for all its urban grit, Boyz n the Hood is a teenage movie at heart. Characters try to get laid and worry about their SATs. They go to school, play sports, and hang out with their friends. It’s a movie about developing identity and personal philosophy, about being halfway between childhood and adulthood; it’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High with more guns and less Sean Penn. This was important to me as a 12-year-old kid watching the movie for the first time in rural West Virginia. I was able to identify with the characters who were going through the same kinds of growing pains that I was going through. I saw a bit of myself in Tre as he tried to get Brandi into bed, and that ability to relate (He reads comic books? I read comic books!) helped to open the eyes of a rural white kid to the realities of Tre’s all-black urban neighborhood.

Seen in this light, Boyz n the Hood embodies the classic bildugsroman formula. The young protagonist goes out to make his way in the world, suffers an emotional loss, has some conflict with society, solves the conflict, and grows to maturity.

Since the ’60s, the coming-of-age genre has changed from films like The Graduate to films like American Pie, from examining the social mores of marriage and sexual relationships to a movie about a kid who sticks his dick in his dessert. We have a protagonist, whether it be Singleton’s Tre or Fast Times’s Stacy Hamilton, who is young and ready to make their entrance into the adult world. The adolescent is usually at odds with some aspect of society. In The Graduate Benjamin Braddock is questioning the social importance of marriage and sexual mores in light of his brief tryst with Mrs. Robinson. Stacy Hamilton starts having sex and ends up getting an abortion before realizing that what she really wants is a relationship.

The focus of modern coming of age films is increasingly sexual, due in part to the loosening of social conventions that tell people who and when to marry. Fast Times, American Pie, and Sixteen Candles all focus heavily on sex and dating as the coming of age film merged with something new, the teenage sex comedy. Tre deals with his own share of sexual frustration, but like The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink, class issues are the primary focus of Tre’s story.

Tre has to battle through two distinctly different societies, hood culture and mainstream culture, and to make the right decisions regarding his future based on which society he chooses to live in. Furious Styles, (Tre’s father, played by Lawrence Fishburn) wants his son to be successful in mainstream America, but Tre’s best friends both represent hood culture. Ricky (Morris Chestnut), despite his aspirations and his scholarship to USC, has a baby, and if it weren’t for his athletic ability he wouldn’t be too different from his brother Doughboy (Ice Cube), who has spent time in prison and sells drugs.

Tre, however, is responsible. Furious raised him to be smart and consider his options. Boyz n the Hood spends a lot of time ruminating on the importance of a responsible father in a boy’s life. But what’s important to note is that Tre makes his own conscious choices in the absence of direct adult involvement, much like other coming of age stories.

When Ricky is killed by gang members that he had argued with earlier in the film, Tre decides that he is going with Doughboy to find the killers. Ricky’s death is an emotional loss to Tre, putting him at odds with society in the hood, while the hunt for Ricky’s killer puts him at odds with mainstream social norms. While they are driving around looking for the killer, Tre tells Doughboy to pull over and let him out. Tre makes his decision, abandoning hood life for a life of peace in mainstream society. Tre recognizes that he can’t continue down this path, that he doesn’t belong. Doughboy even echoes this sentiment in the closing scene of the film. This becomes Tre’s move into adult society, reflecting the same sort of event as Stacy Hamilton dating Mark at the end of Fast Times or Pink’s refusal to sign his responsibility agreement at the end of Dazed and Confused. These are the events that help define who the protagonist is as an adult.

Much like The Graduate’s exploration of marriage and sexual mores, Boyz n the Hood embraces the French New Wave’s caméra-stylo (camera-as-pen) aesthetic, using its coming of age motif to discuss mainstream America’s lack of understanding of what life is like in the hood. Many key moments in the film contain characters using a phrase like “look at this” or “let me show you something” in order to express these points, such as when Li’l Chris asks Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy if they want to see a dead body. He takes them to a backyard where they see a corpse laid out on the grass.

The scene with the dead body is especially moving when compared with the scene it references in Stand By Me. Not only does no one in Boyz n the Hood seem especially perturbed by the victim, but unlike in Reiner’s film, in which the voyage to see the body is the entire plot, in Boyz n the Hood it’s just another death in the hood. Gordie sees spiritual significance in the dead body, while all Tre can muster is a comment about how the corpse smells. While part of the plot of Stand By Me is focused on becoming heroes by finding the dead body, in Boyz n the Hood the death is quickly forgotten when an older kid steals Ricky’s football.

Such an environment takes its toll on all the movie’s characters, but Ricky’s moral sense is nurtured by his father Furious’ lessons about using education and responsibility to combat violence and hopelessness. Singleton also uses Furious’ paternal lessons to confront his viewers with uncomfortable truths—the high rates of violence, the absence of attention from officials, the hard, uphill battles of fatherless children, and issues of gentrification and crime. The message is condensed by Doughboy’s statement at the end of the film, “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.”

Boyz n the Hood is critical of mainstream culture’s lack of empathy and understanding with the plight of the ghettos, and it excels because Singleton doesn’t let his polemic get ahead of his coming-of-age story. He simply tells the story that he set out to tell, the story of himself and his friends and their misadventures growing up, rather than letting that story become merely a prop for his politics. Perhaps that’s why Boyz n the Hood still seems poignant today, enough to capture an enormous multi-racial and multi-generational throng of fans. Or perhaps the film’s new fans are just like I was at twelve, expecting to see a glorification of thug life, and walking away with a story much deeper and more complex than they bargained for.