“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.
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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
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.
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.
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.
Singleton evokes the tragic childhood assimilation of their brutal environment. Blood-soaked sidewalks…
…crossfade into heartbreaking elementary school drawings of everyday life.
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.
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.
An example of one of Singleton’s low-key but effective ‘hinge shot’ sequences. From the car, Tre and Furious see…
… young Doughboy being collared by the cops from their POV…
…which switches to a parallel tracking perspective…
…and turns into another master shot of MC and his friends also watching the action, connecting the community around a central incident.
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.
More pared-down, effective scene construction for a fast shoot in natural light. Tre looks out into the street…
…and the camera swivels to catch him move the child from danger in a wide shot…
…which cuts to Tre returning the kid to her junkie mother in one shot…
…and a third shot, plus cutaway of gang member in the car…
…is all that’s needed for an entire, plot-developing sequence.
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.
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.
One reading of Boyz n the Hood is as a modern western. Here is the trademark confrontation between two rival gangs…
…with the typical bravado and taunting we’ve seen in numerous cowboy films.
An economic yet powerful visualisation of the results of violence. A slow tilt down from the friends arriving just too late…
…to stop the tragedy, with those most affected framed in the foreground.
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.
More aftermath, though here the repercussions for a family unfolding within their own home is shot handheld…
…barely containing the overwhelming anger and grief.
A tense, cross-cut sequence in which Singleton openly references the climactic act of Francis Coppola’s The Godfather…
…here alternating between a father at home fearing the worst…
…and a son on the streets, torn between seeking revenge and finding a self-control…
…that he ultimately – and uneasily – chooses.
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…
…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.
Black Star, a celebration of the range, versatility and power of black actors on film and TV, took place in cinemas nationwide, on DVD and on BFI Player, October to December 2016.
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