When John Singleton’s first film, “Boyz N the Hood,” was released on July 12, 1991, it immediately made him a household name in many Black communities across the country. The movie was so well received that my mother decided to take me to see the film in the theater.
This was a big deal.
I was only 10 years old, but, despite my mother’s reluctance to let me watch movies with sex scenes, she explained that it was important that I experience “Boyz.” After the credits rolled, I understood why.
Ostensibly the story of three friends, Tre, Ricky and Doughboy, growing up in South-Central Los Angeles, it showed how white supremacy set the conditions that ended in neighborhoods devastated by crime and, ultimately, violence. Not many white people are featured in the film, but the impact of whiteness on Black life permeates the screen.
This is evident when Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) interacts with Los Angeles’s finest. As a child he sees how even a Black police officer doesn’t take his father, Furious (Laurence Fishburne), seriously when he reports a home break-in; when Tre is older, the same officer pulls a gun on him during a routine traffic stop. He quickly learns that the cops are there to neither protect nor serve him or his neighbors. What Singleton shows us about the relationship between the police and Black residents may be well understood now, but at the time it was rare for the Black community’s view on policing to be so well embodied by Hollywood. I was always taught to be wary of officers as a young Black man, but this was one of the first times I saw the rationale for that fear onscreen in a major American film.
Tre may be the focal point, but it is through Furious that Singleton makes plain his ideas about white supremacy.
Early on, Furious takes a young Tre (Desi Arnez Hines II) to the beach for some father-son bonding time. They talk about girls, sex and life. Then Furious mentions his time in Vietnam. (Surely Singleton was thinking of the young soldier Fishburne played in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” while he filmed the scene.) “Don’t ever go in the Army, Tre,” he says. “Black man ain’t got no place in the Army.”
I sat up in the theater because this was the exact conversation I’d had with my grandfather.
An Army veteran who had fought in World War II, M.C. Murray and I talked about how he felt the country let him down upon his return. He expected things to be better but was forced to fight again, only this time, the enemy was American racism. He even talked to me about how his experience left him with the realization that there were two worlds in the military: one for white soldiers and another for Black ones. That “Boyz” scene, though brief, is full of that history. It shows us that Furious’s ideas about race were shaped by his service and that his treatment in the armed forces haunts him.
It is clear that Furious has left-of-center Black ideas with that exchange, but it is only later in the film that those ideas are spoken of with clarity and boldness. That’s when Tre and his best friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut), now high school seniors, take the S.A.T., then visit Furious at his office, a financial services firm that helps local residents buy their own homes.
The boys go with Furious to a street corner where the older man makes plain his (and Singleton’s) ideas about how Blackness is affected by white supremacy. This moment introduced me to a phenomenon that has come to shape the lives of Black people in the country for the next 30 years. The promise and theft of the American dream from Black families provides the backdrop for the film’s prescient message about changes that were coming to Black communities across the country.
Gentrification is “what happens when the property value of a certain area is brought down,” Furious says in a monologue that would be preachy if it were not delivered by one of the most talented actors of the ’90s. “They bring the property value down, they can buy the land at a lower price, then they move all the people out, raise the property value and sell it at a profit.” A bystander played by the brilliant Whitman Mayo blames the declining property value on Black youth selling drugs. In response, Furious voices what this movie has been trying to tell us all along: Black people are not the ones who bring drugs into the country — even if they are the ones dying every day.
This is the scene that takes a pretty good film about Black life and makes it into a great one. Today, gentrification has dramatically altered the community represented in “Boyz N the Hood” — and Black communities like it around the country.
On the surface, the film appears to be about Black crime and Black children coming of age, but just outside the frame Singleton is saying something more. Systemic racism is the real villain in this movie. It is a theme that he would revisit both in “Poetic Justice” and “Rosewood.” It is what sets the stage for Ricky to be killed at the end of “Boyz” and is the cause for the crime and nihilism embraced by Doughboy (Ice Cube). The characters’ choices start to make sense. They are either embracing the chaos that surrounds them or trying to escape it.
In essence, this is a postapocalyptic world. Except what was destroying their landscape wasn’t an alien invasion or a virus. It was ravaged by white supremacy.
Singleton saw this 30 years ago, and his message remains as important now as it was then.