25 Years Later: How ‘Boyz n the Hood’ Painted a Picture of Young Black Strife and Survival
Riding around the neighborhood in a car with the homies is a rite of passage for many young, black African Americans. But that same passage can also become their downfall, a fate that was nearly bestowed upon Tre Styles, the main character in the 1991 film Boyz n the Hood.
Crash-landing in theaters in mid-July of that year, the film, which was a hell of a coup for rookie director John Singleton, then a recent graduate of USC, was unveiled during the 1991 Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews. Created on a budget of $6.5 million, Boyz n the Hood would go on to gross more than $57.5 million in North America alone and earn Singleton nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay at the 64th Academy Awards, making him the youngest person ever to be nominated for Best Director, not to mention the first African-American considered for the award. Those historical accolades would set the template for one of the more successful runs for an African-American director to date, with notable films like Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, Baby Boy, Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and various other transcendent creations on his resume.
The bragging rights earned from Boyz n the Hood's success is a testament to the excellence that can be found within the black community, its real legacy is that of a film that spoke to central issues plaguing teenage kids and young adults in the inner cities across urban America. Released amid the rise of the gang wars in neighborhoods on the west coast, Boyz n the Hood was a true-to-life depiction of what many black youth were tasked with during the late '80s and early '90s: surviving the times and hoping to live to see their 25th birthday. The movie's three lead characters, Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Ricky Baker (Morris Chestnut) and his half-brother, Doughboy (Ice Cube), all develop their own coping mechanisms to deal with the turmoil surrounding their lives.
Tre, who is focused on escaping his environment through educational means, is working towards his high school diploma and plans to attend graduation with his high school sweetheart, Brandi, (played by Nia Long). Ricky Baker, an athlete who happens to be one of the best high school running backs in all of the country, has his future as a college football star all but laid out for him, but has to pass the SAT before he can cash in his ticket to the big time. And then there's Doughboy, who succumbed to the criminal element around him over the years and has become a hardened gangbanger known for selling crack and keeping a pistol handy. While all three characters are unique in their disposition and ambitions, all are united in an unspoken brotherhood that extends to their other neighborhood friends: Monster, Dooky, and Chris, who comprise the crew's street family.
One interesting dynamic in Boyz n the Hood, though, is the juxtaposition of Ricky Baker's friendship with Tre, as opposed to his older brother, Doughboy, who Ricky is often at odds with throughout the film. While Tre and Ricky share many of the same interests and qualities, Ricky and Doughboy are like oil and water, which can be attributed to their respective relationships with their mother, Brenda Baker. Whereas Ricky had grown up without a father present in the household, he was afforded an exorbitant amount of attention and affection from his mother, while Doughboy, whose own father had left Brenda Baker lonely and bitter, is often scolded and emotionally abused by his mother. The contrast in which both children who grew up in the same household and could turn out completely different with an opposing set of values is one that is highlighted in an innumerable amount of films, but the added element of raising two kids by two different men is one that hasn't played out on the big screen quite like it had since Boyz n the Hood more than two decades ago.
Fatherhood is also a prevalent theme in Boyz n the Hood and is the film's most enduring aspect. In a country where black fathers haven't always been depicted in the best light, Furious Styles, played by Laurence Fishburne, was one of the strongest male father figures to be presented to the public since James Evans' scowl helped make Good Times the de facto television show for black America. Educated and militant, Furious Styles was the type of figure that most of mainstream American's failed to acknowledge, but was more than familiar to a number of young black viewers. From instilling a sense of knowledge of self into Tre Styles from an early age to preaching economic empowerment and civic pride to his people, Furious Styles was indicative of the many strong, black men that would begin to get their just due in Hollywood and television during the '90s and beyond.
Friction between the LAPD and African-American citizens was also reaching a fever pitch around the time of Boyz n the Hood's release. Two instances in the film include prickly dealings between characters and law enforcement, one of which should strike a major chord in viewers even today in light of the racial strife taking place in America today. The first occurs after a would-be burglar has broken into the home, only to be scared out by Furious Styles and his revolver. After contacting the police to file a report, one of the two officers that arrives to the scene, who just so happens to be African-American, rubs Furious Styles the wrong way with his discriminatory commentary, ending the exchange on a less than amicable note. But the second, during which Tre and Ricky are pulled over by the same cop Tre encountered as a kid, is especially chilling, as the officer proceeds to threaten Tre with a firearm and belittle him for being young and black. Infuriated and feeling emasculated, Trey vows vengeance on any police officer that threatens his life moving forward, before being comforted by Brandi, a scene that can be witnessed in the aftermath of the growing number of racially charged incidents involving black men and law enforcement across the country.
With Boyz n the Hood being set in early-'90s Los Angeles, gang life is also a central part of the film. Although Colors broached similar territory, Boyz was one of the first movies to not only shed light on the turf wars that were taking place in neighborhoods like South Central and Compton, but to emphasize the human element behind gang life.
The terms "Crips" and "Bloods" are never used explicitly in the movie, but Doughboy and his crew are often dressed in blue clothes and are clearly engaged in a war of words with a local red-dressed gangbanger named Ferris, whose own crew is not above involving casualties in their thirst for control and domination. The war is one that is provoked by both sides, ultimately leading to Boyz n the Hood's harrowing climax in the death of Ricky. After finding himself in the crosshairs of Ferris and crew due to his affiliation with Doughboy and a less-than-friendly encounter on Crenshaw that ends in gunfire, Ricky is "marked" as a target, who choose to take out a family member of their rivals. The despair across Brenda Baker's face as she cradles her bullet-riddled son is one that resembles the faces of countless mothers who have lost innocent children to street violence and is unnerving to anyone viewing.
Lighthearted moments in Boyz n the Hood, like Tre's courtship of Brandi and Doughboy and company's conversation with Ricky's college recruiter, give the film a bit of humor. But the most serious moments in Boyz n the Hood all happen from the vantage point of a car: Tre witnessing Doughboy and Chris be taken to the Juvenile Detention Center, Tre and Ricky being pulled over and harassed by corrupt policeman, the shooter aiming the shotgun at Ricky's back, not to mention Tre making the decision to exit the vehicle before making the mistake of a lifetime as Stanley Clarke's "Black on Black Crime" serves as the backdrop for one of the more pressure-packed scenes of the past quarter century.
And that is the central lesson learned from Boyz n the Hood: knowing when the joyride is over and having the strength to walk on your own. And even with 25 years having passed since this landmark film impacted the world of hip-hop, as well as placing a microscope under the ills of the inner city as a whole, that message has only proven to be a timeless one.