What is Boyz N The Hood in 2011? Is it an expressive, personal portrait of a community that was underrepresented onscreen prior to 1991? A historically significant early example of The New Blaxploitation that swept through the multiplexes in the early ’90s? “An after-school special with cursing,” as some detractors dubbed it? Most importantly: Is John Singleton’s debut film still relevant now, 20 years after it became a surprise box-office hit and an Academy Award nominee?
In some ways, Boyz N The Hood’s success—and the subsequent rash of imitators—was the worst thing that could’ve happened to it. Taken on its own merits, as a low-budget drama balancing action with a social conscience, the film mostly still works. For a guy fresh out of USC, Singleton gathered an amazing cast: Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as divorced parents in South Central Los Angeles; Cuba Gooding, Jr. as their son; Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut as half-brothers on different paths; and Nia Long and Regina King as love interests. Singleton set out to make his Mean Streets, capturing both the daily threat of violence and the enduring sense of community in the neighborhood where he grew up, and Boyz N The Hood gets that across fairly often. In the scenes where Fishburne instructs Gooding on how to be a man, and in the scenes where Ice Cube and his gangsta buddies drink malt liquor and talk about women, Singleton easily conveys the ingrained social structure of early-’90s L.A. He shows the stresses of teenage parenthood on a block where noisy helicopters constantly buzz overhead, and he shows young people’s anxiety at knowing that so much of their future is tied to a standardized test score, or to avoiding a spontaneous act of violence from some thug trying to assert his status.
But as good as Boyz N The Hood can be, it’s never exactly great. It’s no Killer Of Sheep—a much more profound film about growing up surrounded by poverty in Los Angeles—and it lacks the artistry of Spike Lee, the leading voice in African-American cinema at the time. Yet Singleton got the Oscar attention and box-office that Lee and Killer Of Sheep’s Charles Burnett didn’t, and in the years after the movie became a hit, young black filmmakers moved away from films about everyday life and real relationships and started telling sensationalistic stories about kids with guns. All this, even though at times, Boyz N The Hood is painfully clumsy, mixing Steven Spielberg’s visual slickness with shoehorned-in messages about racist cops, gentrification, AIDS, and the ravages of Reaganomics. For every low-key, naturalistic exchange in Boyz N The Hood, there’s a line of dialogue like Fishburne saying to a policeman, “Something wrong? Yeah. It’s just too bad you don’t know what it is.” Given that this was Singleton’s first film—and given the “say something meaningful” trend of the era’s popular culture—it’s forgivable that this movie tries too hard. But it’s hard to deny that Boyz N The Hood’s earnestness makes it look dated, and not always charmingly so.
Key features: A Singleton commentary track, deleted scenes, and teary-eyed appreciations from the cast.