The first time I watched this film I was taking care of my neighbor’s bunny rabbits with one of my girlfriends. As usual during the summertime in Los Angeles, it was hot. And not just hot, dreadfully hot. The kind where you sit there, a fan next to you and your skin drips off your body. But we didn’t care. She and I had an apartment to hang out in, sans adults, and at twelve or thirteen years old, that was worth the sweat. Plus… we had a VCR and Academy screeners! A pretty perfect summer afternoon. I have the most visceral memories of that day. A bowl of ice in between us, instead of popcorn. Feeling the fan and the air from the open windows as we watched the film unfold. Then chills throughout my body and water streaming from my eyes, the salt of tears mixing in with the salt of sweat, as the film’s climax hit. What strikes me now as I recall all of this is that much of the power of the film lay in the fact that I was (and still am) so intimately familiar with the Los Angeles landscape, the way that Los Angeles works, youth-wise, and that the protagonists were only supposed to be a few years older than we were and they lived literally 10-15 minutes away from where we sat watching the film. But there was more.
The film itself was John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, and it remains, to this day, one of my most memorable film experiences. Rewatching Boyz for The Myth of Macho, I had a lot to think about, aside from my own personal experience. While we’ve definitely handled a variety of aspects of the masculine world for this column and worked through some difficult areas, few of them so far have dealt with ideas of race or location as directly as this film does. Full Metal Jacket’s scopeincludes racial dynamics and regional discourse, but it concentrates more intensely on political goals, characters and the analysis of war. Warrior is a film that is entirely centered in the landscape and culture of working-class Pittsburgh, but the ethnic makeup still connects the film to matters of whiteness and nothing related to those of being a man of color. Boyz n the Hood is a special film, both historically and narratively. Not only does it remain one of the only films to take a non-exploitative, non-sensationalistic view at the lives of young men in early 1990s South Central Los Angeles, it is one of the first films to have done so.
After watching this film my friend and I had one of the first film conversations I remember having. We talked about the film and Los Angeles itself, because we had also just finished watching our city burn a few months earlier. Boyz had come out a year before (July, 1991), and the L.A. Riots happened that following April, 1992. As the credits for Singleton’s film rolled, we sat in stunned silence and cried together at a film that showcased the city of our birth and the men of our city engaging in a discourse that was hard-hitting on so many levels, and very very real. None of the arguments that we saw in the film that day were foreign to us, nor were they shocking. What is interesting to me now is that we never looked at the film for what it had to say about gender economics and only about racial issues, even though both are present. John Singleton’s film is the story of the lives of three young men, Ricky, Tre and Doughboy, growing up together in South Central. It is also the story of the ways in which young African American men develop their masculinities and what or who becomes a part of making that happen. While Los Angeles itself plays a major role in the creation of each of these young men’s identities, it is ultimately their own experiences and familial structures that make them men or, as Singleton says in the title, leaves them as “Boyz.”
In July of 2011, Boyz n the Hood celebrated its 20th Anniversary. While the film has become part and parcel of popular culture, its significance and import to discussions of race and gender dynamics are incalculable. Garnering several Academy Award nominations the year it was released and becoming the 2002 selection for preservation in the National Film Registry, it is clear that the cinematic community at large considers John Singleton’s piece to be a substantial piece of moving image heritage. In addition, the film’s casting itself has made some waves within the larger film world. Within the two decades since Boyz n the Hood was made, many of its actors and actresses have charged forth into large and distinguished careers, from Ice Cube, Lawrence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding, Jr. to Regina King and Nia Long. Through it all, however, Boyz n the Hood has continued to be one of the most personal looks into what it was like to grow up as a young African American male in South Central during the 90s. (Note: while current politically correct lexicons have redefined the area to be “South L.A.,” as a native Angeleno I grew up calling it South Central. It is also how Singleton refers to the location in the film and therefore that is what we will be calling that region of Los Angeles. If you are offended, I deeply apologize.)
In 1991, there were 19 films released by African American directors. With a wide range in subject, theme and production value, these films became part of what was termed, in some circles, as “New Black Hollywood.” From New Line’s House Party 2 (George Jackson and Doug McHenry), the comedic hip hop-themed follow up to House Party (1990), to Universal’s Jungle Fever (Spike Lee) which centered on interracial romance, to “inner city crime films” such as Warner Bros.’ New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles), these films signified a distinct change in content from the Blaxploitation films that had previously been the go-to for African American representation in cinema. Blaxploitation films were not entirely detrimental for the African American community at large but they held a different goal and vastly different structure than films like Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust or Ernest Dickerson’s Juice. While these films maintained the history and elements of the genre that had borne them (i.e., Ron O’Neal, star of the 1972 Blaxploitation hit, Superfly, directed a film that year called Up Against the Wall), these directors were looking for something different with their work while still demanding equal representation from an industry that had categorically denied them anything but negative racial stereotyping since the first reels of Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915).
