Friday, December 02, 2005

 

From the Vault: Boyz N the Hood

With Boyz N the Hood, writer-director John Singleton not only makes a stunning film debut but produces a movie whose urgency more than compensates for its flaws.

Singleton, a 23-year-old graduate of the USC film school, belongs to the burgeoning group of African-American filmmakers moving beyond the myths and stereotypes of their community and producing some of the best and most important films today.

In simple terms, Boyz stems from the genre of the coming-of-age film, focusing on four friends, much like Stand By Me. Boyz goes so far as to reference Rob Reiner's film by making a none-too-subtle visual nod to it.

Time and location set the boys in Boyz apart from the boys in Stand By Me. These young men live in South Central L.A. where the continuous sounds don't include bouncy tunes like "Lollipop" but instead sudden bursts of gunfire and the constant hum of police helicopters overhead.

The story begins in 1984 when 10-year-old Tre Stiles (Desi Arnez Hines II) gets in trouble at school for the umpteenth time and his frustrated single mom (Angela Bassett) sends him to live with his father Furious (Larry Fishburne). There, Tre gets to spend more time with his weekend friends Ricky, Doughboy and Chris, where even at this young age, their lives are being defined for the future.

Tre shows signs of turning around. Ricky pins his hopes on a football career. Doughboy and Chris get arrested for the first time. Singleton establishes the tone of the film with these early scenes, showing nostalgic looks back at childhood contrasted with the neighborhood's increasing violence.

Following the 1984 sequences, the film flashes forward seven years, showing all four kids following the same paths set for them at 10. Tre (now played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) has a steady girlfriend and plans to major in business at college. Ricky (Morris Chestnut) has already fathered a child, but still dreams of gridiron glory at USC. Doughboy and Chris (rap artist Ice Cube and Redge Green) still find trouble with the law but the relative innocence of shoplifting has been upgraded to drug dealing and gang violence.

Singleton makes his main message clear with a statistic that opens the film noting that one out of every 21 African-American men will be murdered, most at the hands of other black men. From those startling numbers come Singleton's central theme that the killing must stop and that if fathers took a more active role in their sons' lives, as Furious does with Tre, things would turn out differently and young men wouldn't turn to gangs for guidance.

Fishburne does well as the concerned father despite being saddled with the task of painting the broad strokes of the film's message in often stilted speeches.

Other points touched upon by the film include the use of sports as an escape hatch from the hood and the mistreatment of women as nothing more than sex objects, though the latter is more hinted at than explored.

The film finished shooting long before the Rodney King incident, but it raises questions about the L.A.P.D. Interestingly, the "bad" cop is black, suggesting the problem might be less about racism and more about something systemically wrong in the department.

The other actors perform fairly well, especially Ice Cube, who in many ways becomes the film's most important character. It's clear, even as a youngster, that Doughboy is doomed, but Singleton paints a sympathetic portrait of the character without glorifying or condoning his criminality.

Singleton keeps the film moving at a solid clip, creating an atmosphere where growing up goes on even in a neighborhood that often resembles a war zone. He portrays the troublemakers as people who commit heinous acts but have no moral grounding to recognize their actions are wrong.

It doesn't give away much to say that tragedy strikes the close-knit group. Singleton foreshadows drive-by shootings constantly. After the incident happens, the remaining friends eagerly seek revenge.

Admittedly, the vengeance provides catharsis for the audience who cheered it on, but Singleton is smart enough to show the "bad guys" sitting around eating and talking the same way the protagonists do before the payback is delivered. These young men aren't evil villains but are kids raised in a near-impossible situation where few survive and even fewer succeed.

Singleton has made an impressive debut and it will be interesting to watch where he goes from here. Still, future films don't matter now because Boyz N the Hood not only needs to be seen, it had to be made.


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