How 'Boyz n the Hood' remains relevant 20 years later

Even 20 years later, the first minute of Boyz n the Hood, the near-iconic movie about young black men struggling to survive the concrete jungle of South Central Los Angeles, can be a jarring experience.

There are no pictures, just sounds and words thrust onto a pitch black screen that are symbolic of the bleakness that pervades the movie. Expletive-laden crosstalk is followed by the staccato of gunfire. White-lettered words float ethereally across the screen, offering grim reminders of how many young black men — even in the year 2011 — often meet their sad demise: at the hands of other young black men. The voice of a young boy moaning about the loss of his brother provides a stark set-up for the remainder of Boyz n the Hood, which turns into an emotion-packed, bullet-riddled ride that doubles as a chilling cautionary tale.

When it debuted in 1991, Boyz n the Hood was hailed for its groundbreaking perspective, captured brilliantly by then-novice (and later Oscar nominated) director John Singleton. With the benefit of time and hindsight, the movie now functions as something akin to an urban version of Stand By Me or The Outsiders — two classic coming-of-age films. In breathing life into his first cinematic endeavor, Singleton’s singular genius in Boyz n the Hood was to explore the ravages of urban violence without appearing to glorify it, as music videos and movies often do.

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Quite the artistic feat for a 22 year-old no practical film making experience: The end product is a movie that undoubtedly resonates even to this day: TIME has ranked Boyz n the Hood as one of 25 most important films about race, and the movie occupies rarefied air with the often brutal critics at Rotten Tomatoes.

Set against the thumping bass-infused gangsta rap once popularized by West Coast rappers, one of the movie’s stars, the movie grabs the viewer right from the outset. Most interesting is how much of the cast — which included Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut (as would-be college football star Ricky Baker) and Nia Long, among the notables — went on to become fixtures in the firmament of black Hollywood.

In that vein, Boyz n the Hood shares much in common with The Outsiders, as both films were instrumental in launching the careers of their young stars. And like the S.E. Hinton classic, Boyz n the Hood’s primary themes – responsibility, awareness, self-sufficiency and restraint — still ring true.

The dystopia evoked by the movie has its sole saving grace in the form of the poignant relationship that exists between Fishburne’s character, Furious Styles, and his ex-wife Reva, played by Bassett. In addition to the love they have for their son Tre, played by Gooding, Reva and Furious share a sometimes adversarial yet affectionate connection. With the overwhelming majority of black families being headed by single mothers, the dynamic between Furious and Reva underscore how the next best thing to a nuclear family is having both a mother and father who are at least on speaking terms.
Gooding drew praise for his mature and layered performance as Tre. But it’s Fishburne who actually gives the story its heft. Furious is an intense man who lives up to his name, but at the same time is a refreshing black male role model willing to take an active role in his son’s rearing. Furious raises Tre with something of an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Fishburne plays the character with a force of nature that, as one of Tre’s friends aptly describes, is a hybrid between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, Furious has a little Booker T Washington thrown in for good measure, as at one point he delivers an impromptu soliloquy on black self-sufficiency to a reluctant audience (I can’t confirm, but I’m willing to bet Furious’s speech marked the first use of the word “gentrification” in an urban drama).

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Whether by accident or design, Boyz n the Hood undercores the way in which the plague of urban violence and police brutality are inextricably bound together. The statistics tell the story: black on black crime rages unchecked in urban areas, which leads to an increased police presence. This in turn leads to higher instances of jittery cops overreacting to the slightest provocation. One of the movie’s few shortcomings is its failure to explore this theme in a more nuanced way, even though it is implied.

Even still, Boyz n the Hood spends much of its nearly two hours assaulting the senses with wanton violence that punctuates the streets of South Central.

Ricky Baker’s tragic death and the chaotic aftermath drive home the importance of family: Mrs. Baker turns on Ricky’s brother Doughboy (played by a brooding Ice Cube, with a 40-ounce bottle of beer as his ever-present prop) While Ricky’s mom blames his wayward brother for his demise, Furious shows how a level head — and strong parenting — can prevail upon a young impressionable teenager.

Doughboy’s words at the end of the movie are prescient: the violence that felled his brother and was meted out to such devastating effect in retribution does go “on and on. The next thing you know somebody might try and smoke me.”

Boyz n the Hood seems to ask this still relevant question: Sure we all have to go sometime, but does it have to be at the business end of a firearm?