Update mid-2019 upon John Singleton’s passing: It’s hard to single out one moment in Boyz ‘n’ The Hood without turning to the justly famous death of Ricky, perhaps the most famous moment in any early ’90s black-directed film. But my favorite will always be one of Singleton’s inaugural gestures. Or one of his opening salvos, more like it: a dramatically forthright early close-up of a Ronald Reagan poster, the ex-President decked out in cowboy hat and threads as the film tacitly stitches both the linkages between and the failures of his cinematic and presidential personas, both “sheriffs” promising to “clean up” the neighborhood via fascistically carceral rather than retributive, humanizing, and/or transformative methods. The film thus draws the connections between cinematic performance and presidential roleplaying, all while tracing the contours between Americana mythologies of Manichean justice, mid-century cinematic attempts to monumentalize said mythologies, and late-20th century neoliberal fetishes for unquestioned order. This film, of course, is set in a modern-day Wild West as well, and it suggests, within minutes, with Reagan’s visage assaulting the screen yet unable to attend to the humanity of any of these characters or the bullets which ravage his postered countenance, that this Los Angeles born-and-bred filmmaker was about to vandalize both the American government and the American cinematic tradition whilst acknowledging its potency, using the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house as it were, enacting a new, more humanistic, more inclusive, more egalitarian kind of wild west justice.
This introductory image of the fire next time, both demonstrative and agnostic, willing to declare solutions with moral conviction and then pessimistically pockmark this conviction with shades of doubt, potently evokes the spirit of a filmmaker who has a certain feverish commitment to the belief that Hollywood style is a viable idiom for African-American stories – that the tools and tricks of old-school melodrama and cliche can be nervously renewed – and that these convictions must be interrogated. Like so many classical Hollywood films, Singleton’s vision is brashly direct in its viewpoints, but its confident forward stride belies a real shiver of hesitation. Not only a suspicion of its own decisions, mind you, but a mistrust of anyone’s ability to answer the fatalistic quandary – the choice between retaliatory violence and ostensible, possibly ephemeral peace – that genuinely emanates from the souls of these characters, a decision which we are all hopelessly unqualified to make.
Particularly telling is the way Furious Style’s sermon-esque pronouncements about institutional racism, with their flair for the didactic, suggest a personal anxiety about his son’s future which is nonetheless beholden to certain stuffy markers of respectability politics which the film, ultimately, can’t but query and reconsider as it goes along. It engages the supposedly faultless morality of mainstream society, with its presumably clear-sighted attitude toward rejecting violence, by considering the severity of ground-level conditions which perhaps preclude such ethical guarantees, all without dismissing the consequences of the actions perpetrated by the characters within.
Or without forgetting those characters. Where Ice Cube’s Doughboy becomes the ultimate moral avatar of the Faustian bargains made for success, or even survival, in the hood, there’s no sense that this is a screenwriter’s contrivance, or a hand-wringing moral imposition. Rather, it takes the form of a poetic evocation of the tragic inevitability of life on the streets, a sense of grim permanence that implies not the nihilistic denouncement of any possibility of change but the frightening cyclicality of a recurring nightmare. One that, perhaps, the characters could still hopefully wake up from. In the film’s artistic zenith, much more troubling than Ricky’s famous, melodramatic demise, his brother Doughboy suffers a final, vaporous disintegration, a ghostly reminder that some forms of escape go unvisualized, maybe cannot be visualized, in and by a film that nonetheless strives to materialize the potentially unimaginable dream of a fuller life.
With the release of Straight Outta Compton taking the world by storm, let us turn back the clock to a cinematic statement of urban life featuring the initial breakout star of the musical crew.
Occasionally, there are seismic shifts in the Hollywood landscape. The early ’90s influx of films made by and focused on African Americans doesn’t exactly fit the bill (it was cleansed from production schedules almost before it began, but vestiges retain, and a rebirth over the past few years, befitting the mid-2010s nostalgia for early ’90s culture, is still on the rise). For a while though, Spike Lee, John Singleton, and a few other African American filmmakers were unleashing some of the most vicious cinematic dogs upon society that America had seen in quite a while. The early ’90s were not happy times for Americans, and the recession brought forth increased public awareness of inner city poverty. With it, Hollywood wanted to do as it does and shed a little light on such problems in a way that ’80s cinema had uniformly overlooked.
Shed a little light, but only a little. That was and remains the Hollywood tradition of vague proselytizing mixed with spit-shine entertainment, but thankfully the underground African American filmmakers of the time were at least willing to use the Hollywood machine for their own purposes, stripping it for parts and welding them to the late ’80s independent film scene popularized by the likes of Lee, Steven Soderbergh, and Jim Jarmusch. John Singleton, at one point, was one such director, and his debut Boyz n the Hood was a semi-seismic cultural moment in American cinema, and certainly African American cinema, a film whose memory shines brightly even when Singleton has long since dissipated into sell-out status. The story of three boys in the hood, Trey “Tre” Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr), his best friend Ricky Baker (Morris Chestnut), both of whom are struggling for college admission, and Ricky’s brother Darrin “Doughboy” Baker (Ice Cube), who initially doesn’t seem to care as much for his future, breathes freely today.
Which is not to say it doesn’t wheeze a little or breathe a little too loudly once or twice. Singleton’s skill behind the camera is, for one, markedly superior to his skill with a pen, and Boyz n the Hood frequently slumbers into didactic territory, warping itself into less a feature film than an after-school special. It delivers necessary information, certainly, but only by only by dragging us through the waters of edutainment, as though Singleton could not grasp a means of including all of his ideas about racial inequality and black culture in his film other than to stop the piece dead in its tracks for a speech or two. Naturally, these speeches are delivered with a mixture of fire and mournful ice by Laurence Fishburne, playing Tre’s very-present father. But a film built on speeches is a film built only for preachers.
