Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #448
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: July 12, 1991
Country of Origin: United States
Box office: $57,500,000 (USA)
Running Time: 112 minutes
Director: John Singleton
Producer: Steve Nicolaides
Screenplay: John Singleton
Cinematography: Charles Mills
Score: Stanley Clarke
Editing: Bruce Cannon
Studio: Columbia Pictures Corporation
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Stars: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Larry Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Nia Long, Tyra Ferrell, Redge Green, Dedrick D. Gobert, Baldwin C. Sykes, Tracey Lewis-Sinclair, Alysia Rogers, Regina King, Lexie Bigham, Raymond Turner, Tammy Hansen Grady, Desi Arnez Hines II, Baha Jackson, Donovan McCrary, Kenneth A. Brown
Suggested Audio Candy
 Ice Cube “How to Survive in South Central”
 The Five Stairsteps “Ooh Child”
 Stanley Clarke “Boyz ‘n The Hood”
Being a parent can be a thankless task. Despite your very best efforts to teach your child the difference between right and wrong, eventually you have to accept that they must make their own decisions and trust that their judgement remains sound. While this is testing at the very best of times, there are certain circumstances which are entirely out of your control. Growing up in Crenshaw, South Central, during the eighties and nineties provided no end of additional pressure as the ghetto refuses to take prisoners and offers far less than encouraging statistics for those held captive within its urban prison. John Singleton’s debut feature Boyz ‘n The Hood tackles this thorny topic more effectively than any of its contemporaries and it’s the reason why it remains relevant over twenty years on.
Ernest R. Dickerson’s Juice, Stephen Milburn Anderson’s South Central, and The Hughes Brothers’ excellent Menace II Society, all offered similar insights into coming-of-age in a society hellbent on breaking you but Singleton uses an entirely different tack when telling his tale. Morality is key here and, once you remove any gang banging and crack huffing, it is very much a story of the struggles facing any parent watching on helplessly as their child makes that awkward transition into childhood. It also takes cues from Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, never more so than with the manner in which it bookends its narrative. However, while the body Gordie and pals discovered was a shock to their systems, here it represents just another day in the hood.
We begin in 1984 focusing on three ten-year old boys preparing to reach adolescence in the less than hospitable surroundings of Crenshaw. Tre Styles (Desi Arnez Hines II), and his best friends Ricky Baker (Donovan McCrary), and half-brother Darren (Baha Jackson) are represented during a course of events which will undoubtedly shape their future and, at this point, they are safe-guarded by not being fully aware of the repercussions of action. Singleton captures the wide-eyed curiosity of childhood exquisitely and reminds his audience of the third parent to any child growing up in a less charmed locale, that being the streets themselves. However, for the time being at least, their chief concern is reclaiming the football which has been pilfered by hoodrats and perhaps a mild run-in with 5-0.
The first act allows Singleton the chance to truly set his tone and, more critically, affords us far greater depth of perception than is customary. For Darren, these scenes showcase his loss of innocence while, for Tre and Ricky, the grim realization sets in that their own voyage into manhood is likely to be less than smooth. Both have aspirations and, as we shift forward seven years to the same set of protagonists, their friendship provides their greatest weapon in the continual battle against succumbing to the street and its demands. Darren isn’t so fortunate although he has reached the pinnacle of his own game by heading up his own posse as “Doughboy”. Boyz ‘n The Hood keeps the spotlight firmly focused on all three and the fact that we come of age alongside them sees us wishing only for their safe passage, regardless of conflicting life choices.
Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy are now represented by Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, and O’Shea Jackson, better known as Ice Cube. All three are notably making their feature-film debuts and Singleton’s casting is absolutely on-point as each excels in their own right. Tre and Ricky keep themselves largely to themselves and still possess hope for the future, whereas the bell never chimed for Doughboy and the hood has already enlisted him as foot soldier for combat, wiring him for the sound of gunshots, while offering him the short-term win of pushing crack rock to keep his gold Chevrolet Impala chassis bumping. His crew is tight and to be messed with at your peril but, when shots aren’t ringing out like distant approaching thunder around them, they spend their days waxing lyrical about everyday hood shit, contained mostly in their pen.
Cube is an inspired choice for Doughboy, having already washed his own soiled linen whilst fronting Compton’s potty-mouthed finest N.W.A. between 1986 and 1989 until a contract dispute compromised his association with the outfit. He is pitch-perfect here as, while emoting is primarily presentable via vitriolic outbursts, we can see the sadness bubbling beneath the surface. He mostly keeps feelings in check courtesy of 8-ball and other numbing agents but finds the equilibrium required as only a man fully aware of how to survive in South Central could ever hope to ascertain. As well as coaxing an inspired turn from the entrepreneurial rapper, Singleton also encouraged him to write, the result of which heralded the cosmically pleasing Friday soon after. During any downtime and, thanks to Jackson’s deadpan delivery, we’re in similarly jovial territory. However, we’re regularly reminded that we’re far behind enemy lines.
