The miracle isn’t even in Singleton’s gift for screenwriting, it’s his uncanny talent for directing — this is a film he created at age 24. Fast approaching that age, I can appreciate how young it is. But while the script is the true lynchpin of the movie, it’s the performances that haunt even now.
We’ve never seen Cuba Gooding Jr. so vulnerable, we’ve never seen Ice Cube so tragic and multilayered. Laurence Fishburne (or Larry), well, we know he makes a good mentor, but in this movie, he’s got an understated anger built up over generations of oppression. In the most heartbreaking moment, a black cop holds Tre at gunpoint, taunts him about being a petty gangster, like the ones that aim shotguns at you in the middle of the road for mild pleasure, and light catches the tear halfway down the boy’s face. Everything seems to slow down as Stanley Clarke’s melody swells.
It doesn’t take a massacre or a war on the streets to bring home how bad things can get, it’s a laser focus on individual lives. Being one of those individuals previously, John Singleton may not have been writing or directing at all. This is pure expression, in cinematic form.
Again, the racism element is embodied in the policeman, and he’s black. This is a very telling moment, because although Spike Lee paved the way for both independent films and black voices in cinema, this is not a confrontational movie. It is what Doughboy laments is missing at the end — a glimpse inside, a tour through a world in desperate need of outsider eyes.
It is real world tragedy made palpable, and it may be backward and stupid that real world tragedy isn’t already palpable, but it’s no less true — the pain and despair on the individual level can never translate through media outlets with their agendas. Boyz N the Hood on the other hand is the work of that individual; this is a screenplay Singleton wrote in college, based on his own experiences, and at the end of the composition, he cried. Talk about exorcising demons.
It is coming-of-age, sure, but we’ve never seen it like this. There are pushers on the streets of South Central, LA, and not just of drugs (which are absent in Singleton dramas), these are more like cultural pushers, which take all forms, and they want you to become violent. The overbearing police presence, the gunfire in the night, and the entire system of masculine ritual.
This is something that Singleton begins to discuss here, and follows up on in Baby Boy, sourcing the problem to the young black male. Just — not in the way FOX News does. It’s more about the culture of false manhood, of having children but not raising them, or avenging your friend regardless the visible consequences — the effects of violence that exist all around Tre, most especially in Doughboy’s wheelchair-bound friend.
Singleton calls it posturing — it comes down to nothing more than putting on a front. Per The Battle Beyond Planet X process, we next ask where this culture comes from, and also per BBPX tradition, we find that it’s a history of economic imbalance and second-class social existence, something far too complicated to do justice.
And that’s not what Boyz N the Hood is about. It poses the problem, exercises the problem through the eyes of a few highly sympathetic characters, and then poses a solution. Just as it blames the violence of South Central on masculinity, this is where we derive a solution, in someone like Furious Styles. So when Angela Bassett comes along and drops off Tre to live with his father — because he can raise him right — it’s not necessarily sexism, it’s almost more like redemption.
Boyz N the Hood became the thesis for a subgenre of ‘hood films’ in the 90s, which embodied the themes best exemplified by NWA’s first album. Later there would be Menace II Society, Juice, Set it Off, and several others. I wish that this subgenre still continued to the day, David Simon is sort of the sole torch-bearer.
But as good as The Wire is, it’s very different. Emotional and profound, but still journalistic in nature. Boyz N the Hood represents a voice from the community, and our introduction to this voice, John Singleton, is a powerful, humane drama. Not only the best debut of any director, but an extraordinary treatise on a specific kind of American tragedy.