Columbia’s release that year was Boyz n the Hood, directed by 23-year-old first-timer, John Singleton. More or less a coming of age story, the film traces the development of Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), Doughboy (Ice Cube), and Ricky (Morris Chestnut) growing up together in South Central. From initial childhood clashes with gang members and dead bodies to Doughboy’s unfortunate seven-year run-in with incarceration starting at around 10 years old, it is clear that their childhood is a little less than average. The film begins with the three boys as children, playing around the neighborhood, but the bulk of the film takes place when Doughboy is released, which, according to the timeline of the film, is 1991.
Tre Styles’ life is different from that of his friends. Ricky and Doughboy are the product of a single-mother household. While they are brothers, it is clear from the very beginning of the film that because the two boys have different fathers, their mother, Brenda Baker (Tyra Ferrell), has differing feelings towards each boy, greatly effecting the way each young man ends up. Tre’s parental situation is more stable and a great deal healthier, even though he does come from divorced parents. He has a college-educated mother, Reva Styles (Angela Bassett), pursuing a Master’s Degree and a highly attentive father, Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne), who is decidedly interested in making sure that his son has a positive future and goes in the right direction at all times.
Screening the realities of young men of color in the early 90s was a difficult proposition, made even moreso by the fact that to do it honestly would require the revelations of some very uncomfortable truths. Not only was the institutionalized racism of the Los Angeles school system and Police Department indicted within the frames of Boyz n the Hood, but also absentee fathers were put on the stand and found guilty of many of the things that led to a young man’s downfall. While this is a problematic argument due to the fact that it tends to accuse single mothers (especially in Boyz) of being unable to be responsible or suitable parents in and of themselves, it is the argument that is being made.If we set Singleton’s unfortunate depiction of single mothers aside, we can examine his discussion about fatherhood and its relation to a young man’s future.
Tre Styles is a smart kid, but he gets into trouble. His mother Reva’s feeling is that if she sends Tre to live with his father, he will be able to better teach him “how to be a man.” While this undermines and underestimates her own parenting skills and abilities, she is concerned for her son, first and foremost, and believes that this is what will be best. So, off to live with dad.
Furious Styles is a very strong father figure. On the fishing excursion that he takes Tre on shortly after he arrives to live with him, he tries to assess where his “life knowledge” is (asking Tre what he knows about sex), and tells him a little bit about what it truly means to be a man. Furious tells Tre, “Remember this: any fool with a dick can make a baby but it takes a real man to raise his children. I wasn’t but 17 when your mother was pregnant with you. All my friends was dropping out of high school, hanging out on corners in front of liquor stores, getting drunk, getting high. Some of them was robbing people. Some of them was even killing people. You remember my friend Marcus? Yeah. He got into robbing people, wanted me to come along and join him but I was like, ‘Naw, man. I’m getting ready to have a son.’ I knew you was gonna be a boy. Anyways, I wanted to be somebody you could look up to.” As this sequence ends, the father and son drive home together to the sounds of The Five Stairsteps singing “Ooh Child.” They pull up to their house just in time to see two of Tre’s friends (Doughboy and Chris) being put into a police car after getting caught for stealing.
If it wasn’t clear from the first juxtaposition of Furious’ speech against the witnessing of Doughboy’s incarceration that Singleton’s message of the missing father in the home presents a problem, it is even more evident after Doughboy returns from lockup. When we are reintroduced to everyone after the seven years that Doughboy has spent “away” each of the boys’ individual positions are well defined. Tre is doing well in school, has a job at the Fox Hills Mall, is well dressed, and has a beautiful girlfriend. Ricky, although having become a father in the time his brother was away, has managed to be there for his girlfriend and child and excel in school and football, applying for USC for a scholarship. Doughboy, on the other hand, is another story, just returning from imprisonment.
At his welcome home party/BBQ, Doughboy sits there, drinking a 40oz of St. Ides and playing dominos. While his friends seem to represent the more hooligan-type aspects of the neighborhood, Doughboy is more complex. When Tre arrives and greets Doughboy, they discuss what he has been doing the entire time he was away. He tells him he was lifting weights and “the rest of the time I was reading and writing my girl.” One of the guys at the table responds with disbelief, “Reading?” and Doughboy looks at him head-on and says, “Yeah, motherfucker, I ain’t no criminal. I CAN read.” This corresponds to Doughboy’s reaction when the man from USC comes to interview Ricky for his scholarship. The entire Baker household is readying themselves for the event, and Doughboy knows this. He starts telling his friends they have to leave, 40oz in hand.
