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Boyz n the Hood [Movie Review]

Summary

Boyz n the Hood is John Singleton’s 1991 film debut about a boy who goes to live with his father in South Central Los Angeles. The story follows Tre and his friends as they grow up in a rough inner-city neighborhood that is plagued by violence. With the guidance and discipline instilled by his no-nonsense dad, Tre avoids many of the pitfalls that seem destined to trap his friends. The film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director Academy Awards launching Singleton’s career by making him the youngest person ever and the first Black person to be nominated for Best Director.

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Show Notes

Imagine being a little kid growing up in a neighborhood where shootings and drive-bys at night are a frequent occurrence. In this case, Boyz n the Hood opens with four kids, one of whom is Tre Styles, walking on their way to school nonchalantly discussing shootings in the neighborhood. Having heard shooting the night before, Tre states that he got out of bed to seek cover and is ridiculed for being scared. As though it’s not a natural impulse to get out of the way of bullets. Tre’s friend Bobby states that two of his brothers had been shot and survived giving the impression that he thinks shootings and being shot aren’t a big deal.

As they walked through the neighborhood, I couldn’t help but notice that the place looked filthy with all manners of trash thrown about. And then there were a whole bunch of stray dogs. I’ve grown up in and been to some rough neighborhoods so I’ve seen stray dogs. But this was like dogs, dogs, and more dogs. So not only is the neighborhood plagued by violence but it’s also dilapidated.

The next scene opens with audio of a teacher discussing settlers but the image that we see is childhood drawings by the students of various scenes from life. Childhood drawings are usually terrible and only appreciated by the child’s parents or grandparents. When we think of the images, they’re typically happy scenes of a house, nice family, sunshine, and rainbows. But these kids are drawing very morbid and violent images based on what they’re seeing and experiencing in their neighborhood. It caught my attention that there was one drawing of a casket and another of an LAPD helicopter flying above.

To be so young and immersed in violence and crime at that point in life where your world should be sunshine and rainbows. It drives home the point that so often people and the media disparage the teens and adults who are carrying on in these rough neighborhoods. But not realizing that there was likely a time when those people were children being exposed to violence and dysfunction which would have a profound impact on their development.

We see these early characteristics in Tre and Bobby when they get into an argument in class. It’s a simple disagreement that is common among kids where they should typically go from playing to arguing to fighting and then back to playing. Instead, their kiddie argument devolves into them cursing at each other, making violent threats, which is then followed by a fistfight. This insignificant and meaningless disagreement escalates very quickly.

Tre is suspended from school and passes some guys who appear to be in their teens or early 20s shooting dice. They’re clustered in a group on the sidewalk so Tre steps out into the street to get around them. We can’t hear their conversation but by the time Tre steps back onto the sidewalk, a fight has broken out and the group is jumping one guy. In both scenes, they were just fistfights but show just how quickly violence can erupt. Add guns into the mix and you have a real problem.

To be fair Tre and the other kids in the class seemed to be following the lesson and everything was going fine until Tre decided to be a wise guy. Tre was in the wrong because he’s supposed to be in class to get an education, not to be the center of attention or introduce his lesson plan. He’s undeniably smart and the other kids in the class are also following along with both the teacher’s and Tre’s lesson so they’re smart as well. The problem at this point isn’t a lack of intellect but at least on Tre’s part, a lack of discipline and impulse control.

As the teacher points out to Reva, Tre’s mother (Angela Bassett), Tre is intelligent but has a bad temper. I agreed with her on that point but then the conversation went left. Tre acted out in class and then got into a fight for which he should have been disciplined. I get teachers being mandated reporters and that problems at home can contribute to children acting out in school.

But the teacher was highly disrespectful and very presumptive to make assumptions about Tre’s mother and father especially because they were grounded in stereotypes about people in the neighborhood. The teacher’s inquiries might have been well-intentioned but her delivery was tone-deaf. I found it amusing that Reva pulled out a written contract during her conversation with Tre to show that he’d failed to hold up his end of their agreement about his conduct and would be going to live with his dad for a while. She’s a different kind of mom.

