Tuesday, November 28, 2023

A Singular Film by John Singleton: Boyz N the Hood

About a month ago, the airwaves were filled with tributes to Richard Roundtree, dead at 81.  Back in 1971, at age 29, Roundtree soared to international celebrity in Shaft. The story of a tough, sexy Black detective combing the mean streets of Manhattan helped launch the blaxploitation craze, in which crime dramas, martial arts dramas, and the occasional urban comedy featured African American casts, raw languages, and funky musical scores. As an underling at Roger Corman’s down-and-dirty New World Pictures, I worked on my share of blaxploitation flicks, but ours tended to emphasize female nudity.  We were the first to corral the talents of the bodacious Pam Grier, but my most vivid memory of that era is working on 1975’s TNT Jackson, in which a Playboy centerfold named Jeanne Bell played a kung fu expert fighting off bad guys in Hong Kong.

 The blaxploitation era as a whole had the virtue of helping talented Black performers become stars. But it didn’t make for the world’s best movies. Cut to 1991, the year when a 24-year-old writer-director set Hollywood a-buzzing with a coming-of-age drama set in South Central L.A. Boyz n the Hood started out as part of Singleton’s application for the famous USC Film School. Feeling deeply connected to the gang-ridden urban environment in which he himself had grown up, he knew from the start that this was material he had to direct himself. Which didn’t mean he made the film in a vacuum. Some of the early material involving four young boys checking out a dead body was influenced by the 1986 film, Stand by Me. And when he sold his script to Columbia Pictures in 1990, the greenlight came quickly because of the box office success of Spike Lee’s 1989 streets-of-Brooklyn masterpiece, Do the Right Thing.

 Singleton’s story, which leaps seven years at mid-point, explores what it’s like to grow up in an area dominated by gang violence. At ten, the little boys of the Crenshaw neighborhood of South Central, are already aware that they can easily become targets. There are roughnecks around to taunt them, and the local police (including an arrogant Black cop) are less than helpful in keeping trouble at bay. Young Trey has the advantage of a tough-love dad determined to keep him on the straight and narrow; young Ricky is a budding football talent. But as this section ends, Ricky’s half-brother, the chubby Doughboy, is already being arrested for shoplifting. The stage is set for the drama that is to follow.

 As a very young filmmaker, Singleton was helped by a cast that contained old pros as well as some bright new talents. The script’s essential father figure, “Furious” Styles, was portrayed  by the gifted Laurence Fishburne, who’d played major stage roles and been featured in films like Apocalypse Now and The Color Purple. Fortunately, Singleton had met him on the set of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse¸ where he was working as a production assistant and security guard. Day jobs have their uses: Singleton met Ice Cube while serving as an intern on the Arsenio Hall Show, then gave him a central role (as the teen-aged Doughboy) that has propelled the rapper into a major acting career. The elegant Angela Bassett played her first significant film character as Trey’s upwardly mobile mother Reva in Singleton’s film; both Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morris Chestnut—as 17-year-old Trey and Ricky—essentially began their careers with Singleton. (Bassett has since become a two-time Oscar nominee, and Gooding won the supporting actor statuette in 1996 for Jerry Maguire.) Nia Long and Regina King can be spotted too.



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