While the man from USC is inside, interviewing Ricky to the sound of the helicopters overhead, Doughboy holds court on the stoop. It is apparent in this scene that his crew not only look up to him, but are also at a clear disadvantage as far as the world and its inner workings are concerned. Each one of them goes around and talks about college and why they would go, and it all seems to boil down to one thing: sex. Doughboy, clearly disgusted, looks at Dooky, who wants to go to college “just for the hos.” He says to him, “Fool, you don’t go to college to be talking to no bitches. Your black ass is supposed to be learning something.” While Doughboy may seem to be the most criminal-like element of the three main protagonists, Singleton’s depiction of him is layered. He is clearly smart, certainly able, and even seems to have respect for his mother and her home (telling his friends not to swear because his mom doesn’t approve, swearing like a sailor as he reprimands them).
Doughboy’s involvement with the neighborhood and the gangs therein is not segregated to him, although he is the only one of the three young men engaging in illegal activities (selling drugs) and the only one who actively pursues trouble and promotes violence (pulling up his shirt to reveal the gun tucked into his waistband at a car racing event). Boyz N The Hood does take pains to show how the gangs do figure in to each young man’s life. However, it is Doughboy’s violent tendencies that result in the tragic conclusion of the film.
In the end it is only Tre who ends up with the “happily ever after.” Tre gets the added conclusion titles informing us that he will be going off to Morehouse College (an all African American university) and that his girlfriend, Brandi (Nia Long) will be attending the sister school, Spelman. Thus, it is the young man with the stable filial situation, the father who tells him about respect and teaches him that the African American community has to stick together in order to stay strong due to the myriad of forces that are constantly and intentionally out to destroy them, who wins. Tre is the only one who makes it out.
Doughboy and Ricky, children of a fatherless home, do not fare so well. Ricky becomes a victim of the mixture of his brother’s aggressive reactions and the senseless violence of the gangs in South Central. Doughboy becomes a victim of his own violent actions and it is unclear whether retribution is to blame for his untimely end or whether it is simply due to the nature of the “neighborhood beast.” What is clear, however, is that they are both victims and that no one cares. Because they live in an area that is ignored, avoided, intentionally swollen with liquor stores, drugs and other retail spots that encourage self-annihilation, the deaths, addictions and crises that are faced by families in South Central don’t matter to the larger population. They would rather sweep it under the rug.
John Singleton’s argument in Boyz is that masculinity in the African American community is in crisis due to the lack of strong and present father figures. The film is called Boyz N The Hood in part because he is discussing the lack of Real Men. In this film you will see one character that could be defined as a man and that is Tre’s father, Furious. The remainder of the males in the film are boys, many of whom are presented with some kind of troubling affectation: Dooky (Dedrick D. Gobert) sucks on a pacifier like a baby, Chris (Redge Green) is in a wheelchair, presumably already having been a victim of violence and symbolizing his inability to have any mobility in his life besides his social relations within Doughboy’s crew, and Monster (Baldwin C. Sykes) wears dark sunglasses, even at night, signifying that he has very little visibility of the world around him.
Of the film, John Singleton is quoted as saying “My main message is that African-American men have to take more responsibility for raising their children, especially their boys. Fathers have to teach their boys to be men.” While there is no denying that this is the primary message in the film, what also comes across is the unique tragedy of figures like Doughboy. These young men, confused and hurt by their situations and experiences (youthful imprisonment, unequal treatment in the home, abuse), resort to terrifically unfortunate life decisions. What Doughboy shows us is that writing these young men off as simply criminals or thugs is a mistake. He reads, he has philosophies on God and life; he’s a bright kid. He has resorted to the lifestyle that he thought was appropriate to him because it was there and he didn’t see another way.
With Boyz n the Hood, Singleton argues that there is another way, there has to be another way. Young men killing each other is no way to live. To take that point further, young men not being present in order to raise their children is the quickest way to kill a community that already has a few strikes against it. While racism in today’s society has improved somewhat, it certainly hasn’t been eradicated and while gang violence in L.A. has lessened considerably since the early 90s, it also still exists, as does drug trafficking and thus rampant addiction. Furious Styles’ tirade about the African American community needing to stick together against the forces that are committing a kind of genocide is not out of order. That scene may feel a little heavy handed but the issues that he’s raising and the questions he’s asking are still relevant, and will remain so until significant changes have been made.
Thank you for joining me for another installation of The Myth of Macho. Hope you were pleasantly entertained and remember: the brain is a muscle… pump it up!
Ariel Schudson is a featured columnist at CraveOnline and the president of the Student Chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists at UCLA. Stalk her electronically at @Sinaphile.