It’s a minor point but I was a little stressed watching Reva make a u-turn and park at Tre’s dad’s house. Kids were playing in the street and she was driving in the middle of the road and backed out of the driveway all kinds of reckless. I was worried she might hit one of the kids and then when she turned around she drove up on the curb and the car then dropped back down onto the street. She is someone that should just take the bus. But that moment of stress gave way to two of my favorite 90s actors and one of my favorite pairings, Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, appearing together. They always played off of each other very well and had a lot of on-screen chemistry.

Often in movies about young Black boys, a great deal of focus is placed on their dads not being around, actively involved, and/or not being a positive presence in their lives. But that’s one of the things I like about Boyz n the Hood. Tre’s dad, Jason “Furious” Styles (Laurence Fishbourne), isn’t a perfect man but passionately loves and cares for his son. Based on his exchange with Reva, Tre has been living with his mom during the week while spending time with Furious on the weekends. But that hasn’t been enough for Furious as he’s wanted Tre to live with him for quite some time. He doesn’t want to just be a weekend dad or a dad when it’s convenient.

For a person so focused on order and discipline, Furious’ house is a mess, especially that filthy bathtub. One of the lines in Boyz n the Hood that’s always stuck with me is early on when Tre and Furious are talking while lifting weights in the living room. Tre is complaining about all of the chores that he’s being given and Furious points out that these responsibilities are intended to teach him discipline. At the time, it might seem unfair but having an adult in his life who cares about him by setting rules, boundaries, and expectations will have a positive impact on him in the long run.

Compare this to his friends who can do whatever they want and don’t have anyone looking over them. It might seem like they’re having a great time at that moment, but it’s going to be to their detriment in the long term. Children need discipline. Not to say that children need to be abused or to have someone lord over them. But they need someone that cares enough to provide guidance and keep them on the right path. Abdicating that responsibility is detrimental to the development of a child.

The next adult female that we meet is the mother of Doughboy and Ricky, two brothers who are Tre’s neighborhood friends that live across the street. It’s early in the morning and Tre crosses the street to get his friends to go play but their mother, Mrs. Baker, can be heard yelling at Doughboy from outside. This is a child, I’m guessing maybe around 10 or so years old. And here is his mother being verbally aggressive, cursing and calling him all kinds of names. I’ve never agreed with and have never understood a person as an adult whose life is not in danger speaking to another adult, let alone a child like that.

It’s said that parents with multiple kids typically have a favorite child but good parents try to be fair and treat them all the same. But that’s not the case with Mrs. Baker because it’s obvious that Ricky is her pride and joy. From this very young age, he already has dreams of playing football and you can see Mrs. Baker beams with pride when he talks about the sport. She’s a model mother with him but compare that with how she constantly rips into Doughboy. She tells him that he’s just like his dad which is meant to be an insult. It shows that she has issues with his father that she’s taking out on him which is inappropriate. More than any of the other kids, I felt for Doughboy because as a child he has to contend with hell both inside and outside his home.

And then there’s Chris, another neighborhood friend who is smaller than the other guys which I assumed was due to him being a bit younger. He’s a tiny little boy with this big Jheri curl afro. There are two moments with him that gave me pause. The first was while walking with the other boys he casually mentions that he has a gun that was given to him by his older brother before he went to jail. Just take a minute and think about that. The second is that he also nonchalantly invites the boys to go see a dead body that is laying in some bushes. Some older neighborhood boys happen upon them and they don’t seem too bothered by the dead body either. This little boy looks like he can’t be more than maybe seven or eight years old but he has a gun under his bed. It’s bad enough to have teens in this community with guns but then also this little kid? And what have you seen in your life to not be afraid of a dead body at such a young age? No good can come from that.

I love the father and son moments that take place throughout Boyz n the Hood between Furious and Tre. I liked how Furious takes it upon himself to not just be a father but to be a positive male role model in his son’s life. That he takes the time to teach him about leadership as well as the difference between being a man with children versus a father. Furious had Tre at a relatively young age but it made him want to be someone his child could be proud of. This motivated him to stay away from the criminal activity that his friends were getting into and instead inspired him to seek discipline by joining the army and serving in Vietnam.

