“If you want to talk about guns, why is it that there’s a gun shop on almost every corner in this community? I’ll tell you why. For the same reason that there’s a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves. You go out to Beverly Hills you don’t see that shit. But they want us to kill ourselves. Yeah the best way you can destroy a people, you take their ability to reproduce themselves. Who is it that’s dying out here on these streets every night? Y’all. Young brothers like yourselves. You have to think young brother about the future.”
The above speech is delivered by Laurence Fishburne in the searing “Boyz n the Hood” (1991). The scene takes place in the middle of the film, and it is breathtaking. He is speaking about gentrification, race and America as a whole. And to think a 23 year old wunderkind – John Singleton – was behind the camera – directing his first feature which he also wrote. The confidence of the filmmaking has such an original and unbridled force. It totally clutches you. Almost thirty years later, “Boyz n the Hood” feels as fresh and relevant as when it was first released.
It is the coming of age story of Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr. in his breakout role), a 10-year-old being raised by his divorced and struggling professional mother, Reva (Angela Bassett) in South Central, Los Angeles. After getting in trouble in school, she sends him to live with his down-to earth and practical father, Furious (Laurence Fishburne). There, he gets reacquainted with his friends, Doughboy (Ice Cube) and Ricky (Morris Chestnut). Within a short period, Tre’s father confronts an armed robber in the middle of the night, and the cops arrest Doughboy for stealing from a convenience store. We jump seven years later, and Tre and Ricky are thinking about college, Tre is experiencing first love and Doughboy is dealing crack rock in the neighborhood. Furious – in the meantime – attempts to instill restraint as well as ownership of their actions and neighborhood. Daily shootings and helicopters whizzing above them are coldly and sadly the norm. Nobody comments on them – but the sounds are there. It is the atmosphere – so well-drawn out and specific – surrounding these familiar characters that makes the film stand out.
Singleton offers you a bleak urban life – yet he permeates it with such humanity – it dares you to look away. There are films that are ultimately so well-made and filled with so much truthfulness and artistry – that despite the harshness of the subject – the experience of it becomes essential. This is such a case. Singleton who died a year ago of a stroke became both the first African American and the youngest person ever to be nominated for the best director Oscar. Black directors including Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, and Spike Lee followed.
This is a classic you should take a look at if you haven’t already. And for those who have – take a second look.
Doughboy: “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.”
Available to stream on Hulu, Crackle, Showtime and to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu and Google Play.
Written by John Singleton
Directed by John Singleton
Starring: Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., Angela Bassett, Morris Chestnut, Laurence Fishburne, Nia Long and Regina King
About Writer and Director John Singleton
“Born Jan. 6, 1968, John Daniel Singleton grew up in South L.A. While only miles from Hollywood, his neighborhood might as well have been a world away from the studios and back lots. His modest upbringing shaped his work, including his debut film, “Boyz n the Hood.” After graduating from Pasadena’s Blair High School in 1986, he attended USC’s film school where he landed an internship at Paramount and won three awards, leading to a contract with Creative Artists Agency during his sophomore year. Elizabeth Daley, dean of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, said Singleton was known to the professors there before he was even a student, roaming the hallways, sitting in on classes and engaging professors about their favorite films. “He bulldozed his way into an industry that was not always welcoming, and did so with projects that reflected his community, his culture and his passions.” Daley said. “He is a giant in our hearts.” Though Singleton’s only student film experience was directing a pair of silent 8-millimeter movies, his film school scripts were impressive, earning him the Jack Nicholson writing award two years in a row. He wrote the script for “Boyz n the Hood” in just three and a half weeks and presented it as his senior thesis, and it was quickly snatched up by Columbia Pictures. Following “Boyz n the Hood,” Singleton went on to direct “Poetic Justice” (1993) starring Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson, “Higher Learning” (1995) and “Baby Boy” (2001).
