Movie: 'Boyz N the Hood'
Release Date: July 12, 1991
How It Got Made: John Singleton was still an undergrad at the University of Southern California when he persuaded Columbia Pictures to buy his autobiographical script and allow him to direct it. "I told [then–studio chief] Frank Price it wouldn't cost much money," Singleton told Entertainment Weekly. Indeed, the slice of South Central Los Angeles street life cost just $6.5 million, but it became a big hit, an enormously influential movie and a career launcher for some of the most talented African-American stars of the next two decades.
When he was 19, Singleton had also worked on the crew of Saturday morning kids' show 'Pee-wee's Playhouse,' where he met Laurence Fishburne, who had a recurring role as Cowboy Curtis. At last week's American Black Film Festival in Miami, Singleton recalled, "I said to Laurence, 'I'm going to write you something so you don't have to wear that Jheri curl wave.'" By the time he was 22, Singleton was ready to make good on his promise.
Singleton told NPR recently that he relied on Fishburne for lessons in directing in the style of Francis Ford Coppola, for whom Fishburne had co-starred in 'Apocalypse Now.' The influence was apparent, in the way Singleton cross-cut among simultaneous action sequences, and in the film's audio mix, featuring the ominous, ever-present sounds of hovering helicopters. (In a clever money-saving move, Singleton didn't show the police choppers but merely suggested their intrusive presence via lighting and sound.)
The result was a movie that didn't look or feel like any previous movie about the streets; rather, it showed what it felt like to live there, with both the joys (backyard barbecues, cruising the main drag) and fears (gangs, drugs, crime, violence, police-state-style law enforcement).
The movie was also unique in that, while all the characters were African-American, it wasn't really about race or racism. Instead, it was about the two problems Singleton saw as the chief threats to young black men: the eye-for-an-eye culture of street violence and the absence of strong fatherly role models. Fishburne's character, full of righteous anger and self-help bromides (he's aptly named Furious Styles), seems to be the only dad in his neighborhood, and as a result, his son Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) seems poised to be the only young man likely to avoid the thug life and escape the streets.
How It Was Received: The film initially appealed to a lot of the same gang types whose behavior it sought to change; unfortunately, many of them missed the point and got into fights at theaters across the country. By the end of the film's opening weekend, there was at least one death and 33 injuries.
Some critics had blamed the film's marketing, including a trailer that focused on the film's splashy gunplay more than its artier aspirations. (But then, if it had been marketed as the high-minded drama that it was, who would have gone to see it?) Singleton insisted that neither the marketing nor the movie were to blame, that the problem was the same social pathologies that the movie criticized. "The cause of all this violence," he told Ebony magazine at the time, "is bad parenting and a society that places more emphasis on black people hating themselves so they can't respect each other."
For a while, there were fears that theaters would stop showing black-themed films or that studios would stop making them, essentially killing a new wave of filmmaking just as it was being born. (Inspired by Spike Lee, black filmmakers had already made 1991 the year of New Jack Cinema with such street-level thrillers as 'New Jack City' and 'Straight Out of Brooklyn.) But with the success of 'Boyz,' which earned $10 million that first weekend and ultimately earned $58 million in theaters, there was no turning back.
In early 1992, Singleton was nominated for two Oscars, for his screenplay and his direction. At 24, he was the youngest person ever nominated for a Best Director Academy Award -- and the first African-American.
Long-Term Influence: 'Boyz' not only rescued Fishburne from Cowboy Curtis's Jheri curl, it also jump-started the film careers of Angela Bassett and Nia Long, and launched the movie careers of Gooding, Morris Chestnut and Regina King. In the coming years, Fishburne and Bassett would reunite for acclaimed turns as Ike and Tina Turner in 'What's Love Got to Do With It' before going on to other successes, while Gooding and King would reunite in 'Jerry Maguire,' which would win Gooding an Oscar.
Most noteworthy, perhaps, was the acting debut of Ice Cube. Cube, of course, had been a member of N.W.A, the original gangsta-rap act (and had performed on the track that gave the movie its title). His hard-earned knowledge of South Central street life gave his performance as the doomed Doughboy a lived-in authenticity. Along with Ice-T's performance in 'New Jack City,' Cube's impressive turn led to a wave of rappers-turned-actors, with successful film careers for such MCs as Tupac Shakur, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah and, of course, Will Smith. Cube himself had the most unusual screen career, veering from stoner hero (the 'Friday' movies) to scowling action star ('Three Kings,' 'xXx: State of the Union') to cuddly, family-friendly comedian ('Are We There Yet?').
'Boyz N the Hood' inspired a decade's worth of "'hood" films, all of them cautionary tales of ghetto life, many with rappers in their casts, most of them less artful and more exploitative than 'Boyz.' Singleton himself tried to move beyond the genre with more ambitious films about African-American life ('Poetic Justice,' 'Higher Learning,' 'Rosewood,' 'Baby Boy'), but in the last decade, he's been known mostly for action films (the reboot of 'Shaft,' '2 Fast 2 Furious,' 'Four Brothers').
How It Plays Today: Over the last 20 years, crime rates have gone down nationwide and the crack epidemic seems like a distant nightmare, but the issues Singleton raised about the plight of black men continue to resonate. "When we first did the movie 'Boyz N the Hood,' we felt like we was teaching America about a part of itself that they don't see," Cube told MTV in a recent interview. "I think the movie is a definite classic, it definitely holds up, it's definitely as potent today as it was back then. The message is definitely as clear today and needed as it was back then."
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.