Quite often when these conversations are portrayed, they revolve around hypermasculinity and misogyny. With the idea of manhood being based on having a bunch of women and kids all about the place. But as Furious explains to Tre, there’s more to manhood than bedding women and having children. It’s more important to be a father to not just provide for but to be present in the lives of your children. And even all these years later, we very rarely see these kinds of positive conversations between a Black man and his son in the media.

While Tre and Furious are out indulging in the traditional father and son pastime of fishing. Doughboy and Chris had been stealing from a store they’d visited while having no money. I’m guessing Ricky either didn’t go with them or didn’t participate as he wasn’t arrested with the other boys. He and Tre are visibly saddened by Doughboy and Chris being taken to juvenile hall. Meanwhile, Mrs. Baker stands on the porch sort of resigned to not doing anything to stand in the way of Doughboy being arrested. I couldn’t quite determine if the look meant she’d expected Doughboy to eventually be arrested, she’d accepted that there was nothing she could do, and/or if she was simply embarrassed to have him arrested and marched out of the house where the neighbors could see.

Fast forward seven years and the boys are now in their late teens, probably around 17 or 18-years-old. The depiction of their childhood closes out with Doughboy being taken to juvenile hall. While their teen years open with a party to celebrate teen Doughboy (Ice Cube) returning home from another stint in prison. Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) is still just an average teen while Ricky (Morris Chestnut) now has a toddler and live-in-girlfriend.

I haven’t visited LA as yet but based on movies and rappers, I’ve found a few things weird. You have these tough gangster guys with these hairstyles that look like something a little girl would wear. These other kids Dooky and Monster have joined the crew and are sporting a fade with these little curly plait things on top. And Dooky always has a pacifier in his mouth. These guys are out in the streets doing what they do but then they have these super childish hairstyles. I get it, different regions have different cultures. But it just throws me off that it’s always these super tough guys in the movies with some little girl’s bubblies and barrettes.

Now that the guys are older we see the impact of the circumstances of their childhoods. Tre is doing fine because he has both his mother and father in his life. But Doughboy and Ricky both leave much to be desired. Doughboy seemed to have a rough road ahead of him since childhood. But Ricky has also messed up by having a child at such a young age. He might not get into trouble like Doughboy but he’s also made life more difficult for himself by having a kid he’s unprepared to provide and care for. The only reason that everything hasn’t fallen apart for him is that his mother is still taking care of him and now helping to take care of his baby and child’s mother.

Adding to their potential problems is that as teens they’re now sexually active or interested in becoming sexually active. Ricky has a girlfriend as does Tre. Doughboy claims to have a girlfriend or at least he’s sexually active. And then there’s Dooky who seems to be selling drugs and having sexual contact with the local female drug addicts. None of the guys are bad-looking but we don’t see Doughboy, Dookie, Monster, or Chris getting any attention from the teen girls at the party. They look at the girls but for all their posturing none of them make a move to directly talk to any girls.

Dooky seems to only be having sex with drug addicts while the true nature of Doughboy’s situation is less clear. They reminded me in some ways of O-Dog from Menace II Society where they’re tough guys out here ripping and running. But they’re unsure of themselves and don’t know how to talk to girls. It’s like a defense mechanism where they’re surrounded by their boys and either feign a lack of interest in girls or pretend to be macks. Sure they’re tough but it shows that they’re still just regular teens as they’re somewhat socially awkward and unsure of themselves with the opposite sex.

And then you have Ricky and Tre who are relatively nice guys but not at all built for the streets. Yet, girls find them attractive and they’re comfortable speaking with them. It’s an interesting thing to contrast, where you have these hypermasculine guys who are tough with other males but they’re shy or uncomfortable talking to girls. And then you have these guys who aren’t street dudes but fare better with girls.

One of the other adult females we meet is a woman who’s strung out on crack. She’s so preoccupied with her addiction that when Tre finds her child wandering in the middle of the street and saves her from being hit by a car the mom isn’t even concerned. She’s focused on whether or not he has drugs and offers him sexual favors in exchange for drugs. I’ve always been saddened by prostitution. Not out of any moral judgment but rather because I don’t think any human being was created to work in such service to another person, especially not from such unequal positions of power. Add the desperation of drug addiction and it just makes it even sadder. And when you think about people like Dooky taking advantage of these women. It’s messed up.

