Boyz n the Hood: 15 ways its 24-year-old director made his mark

Boyz to man… How John Singleton turned heads with his scorching 1991 debut Boyz n the Hood, which made him the youngest filmmaker ever to be Oscar-nominated as best director.

Leigh Singer

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

“One out of every twenty-one Black American males will be murdered in their lifetime.
Most will die at the hands of another Black male.”

These two stark statements trigger John Singleton’s 1991 feature debut Boyz n the Hood. A hugely personal account of the type of gang violence that continues to blight so many urban communities, and was so prevalent during the then-film school graduate’s own upbringing in the South Central Los Angeles ’hood, Singleton’s achievement provided not only catharsis for himself but a film that resonated around the world.

Despite several incidents of violence during early US screenings – clearly unprompted by the film’s clear-eyed yet compassionate outlook – Boyz n the Hood became one of the most acclaimed and the most profitable film of that year, garnering dual Oscar nominations for Singleton as writer and director (the youngest filmmaker to do so since Orson Welles). And it clearly, alongside Spike Lee’s growing body of work and the same year’s New Jack City, Straight Out of Brooklyn and Daughters of the Dust, helped usher in the 1990s resurgence in black filmmaking.

While the film doesn’t have the bravura, in-your-face stylings of Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing – a film that galvanised Singleton himself to tell his story – Boyz n the Hood very consciously eschews more extravagant techniques to focus on its story. Which shouldn’t suggest that it’s lacking in its own cinematic ambitions. Indeed, it’s incredibly impressive that Singleton, who had never made anything longer than Super 8 shorts before this, was able to express himself and his world so evocatively and with such sophistication first time out.

Here are some examples of how Singleton defied limited time, budget and experience to become a fully-fledged mature filmmaker.

  • Spoiler warning: This feature gives away significant plot details. If you have not seen Boyz n the Hood, approach with caution

1.

The film’s opening shot was initially going to be part of a montage of neighbourhood signs. On its own, the camera tracking towards the STOP sign, with a distant aeroplane behind, is an arresting beginning, which suggests the remote chances of escaping these surroundings.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

The plane in particular is a telling contrast to the sound of hovering helicopters – already on the soundtrack before a single image appears – intrusive and ever-present.

2. 

America’s swaggering 1980s optimism – epitomised here by ’84’s Reagan/Bush election campaign – is a meaningless backdrop to Inglewood’s neglected The Bottoms. The foregrounded reality for these kids: bullet holes on the poster, in a crime scene strewn with garbage. No wonder they’re unimpressed.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

3. 

Singleton evokes the tragic childhood assimilation of their brutal environment. Blood-soaked sidewalks…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…crossfade into heartbreaking elementary school drawings of everyday life.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

4.

The film showcased many rising black actors alongside the relative veteran and cast mentor Laurence Fishburne. He and then little-known Angela Bassett (with whom Fishburne expressly wanted to work) played the parents of protagonist Tre.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Just two years later both were Oscar-nominated for powerhouse performances as Ike and Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It.

5. 

An example of one of Singleton’s low-key but effective ‘hinge shot’ sequences. From the car, Tre and Furious see…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

… young Doughboy being collared by the cops from their POV…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…which switches to a parallel tracking perspective…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…and turns into another master shot of MC and his friends also watching the action, connecting the community around a central incident.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

6.

Seven years later we meet the adult versions of the main characters. In his debut performance, Ice Cube’s Doughboy gets the front-on, confrontational style intro his character demands, instantly grabbing our attention.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

7.

More pared-down, effective scene construction for a fast shoot in natural light. Tre looks out into the street…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…and the camera swivels to catch him move the child from danger in a wide shot…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…which cuts to Tre returning the kid to her junkie mother in one shot…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…and a third shot, plus cutaway of gang member in the car…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…is all that’s needed for an entire, plot-developing sequence.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

8.

Tension between Ice Cube and his former band NWA was given a provocative meta-dig in this brief scene where a would-be thief wearing an Eazy E T-shirt gets a beating for his woeful robbery attempt.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

9.

No budget for helicopter hire or aerial shots? Singleton ingeniously evokes them using merely overhead light and sound effects, which also keeps the focus on those under the spotlight.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

10.

One reading of Boyz n the Hood is as a modern western. Here is the trademark confrontation between two rival gangs…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…with the typical bravado and taunting we’ve seen in numerous cowboy films.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

11.

An economic yet powerful visualisation of the results of violence. A slow tilt down from the friends arriving just too late…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…to stop the tragedy, with those most affected framed in the foreground.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

12.

Singleton then cuts to an overhead shot. Tellingly, this ‘God’s eye’ view isn’t used for spying helicopters trying to enforce the law, but as a passive witness, unable to intervene when it is broken.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

13.

More aftermath, though here the repercussions for a family unfolding within their own home is shot handheld…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…barely containing the overwhelming anger and grief.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

14.

A tense, cross-cut sequence in which Singleton openly references the climactic act of Francis Coppola’s The Godfather…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…here alternating between a father at home fearing the worst…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…and a son on the streets, torn between seeking revenge and finding a self-control…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…that he ultimately – and uneasily – chooses.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

15.

Another movie homage but no less powerful here. Singleton quotes the ending of Stand by Me, where the tragic fate of River Phoenix’s Chris…

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

…is depicted by literally fading him out of the world. As screen text tells us that Doughboy was murdered two weeks later, he too slowly disappears.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

 

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