I’ve been sitting at the keyboard for about ten minutes now trying to figure out where to start with this review. Not all films are easy to review. Not all films are easy to watch, if it comes to that, not even all good films. And that, I suppose, is as good a starting point as any to go with. When it comes to movies, my mantra, as has been stated a few times on this blog already, is “Am I entertained?” But even before I started blogging, I have had for several years a list of movies which I felt I needed to see, and there are some entries on that list that aren’t there for entertainment value. Not all movies are meant to be “fun”, and sometimes the concept of “cultural literacy” — such as the idea of actually knowing what other movies are building off of — requires taking a look at a film that I know, even as I begin it, that I’m probably not going to be happy when it comes to the end.
John Singleton’s 1991 film, Boyz N the Hood is one such film.
The main character, Tre Styles, is a smart kid but has a quick temper, and his mother Reva (Angela Bassett) despairs of teaching him self-control. After he gets into a fight in a classroom (under the auspices of the world’s least competent grade-school teacher), Reva sends him off to live with his father, Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne). Furious doesn’t live in a very good neighborhood, but he is a good man; he works hard to be a good father to his son, and of all the boys in the neighborhood, Tre is the only one whose father is actually present. The importance of being a good father is a recurring theme in the work, arguably as strong as the racial themes.
The racial themes are, of course, what brought this film to cultural prominence. The film puts its message out there right from the beginning, citing statistics about black-on-black violence and youth crime, and this informs most of the events of the story. Once Tre has grown up (played as a 17-year-old by Cuba Gooding Jr.), he and his friends find themselves at a crossroads in their lives. Ricky (Morris Chestnut), Tre’s best friend, has been obsessed with football since childhood; this obsession develops into actual talent as a high-schooler, and a USC scout informs him that if he can pass the SAT, he’ll be getting a scholarship to attend college. Ricky’s half-brother Darren, known as “Doughboy” (played by Ice Cube in his first acting role), is introduced as a petty criminal, arrested for shoplifting during the initial childhood segment. In fact, the transition from childhood to adulthood occurs with a jump from Doughboy’s arrest to Doughboy’s “Welcome Home” party for his latest arrest. Most of the rest of the group are in Doughboy’s mold.
This is a coming-of-age story, and like many coming-of-age movies, it doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a series of discrete events punctuated by one final climactic event. We get various slices of Tre’s life as opposed to a specific quest to achieve a specific goal. It works in American Graffiti and others of its ilk, and it works here. Unlike most of those, however, Boyz N the Hood‘s message means that the climactic event isn’t a happy one.
This is, in many ways, a depressing movie, and can get more so the more you think about it. But it’s also a very well done movie. All the actors are very believable in their roles, from Ice Cube’s Doughboy to the anti-black black cop (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson), but none more so than Fishburne’s Furious Styles, a man who stands out in “the Hood” due to his morals, dignity, and education. The writing is also believable, and together with the acting really brings the characters to life. Having lived most of my life literally ten miles from anywhere, I’m about as far from “the Hood” as I can get, but I had no trouble relating to these characters. The directing as well was also well done, especially for a freshman effort. There was a moment early on in which I thought it was going to be difficult to put up with, due to a few scenes where the camera would fixate on a background element while dramatic chords stung, but this was thankfully dropped after the first few minutes, and I have no other complaints with it.
This is not a fun film; it’s not meant to be. And it’s not one I’ll be watching a second time. But I’m glad I watched it once. It’s a very powerful film, and I’m not one inclined to trot out that overused word very often.