BFI Black Star Season review: John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood feels as relevant as ever

Director: John Singleton

USA 1991, 112mins

The BFI and Park Circus will release Boyz n the Hood in selected cinemas UK-wide on 28 October.

Black Star runs 17 October - 23 December 206, see BFI site for details.

RATING: ★★★★☆

Usually, when a film reaches its 25th anniversary, reviews will note how the film has achieved 'time capsule' status, providing a nice dose of nostalgia for days gone by. It doesn't feel appropriate to say that about director John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood, given its anniversary and re-release into cinemas as a key part of the BFI's Black Star season comes at a time when tensions between the police and America's black community seem to be at an all-time high, and when black filmmakers like Ava DuVernay are releasing hard-hitting films like 13th (read the review here); which questions how far race relations have really come in the US since abolition.

Beyond its immediate visceral impact as a film frankly depicting the challenges faced by a troubled black teen in a tough South Central LA neighbourhood, Boyz n the Hood is notable for many other reasons, certainly when you consider the context in which it was made and released. Strikingly, John Singleton - a black director  - was just 23 when he wrote and directed what is now recognised as a seminal film; the success of Boyz n the Hood and the impact it had on popular culture in the US and abroad (it played at Cannes, for one thing) are now seen as a key part of the new phase of black filmmaking that emerged in the US. The cast reads like a who's who of major black talent looking back at it now - Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jnr, and Angela Bassett amongst others - and the presence of rapper Ice Cube in his acting debut is a sign of the growing power of rap and hip-hop as a cross-media cultural phenomenon. The film's soundtrack packs in - apart from Ice Cube, of course -  "Jam on It" by Newcleus, "Sunshower" by Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, "More Bounce to the Ounce" by Zapp, "Sucker M.C.'s" by Run-D.M.C., "Let's Go" by Kool Moe Dee, and "Ooh Child" by The Five Stairsteps. With all these elements in play, Singleton's film helped popularise the 'hood' genre of films.

The story takes place against the backdrop of early eighties South Central LA, as black teen Tre Styles (Gooding Jr), tries to navigate life in a community ravaged by drug addiction, poverty, gangs and police harassment. He's not been living in this part of South Central full time though, having instead been housed with his mother Reva (Angela Bassett) for much of his pre-teens, and his Mother's looming university Master's studies seem set to pay off with new job opportunities for her. But following increasing tension at school, with Tre prone to losing his cool, Reva sends him back to live with his father for the duration, convinced that (the brilliantly-named) Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) can 'teach him how to be a man'.

The two parents are an interesting pair of poles to see the boy pivot between. Separated but still in touch, Reva and Furious are both intelligent and committed parents, but emphasise different things. Reva is focused and ambitious, Furious given to the kind of firebrand preaching and code of living that the likes of Malcolm X favoured. Interestingly, both are middle class, meaning Tre doesn't exactly fit with all his old friends - including the street hustling Doughboy (Cube) - in what is shown to be a diverse, but still troubled, neighbourhood. Furious and Reva have had their own share of racial discrimination to face though, with Reva being bluntly asked by Tre's teacher on the phone if she is 'educated'.

It is the sense of authenticity and vibrancy in the depiction of this LA neighbourhood that is one of the great strengths of Singleton's film. Shot largely on location, the film takes its time to show the rhythms of the streets, and it isn't just all a showcase of guns and drugs either. Tre and his group of friends spend a good deal of time just hanging out, drinking and smoking and talking about girls; a universal experience of youth made believable by the naturalistic performances and raw dialogue peppered with profanity and tangental stories. But this is a vision of peace that rarely lasts when the sun goes down, and sirens and helicopter rotor blade beats start to dominate the night air. At certain points Singleton dials up the volume of this background cacophony to literally drown Tre out, driving him to despairingly claw at his ears. When violence bursts into Tre's life, it isn't glorified and is shown to carry lasting psychological scars, and solves nothing,

As Tre, Cuba Gooding Jnr is fine when it comes to portraying a callow youth, torn between the diktats of his parents, and  the urge to back up his friends when they get mixed up in gang hostilities. Ice Cube is a little shaky at times as Doughboy, but his final, poignant scene - as a man aware of his own ticking clock - carries real weight. But it is hard to deny that Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett add that essential gravitas, and their combatative-come-flirtatious scenes together are some of the film's bests. Fishburne, it is fair to say, gets more screen time, and his depiction of Furious is fascinating. In many ways a 'man's man' with an old-fashioned view of a male child needing input from a parent of the same sex and gender (this film has been accused of pushing a male-centric view of parenting), Furious nevertheless complicates this by both urging Tre to stay away from the darker side of the streets, whilst delivering epic sermons on how the system is rigged against the black community. One of his key speeches is delivered under a real estate banner, where he explains how white flight and gentrification are a linked system of exploitation, with blacks left with plentiful gun and liquor stores on every corner, as "they want us to keep killing each other." Furious's speeches manage to be both overblown but also contain nuggets of larger, abstract truths at the same time, and it is easy to see how all these competing missives - to fight the system, to be a man, but to also stay out of trouble - are confusing Tre as well as educating him.

Though it does betray the rawness of a first feature at times (there is the odd tip into melodrama, for example), Boyz n the Hood remains an urgent, exciting, saddening, and still-relevant piece of work that holds the attention on its own terms regardless of the place it has been assigned in history. But speaking of that history; for this hard-hitting drama, Singleton was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Director, making him the youngest ever nominee for the latter and the first African-American to be nominated for it also.

 

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Owen Van Spall

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