The exchange between Furious and Tre discussing Tre being sexually active and his first sexual experience is in one sense comedic because the story is so ridiculous. But it also presents a different spin on the traditional birds and the bees conversation. I appreciated them having this conversation even if it wasn’t necessarily in the most respectable or politically correct terms. Furious doesn’t focus on encouraging Tre to have multiple partners or the technical aspects of sex. He stresses the need for Tre to be responsible with regards to both preventing pregnancies and contracting STDs. He schools Tre that he still needs to use a condom even if a girl claims to be on birth control.

This is the second conversation in Boyz n the Hood between males about being sexually responsible. There was an earlier conversation between Doughboy, Dooky, and the other guys about the riskiness of Dooky having sex with drug addicts. Quite often in media, men are portrayed as championing any and all kinds of sex with women regardless of the risk factors. But here you have these teenage guys getting on their friend and educating him about the reality of him putting himself at risk for contracting what they term AIDS. They’re joking around but you can see that he’s turning the matter over in his mind and hadn’t considered that he was still putting himself at risk even if he was only receiving oral sex.

These conversations were fairly progressive as the film was released in 1991 when a lot of people still had misconceptions about HIV/AIDS. Usually, these conversations are more geared towards girls and women, especially with regards to preventing pregnancies. Avoiding an unplanned pregnancy is viewed in some circles as the female’s responsibility when the responsibility should lie with both participants. But here it is that you have these conversations between males, where they’re discussing how to prevent pregnancies and the importance of protecting themselves from STDs.

So often you have this very flat one-dimensional portrayal of manhood, Black manhood in particular. But in Boyz n the Hood, you have a more complex and multi-layered portrayal of Black manhood. And not just Black manhood, but positive, responsible, and mature Black manhood. You see this from Furious who’s an intelligent, responsible, and complex male character. But even to a degree in Doughboy who from the outside looking in seems to be little more than a jailbird.

There’s some complexity to him as well where despite going to prison he doesn’t view himself as being a criminal or at least he doesn’t want to be viewed as a criminal. He tells the guys that sure, he ate and lifted weights while in prison. But he also wrote letters to his girlfriend and spent time reading because he’s not a criminal. There’s his exterior presentation but he’s not a one-dimensional character.

In a conversation with Ricky, Tre admits that he feels bad about lying to his father about not being a virgin. It shows that their relationship is close because he didn’t feel comfortable being vulnerable with his dad but tells Ricky about it despite feeling embarrassed. I don’t think his dad would have judged or thought less of him for this but for whatever reason he felt the need to posture.

He explains that he is still a virgin not due to lack of opportunity or fear of sex itself but rather because he is afraid of impregnating someone. But because of this concept of manhood, what should be seen as being responsible makes him feel as though something is wrong with him. Even with his father indirectly telling him that he’s doing the right thing, external influences are telling him what he should be doing as a young man.

As a hot football prospect, Ricky is starting to get attention from colleges and a recruiter comes by the house to speak with him. He has a strong support system in his family and friends. The recruiter who visits Ricky is also a Black man but he seems shell-shocked by the helicopters flying overhead and the other circumstances of Ricky’s household and neighborhood. He’s interested in Ricky from an athletic standpoint but it was nice to see that he wasn’t just focused on him as an athlete. He was curious about Ricky’s vision for himself off the field. Ricky was a good football player but that was no guarantee so he’d need a backup plan. And with this, we see that like Doughboy, there’s more to Ricky beyond playing sports as he’s also interested in business and computers.

While that conversation is taking place in the house, Doughboy and the guys are talking on the porch. Monster had asked the recruiter about scholarships and revealed that he used to play baseball. Speaking with the guys he deems college a great place to go to meet women. And Doughboy chimes in that while attending college, your focus shouldn’t be on chasing women, you should be there to get an education. Put aside Doughboy being problematic, how many young men are thinking this way, and then how many would admit it to their circle of friends?

Seeing the pride that Mrs. Baker takes in Ricky, you can’t help but wonder how far Doughboy could have gone in life as well if his obvious intellect had been encouraged. She’s not a bad mom but she is incredibly biased in how she treats her sons to the point that even Dooky notices it and can point to the source. At Doughboy’s welcome home party she tried to get Tre to talk to Doughboy in hopes of him staying out of trouble and out of jail. But it’s like why weren’t you talking to him and motivating him to do something with his life when he was a kid? You’ve been mean to this kid all his life, basically telling him that he’ll never amount to anything. Why are you surprised that he now has issues?

