Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Rated R for lots of violence, language, sexuality, and nudity. Okay, the main takeaway is the violence part. The movie is meant to depict real-world violence in a way that doesn't glorify it. R.
DIRECTOR: John Singleton
Here's a thing you should know before I go too deep: I watched the Pan and Scan version of this. Netflix DVD decided that they would send me the oldest copy of Boyz n the Hood. I mean, we all know why. I'm sure that Netflix's DVD department is almost a burden on them. It's odd to regress to a '90s movie in pan-and-scan. So if I comment on how non-cinematic this film looks, realize that I'm watching it like a caveman, on pan-and-scan DVD.
I might not love John Singleton. That's a bit blasphemous. I mean, I wrote my blog on 2 Fast 2 Furious and commented on how this was the guy who made Boyz n the Hood...without ever having seen Boyz n the Hood. Last week, I also wrote a blog about As Tears Go By, a movie by Wong Kar-Wai that was less than impressive because it was his first film. I have to remember this as I write this because Boyz n the Hood is John Singleton's first movie. It has so much going for it that is great, but so much of it feels like a first film. Do I just really hate first films? Am I such an unforgiving person that I can't understand that who we are in our youth is not the person we are when we are experienced? I know that if I met me as a first year teacher, I would be constantly pinching my sinuses in frustration with that ragamuffin who had just a bit too much Dead Poets Society in them. But Boyz n the Hood was embraced as part of the cinematic canon. It's one of the movies that changed who we were as a culture and from a cinema standpoint? Not good. It's actually a bad movie that had a good heart...for the most part.
The worst part is that I know how to fix the movie. The final act is actually pretty good. That's when it starts being a movie. But it is also when the movie starts. Start the movie in the final act. I have complete respect for the late Mr. Singleton, but I see what he's trying to do and it doesn't work. The movie starts with the commentary on Black-on-Black crime. At first, I was really worried where movie was going to go from that point, but I allowed it. Thank God for Lawrence Fishburne's Furious for straight up contextualizing so much of the movie because there would be some real problems from there. But Singleton wanted to do two things with the first two acts of the movie. He wanted to establish setting (which most of the movie attempts to do) and he also wanted us to bond with Ricky. But both are done with these broad strokes that makes us say, "Okay, we get it. Move on with the story." What we need to know for the sake of Act III is that Ricky is a likable character, who despite overwhelming odds, has a chance to escape his surroundings. While Ricky is certainly sympathetic, he's also completely static. Because Tre is such a dynamic character, we bond with Tre more than Ricky. Ricky's death becomes a bit of a fridging situation for Tre rather than being emotional itself.
Once Ricky is shot, there's something to tell. The film becomes The Outsiders for '90s. There's something there. The story becomes about Tre deciding what it means to be Black, whether that means embracing violence and perpetuating a cycle of violence that society wants him to embrace or making his own decision. Tre sneaks off to join Doughboy as he's about to get his revenge for the death of Ricky. There's the moral conundrum that Tre knows that he is doing the wrong thing, but stuck in a situation where he can't get out of it without making sacrifices. That's the story. Right there. Tre being stuck in a car where he's physically heading towards an event that he can't return from. Instead, that entire sequence is rushed and made into a beat rather than making it the crux of the story itself. What I want is so much of the movie stripped. This movie wants to be both the life of a Black teen in South Central L.A. and a story about --as Singleton puts it --increasing the peace. But it really doesn't do both very well. If anything, the life of the Black teen comes across more as a montage and an afterschool special. There's a problem with this that I want to address because I know that John Singleton is doing God's work with a lot of the movie. He just isn't necessarily doing it well.
But back to that moment in the story. There's something good about Tre and Doughboy being stuck in a car together. The other characters are good as archetypes to bounce dialogue off of. But both Doughboy and Tre feel like they are doing the right thing. Their goals are aligned in a moment of adrenaline, but those two ideas diverge. Tre asks to get out of the car and Doughboy ignores him. Cool. That tension is good for the point of character and theme. Placing two people who are both right in their own ways in a place where one of them has to lose something is just plain old good storytelling. But then Tre asks again and he's out the car. Doughboy never even holds it against him. Part of that is because he loves Tre. But that also isn't his character. One could argue that maybe Doughboy learned something about himself because of his last interaction with Ricky that may have gotten him killed. But there's not much that is supporting that, considering that Doughboy is very business-as-usual when it comes to maintaining his hard-edged persona. And then when the story is resolved, we get some text saying that Doughboy was killed two weeks later? That's so important to the theme of the film and it is done as text? If there is a moral decision to be made with Doughboy's decision to assassinate three people, we need to see Doughboy's grappling with that. Tre needs to see the experience from the third person and see that it could have been him. Instead, there's this really heavy handed lesson that is told to us instead of shown to us.
And now to my complaint to John Singleton's film: The characters might be reinforcing Black stereotypes. LET ME FINISH! Okay, do I deny that this movie might be an accurate representation of what it means to grow up on the streets of South Central? No. I'm sure that the film is rife with verisimilitude. But the movie starts off with that statistic of Black-on-Black crime and then goes to show the majority of characters as gang-bangers. This is what white America is already saying about a culture. There is this moment --this absolutely vital moment --where Furious gathers people around and tells them about the history of conditioning that the government has done to Black youth. He talks about the drug trade and the cycles of violence that stem out of gentrification and thank God this scene is in the movie. Sure, he has to straight up say it instead of letting us experience it because it does contextualize a lot of the movie. But almost every character is embroiled in this world of violence. Even Furious himself perpetuates Black stereotypes. The only two characters who aren't concerned about maintaining appearances are Tre, who is the avatar for the audience, and Ricky, who befalls tragedy because he doesn't perpetuate a cycle of violence. There are these scenes of helicopter spotlights constantly flooding the houses of the characters and it makes the Black community look like savages. Again, I cite Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, which talks about the nature of racism and the same content where most characters come across as well-rounded. I can't help but think about this movie across from Do the Right Thing and it just drives me nuts. There's so much good happening in this movie, but it doesn't read the way that it is supposed to. If anything, this is a movie that simply accentuates the fear between cultures because there isn't enough effort in building these characters.
I wanted to love this movie. It is in the cinematic canon for a reason. It just has issues with a first time director trying to get a message out without having the technical prowess to do so in a way that would make a lasting impact.
Leave a Reply.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.