Friday, February 1, 2013

Boyz n the Hood (Mark Ahn's Take)

There is something that soars in my heart when I think about Los Angeles.

Although I live and work in the suburbs of Chicago now, and have lived here for much of my life, a significant portion of my childhood was spent in Southern California, amongst the palm trees, steep hills, and perpetual sunshine; my childhood there feels like it was bathed in the light of an eternal magic hour.

This romantic vision is the backdrop for John Singleton’s urban allegory, Boyz n the Hood. It feels weird even to call it an allegory, although it definitely is, only because there are quite a few parts that are firmly grounded in reality, although not without its cinematically heightened moments.

The National Film Registry has preserved the movie under its “culturally significant” designation, and I suspect this cultural significance comes from the film’s portrayal of life for a lower class black community in South Central (although the civic board would insist you call it South Los Angeles), mostly from the perspective of teenagers Tre, Doughboy, and Ricky.
What's fascinating about Boyz is that its themes and content are now, mostly, the territory of documentaries, although Spike Lee, Scorsese, and Jim Sheridan have made feature films which cover the ground of poverty, urban life, and racial/identity politics that Boyz does; I’d add, though, that these three directors seem to have moved onto more mainstream projects. (Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild does give me hope that we may have another director who is willing to revisit these themes more than once. Singleton still stands out as the only West Coast guy out of that group.) Documentaries seem to more readily embrace the unblinking truthfulness and stark vulnerability that feel appropriate for the sobering topics that depictions of urban life conjure up.

It makes me curious, however, why so many feature filmmakers shy away from the subject. I suspect that it might be too difficult to maintain the right tone for a movie about urban life without veering into the clich├ęs of terrible rap videos (gangbangers, gats, grills), or numbingly sad impoverishment, or overly sentimentalizing race and identity issues. Boyz stands out because it manages to balance out the aforementioned true-to-life elements of violence, poverty, and identity while still giving itself the leeway to be a movie, and not a documentary; it speaks with an allegorical tongue while still walking in the real world.

The balance between allegory and realism is most visible in the splitting of the burden of the narrative between the three male protagonists, who navigate the various obstacles and joys of their lives with varying degrees of success. Tre is the golden boy who mostly treads the straight and narrow, focused on his education and his career aspirations, although he is tiptoeing the line of bad decisions in his peer group and with his girlfriend. Doughboy has already served prison time, and is equally unafraid to use violence to threaten foes or protect his friends. Ricky is the star athlete, happy that his talents have given him a future, but not overly concerned with his environment, simply accepting that it will never change. I’d say that these characters are a little too close to being motifs to be actual people, but if one were to blend the traits of two or all three of these characters, then that would be closer to a realistic depiction of urban youth. Since the boys are more symbolic than realistic, it allows Singleton to focus on his ideas of violence, poverty, and identity, which can be plenty complicated already.

Cuba Gooding Jr. does well in his role as Tre, but my favorite performance is Ice Cube as Doughboy. It was a risk to take on Ice Cube, who had never acted and had made a name for himself as one of the premier gangsta rappers of all time. He easily wears the mantle of anger that is a part of Doughboy (and his own rap persona), but I’ve always liked his ability in the movie to soften his demeanor and project something that is tender and human underneath the rough exterior. He is the motif of the angry, young, urban black male, but at the same time he is also a human being with a fierce loyalty to his friends and family who understands the danger in which he lives. Singleton’s casting of him turned out to be an inspired choice.
As his first movie, John Singleton made a huge splash, garnering a Best Screenplay and a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards, all at the ripe age of 24. He continued to explore similar themes of violence, poverty, and identity in the films immediately after Boyz (Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, Rosewood) but seems to also have moved onto more mainstream projects, his latest being the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction.

I obviously don’t know, but maybe he’s said whatever he had to say about themes we see in Boyz; perhaps the topics themselves only have a certain shelf-life within the creative life of a director before he or she has to move to something else. It makes me a little sad that I haven’t liked his other movies as much as Boyz, and it makes me suspect that maybe that movie was not the signal of burgeoning talent, but was the premature peak of his artistic output. What remains unquestioned in my mind, however, is that Boyz n the Hood stands as a special piece of art in his career, in 1991, and in cinematic history.

17 comments:

  1. RICKY! Hey, have you heard they're working on a sorta son-of-Ricky Boyz n the Hood II? It takes place 20-some years after the original and Ricky's son just lost his football scholarship and Uncle Doughboy is going to show him how to make it in the hood while Tre tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. I'm pretty stoked - they waited just long enough for this and I'm good and ready. Did anyone just buy that? Were you on your way to imdb? Comment pranks are hard to pull off.

    Awesome article Mark - I was such a huge fan of this movie when I was a 12-year-old little white boy growing up in Nova Scotia, Canada. I remember getting the soundtrack as one of my Columbia House first 7 CDs for a penny (AND THEN THEY JACKED UP THE PRICE!) kicking off my 4-year gangster-rap phase. I probably took it the "wrong" way at that age really - I'm sure there were a lot of critics at the time saying it glorified gang violence, etc. and as much as I now hate critics like that, I did kind of take it that way as a young fella. From the safety of my home in a little town that's never had a murder in my lifetime, it just seemed like a pretty fucking cool life. Obviously I know better now.