Furious takes Tre and Ricky to see a billboard in Compton where he talks to them and some passersby about gentrification. I was a kid then but gentrification wasn’t even on my radar until years later when it had reached full swing in Harlem. But yet, a lot of things he spoke about came to pass in real life. And what’s crazy is that he’s talking about Compton and South Central but the conditions that plague these neighborhoods along with the future of gentrification would also exist in Black neighborhoods across America.

I love the conversations that take place throughout the film between the various characters. And the addition of Shalika (Regina King) as an equally hood female foil to Doughboy was a nice touch. I love the interplay between them. Their conversation about the existence of God and then God’s gender was intriguing and reveals a lot about the characters.

There are little tidbits along the way but I got the sense that Chris had changed since childhood and was likely now religious and attending church but probably not yet comfortable telling his friend about his faith. Doughboy sounds like an atheist as he questions how God could exist while there’s all this violence in their neighborhood and the wider world. Shalika jumps in to question the assumption that God is a man which prompts Doughboy to explain he’s considered it before as a book he read in prison convinced him that a female God wouldn’t create or tolerate a world with bombs and other weapons. So in this group of hood kids from the same neighborhood, there are these vastly different ideologies.

It’s a cool relaxing night with everyone chilling out on the street in their cars chatting and having a good time. But there’s always that one person that’s looking for trouble. And then in a matter of seconds, things go from 0 to 60. There are threats of violence, brandishing of guns, it seems calm again, suddenly the shooting starts, and everybody has to clear out. In a different movie in a different town, kids would be hanging out at the drive-in dealing with teenager problems but they likely wouldn’t have to worry about someone opening fire with an automatic weapon.

There are frequent shootings within the neighborhood in addition to helicopters constantly flying overhead. It’s like living and growing up in a warzone. You have to worry about gangbangers and random people on the street carrying guns with no regard for your life. In other communities, you might be able to turn to the police for protection. But here, you have to worry about being victimized, threatened, and possibly killed by them as well. So with this constant threat of violence, where can you turn for any kind of safety or sanctuary?

Furious and Reva meet up again to discuss Tre, his future, and his living arrangements. By this point, Reva has obtained her master’s degree and is doing quite well for herself. Based on an earlier scene she is living in a nicer place probably in a better part of town and wants to reverse Tre’s living situation to where he returns to primarily living with her. The two are very intense people and rather equally matched for dealing with each other.

Furious needs to be in Tre’s life to guide him into manhood but he’s also Reva’s child and she’s not willing to just hand him over to Furious. She still has a right to be his mother and to be concerned about him, provide her guidance, and otherwise play a role in his life. Reva stresses that he’s a good father but it’s what he’s supposed to do for his child. And what he’s doing is what mothers do for their children all the time. He shouldn’t get extra kudos just because a lot of other fathers shirk their responsibilities. Tre needing a change of environment and going to live with Furious shouldn’t be seen as him doing his child or the child’s mother a favor.

I appreciated that we see Furious as a positive father and male role model in Tre’s life. But Reva doesn’t let him get away with trying to act as though he’s beyond reproach or he deserves a medal for raising his child. Although we don’t see her throughout Boyz n the Hood, it’s obvious that she’s still actively involved in his life. It’s not like she dropped him off at his dad’s house and then never saw him again until all these years later. She’s still in contact with her son and knows what’s going on in his life.

At this point, I think we’ve all seen Boyz n the Hood and know what happened to Ricky so I’m not even going to get into the details. Ricky was a nice guy that didn’t bother anyone and everyone loved him. So many people’s hopes and dreams were directly and indirectly pinned on him playing football. You can see that he’s trying to stay out of trouble and do something positive with his life. And to then have him be murdered over absolute nonsense was heartbreaking.

Doughboy’s mom gives him grief but you can see that he still loves Ricky even though they got into fistfights on more than one occasion. And in both instances where they fight, shortly after, Doughboy steps up to try to protect his little brother. When there’s harm or potential trouble for Ricky, Doughboy doesn’t hesitate to stand up for him.