Gooding Jr.’s performance as want-away Tre had a similar effect on his career trajectory, propelling him to fame overnight and quite rightly so. He may have fallen foul of the Hollywood machine and dropped largely from our radars but here, as the exasperated black man flat refusing to discount the higher learning his father provides him, he is at the very height of his A-game. He hasn’t forgotten his roots and would fight bare-knuckled for what he believes in but pops always taught him to respectfully neglect firearms. The dynamic between father and son is both intense and intimate, while his father Furious isn’t on-hand to teach his son how to tiptoe through the tulips and is tasked instead with providing him unturbulent transference into adulthood. No pressure then.
The no-nonsense manner in which Furious Styles chooses to rear his only child is of paramount importance to proceedings. Laurence Fishburne gives an Oscar-worthy account of himself as the fiercely intelligent mortgage broker looking to teach the tools Tre’s mother knows only too well that she can’t access. There is real warmth to his character but it remains rarely vocalized and, instead, we are required to read between the lines. Fishburne can place every last word in our mouth with a simple look of incitement or, when facilitated, glare of disdain. He cannot dream to possess all the answers and this is where his estranged wife Reva comes into play.
While she may appear a largely incidental character, Reva Styles is always looking out for her child’s interests and appreciates his father’s indispensable place in this process. Her sole will is to provide a better life for her son and, with regards to demanding a salary, she is keeping up her end of the bargain. However, her pragmatic approach is applied with the most honorable of intentions and Angela Bassett is simply C-4 in her smaller, but no less crucial, capacity. Fishburne and Bassett would later play estranged spouses a second time in Brian Gibson’s What’s Love Got To Do With It, with their turns as Ike & Tina bagging them Oscar nods, and their chemistry is every bit as pronounced here.
Finally we have dreamer Ricky and the apple has fallen farther from the tree than with Doughboy. His mother may struggle to mask her contempt towards black sheep Darren, but she’s far more forthcoming with her pride towards Ricky’s positive endeavor as he represents her greatest achievement in life and comes from less perishable stock. He is hopeful of earning a football scholarship and ultimately looking to make it in the NFL but is arriving at the crossroads in his life and will take his salvation in whichever guise it comes. Chestnut gives an assured turn and balances his dual commitments well. His character arc appears less pivotal but, of all the cats portrayed, his fate is the most integral come the punishing final act.
The ever impending threat of gang violence is another character all on its own. To allow for authentic reactions from his cast, Singleton offered them no heads-up when clips were about to be emptied. Every corner houses a liquor store to offer debilitation and firearms are dished out like alloy candy canes every time the national statistics need readjustment. Moreover, the police (which N.W.A. already suggested we fuck), are shown in a dubious light, never more so than through the bloodshot eyes of a self-loathing black officer of the law, whose oppressive methods leave much to be desired. This particular portrayal is only too accurate and reminds us how ineffectual the judicial system is in the hood and how corrupt its advocates can be. Slack response time equates to one less nigga on the streets in their tiny minds, thus they are more than content to hang back.
In the words of Doughboy, “hoes gotta eat too”, and the fairer sex provide the butt of a running joke which is as credible as it is diverting. After N.W.A. coined the term and went on to smash triple platinum, the word “bitch” became less of a cuss word and more term of endearment within ghetto jurisdiction. Boyz ‘n The Hood doesn’t glorify the term but accepts its relevance and decides to have a little fun with it. The second act contains a number of wonderfully heated exchanges as the ladies represent in the way they invariably do when their backs are against the wall, leading to some priceless debate and incalculable put-downs. The movie knows precisely where it’s from as well as headed, and perhaps most critically of all, how to keep the commute brisk and embracing. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is spot-on, fusing the delicate crooning of The Five Stairsteps with the obligatory rap breaks and an emotionally piercing underlying score courtesy of Stanley Clarke.
Singleton’s virtuous docudrama earned him an Oscar nomination of his own and, at 24-years old, made him the youngest ever filmmaker proposed for the Best Director accolade. His subsequent works never quite pocketed him the same level of reverence, but then, this is unquestionably his most personal work. Tre’s childhood reflects his own in numerous respects and he was fortunate enough to heed his father’s advice and attend college. This ensures that hope is never lost, despite it appearing futile graduating from the playground in question without first learning life’s most harsh lessons, he keeps the faith. Moreover, he packs more than enough emotional investment into a 112-minute running time which simply drives by. Ultimately though, we’re at the mercy of the guy riding shotgun, and here Singleton keeps it heartbreakingly real. Its slogan “Increase the Peace”, means the same in any dialect, but is a little more poignant when learning how to survive where busting a cap is fundamental.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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