Director: John Singleton
Cast: Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett
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When Boyz n the Hood hit cinemas in 1991, South Central LA was a dangerous place to be. The mostly black community faced high unemployment and poverty, all of which drove many people to crime. Drug deals pushed crack cocaine through neighbourhoods like wildfire and gang violence made gunfire the nightly background noise. Almost exactly a year on from the film’s Cannes premiere, it proved not just accurate but prescient when the LA Riots broke out, years of police brutality and government neglect finally igniting fury on the streets.
Among that volatile history, what’s most striking about Boyz n the Hood is how restrained and humane it is. Sure, there’s justified rage and anguish aplenty, but for most of its running time, Boyz n the Hood is a coming-of-age story, of flowers trying to grow among the weeds. There’s an early visual reference to that other great coming-of-age film, Stand By Me, except the kids here don’t have to go searching for dead bodies. They show up whether people like it or not. The violence that blighted the LA streets isn’t ignored but pushed into the background, just like any ordinary kid had to push it to the back of their mind to survive.
Early scenes establish our lead trio of Tre (Gooding Jr.), Doughboy (Cube) and Ricky (Chestnut) as kids, navigating their confrontational neighbourhood with childish naivety. Jump forward seven years and they’re on the verge of adulthood, applying for college, chasing girls, and too grown to get away with any more youthful missteps.
Director John Singleton keeps the pace relaxed and the dialogue naturalistic, allowing the viewer into this group of friends, before he turns up the pressure in the final act. He’s aided by a superb ensemble of performances, led by Gooding Jr. as Tre, a bright, kind young man, easily riled by the aggression around him. He’s raised in the image of his father, Furious Styles (Fishburne) a shining example of responsible fatherhood, which, as Singleton’s script makes clear, is a rare commodity around here. Fishburne’s controlled intensity is wonderful to behold; a man with nerves of steel who is always willing to keep the peace and promote black unity, no matter how dire the situation.
As a viewer, you normally welcome drama and action, but not in Boyz n the Hood. When the camaraderie and potential of the three young men is broken by a flash of bullets, the daily reality of LA life at the time is brought home without mercy. Singleton pitches the mood perfectly, crafting a heartbreaking film that you can’t look away from.
Two scenes, in particular, elevate the movie to greatness: one where Furious calmly cautions Tre against revenge, reason defeating emotion, no matter how tempting it feels. The second is the film’s coda, between Tre and Doughboy. In his first film role, Ice Cube proved he’s more than just a rapper, with a solemn gut-punch of a speech about how the police, the media and the government are ignoring the violence on his streets: “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or they don’t care”. Tre, Ricky and Doughboy might be gangstas or criminals in the eyes of the establishment, but John Singleton’s film makes a powerful case that they, and the thousands like them in real life, should have the freedom from violence and persecution to just be boys in the hood.
Boyz in the Hood is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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