He warns Ricky to leave his ball at home when they’re kids but still steps to an older boy to get the ball back, getting beat up in the process. Later, he hops out of his car, steps in front of Ricky, pushes Ricky further back behind him, and stands ready for whatever when a guy threatens Ricky at the hangout spot. He and the other guys take off to help Ricky when they see a car creeping down the street. Doughboy is floundering and directionless in life but you can see that he cares about his brother and the rest of his family even when that love and concern is rejected along with the rest of him.

I will say that I didn’t like the whole “give me the gun” scene between Furious and Tre after Ricky is killed. It just seems like a cliche father figure and son moment that has been done to death. Not to mention the dialogue tends to be fairly cheesy. There are similar scenes in South Central, Friday, Baby Boy, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But when I thought about it I realized that this might have been the first instances of such a scene or at least the scenes in those other movies and television shows came after. And there’s also the tit-for-tat violence between crews that featured heavily in Menace II Society. When you think about it, Boyz n the Hood influenced quite a few other films.

The morning after Ricky’s murder, Doughboy and Tre are both up early still emotionally hurt from the day before but thinking a bit more clearly. Tre and Doughboy had gone out with the other guys in search of revenge but Tre changed his mind and got out of the car. That wasn’t the life for him and isn’t who he wants to be. Doughboy let him out of the car and went on about his business but he doesn’t call Tre a coward or anything like that and tells him he made the right call as he doesn’t want something like that on his conscience.

Doughboy speaks about watching television where they were talking about people dying and struggling in other countries. They’re either completely unaware or don’t care that violence and destruction are also taking place in these American communities. It took me back to the earlier conversation where Furious was explaining gentrification to Tre and Ricky. Ricky stated that it was something Doughboy should have been there to hear that it might have reached him and imparted some wisdom. But Doughboy isn’t stupid, he knows the score and can see what’s going on. He gives voice to it that morning and it sounds like something that Furious would say.

I couldn’t help but think that he has Furious’ intellect but is just lacking in direction. Imagine who and what he could have become with a bit of guidance and discipline. If he had a father like Furious and a mother like Reva and together they loved and guided him while providing some motivation for him to make something out of his life. That potential that you see peeking out throughout the movie could be incredible if fully utilized.

Boyz n the Hood is about Tre and his journey into manhood as he navigates relationships with his parents, friends, and neighborhood. But Furious and Doughboy are my favorite characters because I see them as being two sides of the same coin. They both have intellect, perception, and an ability to cut through nonsense. Yet, because they’ve had different degrees of guidance, motivation, and influences they’ve taken divergent paths.

But if you think about it, Furious could have just as easily become Doughboy as he tells Tre early in the film that having a child motivated him to stay away from criminal activity. And then on the flip side, Doughboy could have also become Furious Styles if he’d found something or someone in his life to motivate or encourage him to enact some kind of discipline.

It goes back to early on in the movie where Furious foreshadows the future for Doughboy and the other boys as a result of them not having proper adult guidance. Though they’re brothers, Ricky had a bit of a chance because he had his mom. Doughboy was in for a fight because he didn’t even have his mother looking out for him. Honestly, the deck was stacked against Doughboy and he had slim odds in his favor.

Not just the overall story, but the complexity of these characters made Boyz n the Hood an incredible film. The creative presentation of commentary that it offered about these communities, the people in them, and the various issues that plague the black community. This is an incredible film and worth checking out. It was a classic then and it’s still a highly relevant classic now.

In lesser hands, this could have been a very typical hood movie that just devolved into constant instances of mindless violence. There certainly is violence in the film but it’s balanced with intelligent dialogue between the characters. And to a degree, many of the characters are typical teens but the layers and complexity coupled with an incredible story made the film, not just great but a classic.

It’s easy to make snap judgments about the characters but as the film progresses we see that often there is more than meets the eye. Boyz n the Hood was major at the time of its release but watching it all these years later it’s just as good and was truly ahead of its time. It’s especially remarkable when you consider that this was Singleton’s first film, he was only in his early 20s, and it launched the careers of several of the actors.

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