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. Continue reading