    Last time I watched it was a few years ago and I did see some of the flaws for the first time - as you say, the characters are a bit too much about representing ideas than being actual people - but it still definitely holds up as a great movie.

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    1. Thanks SolO-

      I think that's always the risk with movies in which violence exists; we brushed up against the topic of the usage of violence in movies back on the Battle Royale podcast, and I definitely think it's used in realistic, rather than overly cinematic, ways here. I fully realize opinions could differ on this, but I think that the movie does a good job of not glamorizing the uglier side of violence (and urban lower class life in general).

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  2. Speaking of documentaries, one that certainly opened my eyes about South Central LA is Crips and Bloods: Made in America. It's on Netflix instant. The doc makes a very convincing argument that the gang violence in South Central is a direct descendent of the FBI's earlier war on the Black Panthers.

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    1. Queued up. Thanks for the recommendation, Steve.

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  3. Mark - do you like Higher Learning?

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    1. Hey Adam-

      I have seen it, but it was awhile ago, so my memory is fuzzy. My remembrance of it is generally positive, but I'd definitely need to go back and watch it again to speak coherently on it. What about you?

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  4. Hey Mark,

    I like Higher Learning. It has many problems but when it's good, it's really good.

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  5. This is one of the things I love about F This Movie and columns like this, they bring different great movies to my attention that maybe I should have seen, but for one reason or another, just haven't gotten around to seeing them. Boyz in the Hood is one of those movies. I've certainly heard about it, and heard it referenced multiple times, but don't know much about it beyond that. It sounds fascinating and powerful, based on descriptions I've read. It will also be great to see a movie again from when Cuba Gooding Jr. wasn't what he has become today, which is not very good. I'm excited to check it out.

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    1. Happy to hear that you're motivated to see it, John!

      What was the last good Cuba Gooding Jr movie? American Gangster? Do we have to go back to Jerry Maguire for a major role? I haven't seen Radio or Men of Honor. Let's never talk about Boat Trip.

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    2. I was thinking Jerry Maguire. That's unfortunate, since that was all the way back in 1996. I've pretty much forgotten Radio, and I don't think that's the answer, anyway. A case could probably be made for Men of Honor, but I also don't love it, if memory serves. I feel like it's a movie that should be better than it actually is. I could be wrong about that, though. It's been a long time.

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    3. Update: I saw this movie on Netflix Instant this evening, and my gosh, talk about powerful! I don't think I've been this affected by and intrigued about a movie's message in a long time. The movie was fantastic in a heartwrenching and powerful way.

      Furthermore, the casting was just outstanding. Cuba Gooding Jr. does well as the good guy trying to stay straight. However, I agree with you that Ice Cube was the star of the show, along with, in my opinion, Laurence Fishburne, who I thought was amazing as the father figure.

      As you said, Cube was an excellent choice to play Doughboy, as he's very good at portaying the rough attitude of that kind of character, but also shined in his more emotional monologue at the end of the film.

      I may have to see it a couple more times to comment on my feelings about the characters being more symbolic than realistic, but what I can say is that I think I'm going to treasure this movie for a long time.

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    4. Glad you enjoyed it, John!

      Fishburne is definitely channeling a lot of Morpheus as Furious; he feels like the most trope-y or motif-y of all of the characters, although you could make an argument for others.

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  6. It's interesting that both well-known "Ice" rappers (Cube in "Boyz n the Hood," T in "New Jack City") made their acting debuts (i.e. playing something other than their hip-hop selves) on the same year. And not only have their 1991 debut movies lasted as cultural/movie incons but their own careers have been, all things considered, been pretty long and good. Ice T got "Trespass" and "Law & Order: SVU," Ice Cube got the "Friday" and "Barbershop" movies (not to mention kick-starting the "Are We There Yet?" phenomenon).

    And yes, one of these men did "xXx: State of the Union," but a rapper's got to eat, yo. :-P

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    1. I think Ice Cube has done well in representing a specific type of black urban male in Boyz n the Hood and in the Barbershop movies; it indicates a bit of awareness of his strengths when he's playing those roles, State of the Union notwithstanding.

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  7. The thing is, Singleton wrote the film directly out of his own experience (and his later film Baby Boy) of growing up in South Central L.A..---that's why the film looked and felt real (I saw it when it first came out,too) Pretty good (and mature) film for a first-time director,though. To say that film was the top of his peak is ridiculous, considering he made even better films, like Poetic Justice, which has its flaws, but is still better than other films, Higher Learning, which could have been a little deeper,and the movie Rosewood, which I feel is one of the best films he's ever made, and a must-see,since it's based on a true story.

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    1. I'll take your word for it; my memory of Higher Learning is hazy, and I haven't seen Rosewood or Poetic Justice, but now I'm more interested in those movies based on your suggestion. I was suggesting that Singleton hasn't gotten the acclaim for his work (either critical or popular) on the scale that BOYZ did. But, this could be my short memory, since a lot of the credit has been given not at the time but in the longer years after the release.

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  8. I recently saw Higher Learning. It too is a good one. The Players Club is also worth a watch. It's directed by Ice Cube.
    All of these movies don't give you answers they just raise questions. I really like that style.

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