In those films and in later works, Singleton continued to explore the implications of inner city violence. He directed, produced and wrote the screenplay for the remake of “Shaft” (2000), directed “2 Fast 2 Furious” (2003) and “Four Brothers” (2005), and produced “Hustle & Flow” (2005) and “Black Snake Moan” (2006). In a departure from his film credits, Singleton directed the visual effects-heavy music video for Michael Jackson’s “Remember The Time,” which featured Eddie Murphy, the model Iman and Magic Johnson. His 1997 historical drama “Rosewood,” which explored racial violence, was entered into the 47th Berlin International Film Festival. Singleton was passionate about increasing diversity in the film industry, embracing and working alongside Regina King, Tupac Shakur and Ice Cube. “I want to do for the movie business what Jay-Z did in the music business,” he told The Times in 2006. “He’s the guy everyone goes to for guidance, which is a role I want to embrace, being a godfather to a new generation of filmmakers. I want to nurture the next generation, which is where our future will come from. I’m hoping I can give them what I always wanted, which is some real-life advice.” In 2017, Singleton produced the A&E documentary “L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later.” Most recently, he co-created and produced the FX series “Snowfall,” about the rise of the crack epidemic in 1980s Los Angeles. He also directed episodes of “Empire,” “Billions” and “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and launched the BET police drama “Rebel,” which he wrote, directed and produced.” (The Los Angeles Times) Singleton passed away after suffering from a stroke in April of 2019. “He is survived by his mother, Sheila Ward; his father, Danny; and children Justice, Maasai, Hadar, Cleopatra, Selenesol, Isis and Seven.” (Deadline)
Bringing Boyz n the Hood to the Screen
In an interview with Vanity Fair, John Singleton and Ice Cube discuss the journey of bringing Boyz n the Hood to the screen. “Didn’t you read my script?” John Singleton asked rapper Ice Cube in 1990. Singleton, then a 22-year-old fresh out of the U.S.C. film program, had set his heart on Cube to play Doughboy, a character based on one of Singleton’s boyhood friends—but Cube was blowing the audition….Cube, one of the founding fathers of gangsta rap, described how he had shown up at an office in South-Central Los Angeles to audition, but he just wasn’t taking it very seriously. “I’m trying to be the best rapper in the world. I’m not thinking about acting. And my manager was like, ‘Yo—somebody wants to put you in a movie! Here’s the script.’ ” Cube threw the script into the backseat of his car. When he got to the audition, he realized, “Oh, shit. He was for real. He wasn’t lying. He’s going to do a movie. This kid is no bullshit.” But, he admitted, “I was terrible.” Go home and read my script,” Singleton told Cube. “I’m going to give you one more shot, because they don’t want to hire you, and I’m dying inside. I know you’re good. I know you can do it.” Cube went home and read the script, and he had an epiphany: “Damn, they’re actually going to make a movie about how we grew up. I didn’t know how we grew up was even interesting enough to be a movie. But the way John captured it, it was like cinematic beauty.” So when Cube went back to audition again, he felt he had everything he needed. “I know these characters back and forth. I can play any of these guys. I could have played the Cuba part [good guy Tre Styles, played by Cuba Gooding Jr.]. I could have played Ricky [Doughboy’s half-brother, on the cusp of a football career]. I could have played any of them, you know what I mean? Because they were all people I grew up with and knew.
Singleton and Cube had first met in 1989, when Singleton was a directing intern on The Arsenio Hall Show. Cube had come to the show to hang out, but Security was giving him a hard time. Singleton jumped in and said, “Man, don’t you know who this is? This is Ice Cube! He’s with [the rap group] N.W.A [Niggaz with Attitude]!” Singleton was thrilled to meet one of his heroes, “because what they were doing in music was giving voice to everything I had seen growing up.” He had even taken his script’s title from a song by Cube that had been recorded by Eazy-E—but only after paying Eazy $50,000 for the rights. “You know, I just felt this dude was a little delusional,” Cube recalled thinking when Singleton first approached him to be in his movie. “It’s just a pipe dream—that’s what I was thinking.” By January of 1990, Cube had left N.W.A to work with Public Enemy and was giving a concert at the Palace in Hollywood. After the concert Singleton again approached him. The two men stood talking in the empty parking lot. “I’m a director now,” Singleton said, “and I’m going to get this movie done, and you’re perfect for it.” But in the next breath, he ended up having to ask Cube for a ride back to his U.S.C. dorm. Cube recalls, “Now, I never do this. I don’t even give my boys rides. I’m like, man, get your own goddamned ride! But John was so cool—there was his energy and his passion, and I was like, ‘I’ll give you a ride now.’ ” “Wait. I like this part,” Singleton said, picking up the story. “So we’re riding in Cube’s Suzuki Samurai . . . ” “No, a Suzuki Sidekick, a two-seater,” Cube interrupted. Singleton continued, “We’re going down the Harbor Freeway, but once we’re on the freeway, we’re down into the hood. Cube popped in the beats from his first solo album [AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted]—he’s still writing the lyrics.” He started cycling through the beats, telling what he was going to do with the songs, while Singleton described his vision for the movie: “We’re just two kids talking about our dreams at this point. There’s no guarantee that any of this stuff is going to happen. So that’s January 1990. By the summer, I was able to call him up and say, ‘This is real. Come in.’ ” Cube nailed the second audition. “He just starts doing the scene, and it’s magic,” Singleton recalled. “As a storyteller, when you see somebody who is the character you envisioned, you feel this energy in the room. On that audition, you saw a star being born.” (Vanity Fair)
The Impact of Boyz n the Hood
“Despite his inexperience, Singleton insisted that the only person who could possibly do justice to the film was himself. After a lengthy meeting on the studio’s lot, he earned a powerful ally in the studio’s chief, Frank Price. “I thought John’s script had a distinctive voice and great insight,” Price told The Times in 1991. “But when we met, I was really impressed. He’s not just a good writer, but he has enormous self-confidence and assurance. In fact, the last time I’d met someone that young with so much self-assurance was Steven Spielberg.” The movie, filmed for a mere $5.7 million, became the first all-black movie about L.A.’s inner-city struggles to be produced by a major studio and was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2001. When it screened at the Cannes Film Festival, the audience gave it a 20-minute standing ovation. “Boyz n the Hood” arrived at the theaters as the L.A. gang wars were escalating and just nine months before the Rodney King beating and the deadly street riots that engulfed the city. “When ‘Boyz n the Hood’ came out, it became part of this small uprising” in black cinema, USC professor and student of African American cinema Christine Acham said in 2011. “It had really been squashed since the early ’70s. To see these black films come to the forefront was something that was pretty significant. Instead of being represented, you have a case of people trying to represent themselves.” The film went on to earn two Oscar nominations — best screenplay and best director, earning more than $60 million at the box office.” (The Los Angeles Times)