It’s hard to overstate the impact John Singleton’s 1991 film Boyz n’ the Hood had on black cinema. It helped launch the careers of a slew of prominent actors: Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding, Jr., (who would all go on to be Oscar nominees on other films), as well as Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, and Ice Cube. (Regina King, who remains the most criminally underemployed actress in Hollywood, has a bit part, as well.) It garnered lots of critical praise two Academy Award nominations, bestowing upon it broader cultural legitimacy. And it created a template for “authenticity” that other films aimed at black audiences tried to emulate, and did, for the rest of the 1990’s, with varying degrees of success.*
It’s a shame, then, that it’s such a crappy movie. [Spoilers.]
This shortcoming is due in part to the movie’s own success. It was a gut-punch when it debuted, but it’s impossible to watch it now without having any familiarity with all the tropes it spawned.
But let’s rewind. Boyz is a coming-of-age tale about a smart but undisciplined kid named Tré Styles (not a hype man for a hip-hop group, despite the name) who is sent by his mother to live with his father, Furious in order to ‘learn how to be a man.’ Furious is a real estate broker who is trying to get in on the South Central housing market before it gentrifies. He doesn’t eat pork. He tightens up high-top fades. He drops knowledge (and to underscore that knowledge is indeed being dropped, he points to his head when he does so). He seems to be the only father in a neighborhood rife with gangs and violence. This prompts a question: Is a place where masculinity and violence are so tightly tethered the kind of place where you’d want your kid to learn about manhood? Later we see Bassett’s character in a well-appointed spot somewhere else, calling to check in on Tré, who clearly would be better served by living with her, life lessons about ‘manhood’ be damned. She offers him the choice to move in with her. His father says Tré wants to say and the decision should be his. (Really, fam? ‘Cuz them drive-bys say different.)