They are also speeches delivered with theatrical stop-gaps that clash most vigorously with Singleton’s otherwise underplayed, deliberately mundane, even impressionistic style that glides from moment to moment and corner to corner to witness the pas de deux of black community, with lively barbeques and shoot-outs contrasting and threatening each other on a tightrope with many young African Americans struggling to experience one without the other. Singleton directs with a style undoubtedly nursed by Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a surer and more stylistically confident film than Singleton’s offering. But he has his own, more reflective, voice that is more fit to stand back and observe than show off, not always to the film’s benefit. Few of Lee’s vivacious flickers of passion serving as gateways into the vibrant life found in black communities are welcome here; Singleton’s tale plays more like a classical Greek tragedy updated for a modern generation, and I am not entirely convinced that the theatrical mannerisms of it all meld with the low-slung slice of life tale.
Picture, essentially, a furtive and hyper-naturalistic John Cassavetes film cut up and stitched into an archly-theatrical, fractious, decadent Powell and Pressburger or Orson Welles ravager; the melding of styles is a personality all its own, but not necessarily a holistic one. Even still, it is a fascinating beast nonetheless, and the film’s oblong weirdness works to its own benefit as well, especially as a cultural artifact of cinema from the early ’90s. Boyz is replete with symbolism and metaphors (such as an early, allegorical scene with hope dueling against in-fighting all filtered into the everyday reality of football match). It is also well fed on grand melodrama, in particular any time violence cruelly grasps its all-seeing hand over the film. Take, in particular, one of the earliest scenes, in particular, where a black criminal invades Tre’s home and his father is forced to shoot back, only to miss and lament, to a self-hating, unforgiving black police officer, the fact that he had to shoot at all. A heady allegory for black-on-black violence and the way in which African Americans are forced to police one another by a system that gives them few outlets for success except police work.
Yet it is also an allegory delivered in a highly artificial style, and perhaps an intentionally artificial style; the editing rhythms of the scene along with the unapologetically lustful, heightened “sensual, smoky, hot-summer” saxophone crooning could not exist outside of the early ’90s, exhibiting a music video’s sense of anti-naturalist storytelling and mood-setting that is parallel to an erotic thriller. It is, as many scenes in the film are, a deliberately artificial inclusion into a film that seems to be testing its naturalism at all corners.
What seemed like an intentional clashing of old-school and new-school styles in Do the Right Thing to reflect a miscegenation of past and present cinematic storytelling here seems more like a befuddled mess. A fascinating, eminently watchable mess, but a mess. I for one cannot claim to have a clue if Singleton’s artificial style is commenting on the theatricality of everyday life, if he is simply applying classical storytelling techniques focused on white characters to a black story, or if this bizarre tonal tomfoolery is simply a happy accident, but it is enticing cinema of some perplexing kind anyway. Perhaps it is simply Singleton’s undeniable passion for the material, but the endearing way in which Boyz is rather openly of the ’80s after-school special tradition – albeit with an added sense of disorienting melancholy – actually feels like a bold rejection of the lazy “everyday realism” style inhabited by so many low-budget films.
Anyway, Singleton’s vision is clear in the end, helped in no small part by searing performances by the four central male cast members (females are not as prominent, unfortunately) who all exhibit their own cocktails of scruffy naturalism and theatrical soap-opera mannerisms (indeed, the whole film feels more like a violent soap opera work than anything else). Elsewhere, Singleton emphasizes color throughout the production (of course, it would have been perhaps impossible for him not to do so considering the subject matter of the film). The summer days are bright and sun-scorched, but there’s always a wintery chill poking through, giving way to blue-and-black, bruised nights.
The film’s single most evocative contrast lies in how violence is presented: impassioned and over-baked during the momentary passions of the day, contrasted with a revenge killing at night that climaxes the film, presented with the sinister, melancholy menace and collected, enervated cool of an everyday horror film. What was once an outburst of violence eventually feels like something that’s become part of passionless everyday life for these boys, haunting the everyday landscape of the hood like a specter that refuses to leave. When tragedy strikes in the end, Doughboy responds by coming to terms with the ongoing violence in his community the hard way. He laments the outside society that seems to want it this way, before errantly walking away only to abscond into the crisp air of the hood. He has become another of its ghosts.
In a way, Boyz is something of a response to Do the Right Thing; while that film detailed white-on-black relations, this one emphasizes black-on-black interaction, revealing the ways in which, not only has racial tension split along racial lines, but it has caused perhaps unsolvable fissures within black communities as well. Sometimes, unfortunately, this plays out with a tang of blaming African Americans (the only figure depicted with true disdain is a black police officer), but that is maybe part of the point; white society is largely absent in the film, rendered as an unknowable force pulling the strings behind invisible walls. Perhaps Furious Styles, Tre’s father, has to crash the film to a halt and preach in order to get anyone to acknowledge the truth, because the everyday slice-of-life tale can’t otherwise hint at white structural violence against blacks without stopping to break the film for a parochial preaching session. That white structural violence has done everything in its path to render itself invisible, so Singleton has to draw attention to how forced and contrived it is to actually discuss it in a film, to break the film by stopping it dead in its tracks. It is, essentially, cinema addressing its own hurdles openly rather than trying to hide them. That right there is fascinating, necessary, admirable imperfection for you.
Score: 9/10 (updated from original 8)