Monday Movie: Boyz n the Hood, by David Bax
There’s a reason that it took me until the third time writing about a John Singleton film for the Monday Movie column to get to Boyz n the Hood, the late director’s debut feature and the phenomenon that made his name. I’ve long struggled with the film; if you’d asked me fifteen years ago, I’d have insisted that the Hughes brothers’ Menace II Society was the superior of the era’s black youth in Los Angeles coming of age stories. I’d have told you the latter was a more mature film. In retrospect, it’s merely the more conventional one. Boyz n the Hood burns with irresistible, youthful passion. The earnestness of it all made me uncomfortable as a 90s kid who only conversed in irony. And the stylistic unevenness of 22 year old Singleton trying to establish a voice, which once seemed amateurish to my relatively unsophisticated tastes, now feels dangerously, urgently alive and vital.
Of course, I’m still made uneasy by the pervasive social conservatism of Boyz n the Hood. Singleton’s screenplay repeatedly insists, most vocally through Laurence Fishburne’s character, that the path to healing a broken community can be found by refocusing on family, fraternity and good parenting. But I now find myself drawn even deeper into the film’s gravity by the friction between these traditionalist beliefs and Singleton’s burning awareness that the status quo has always been cruelly complacent and intentionally ignorant toward black Americans. He even reserves his enmity toward the neighborhood’s occupying force, the police, solely for the black officer.
This push and pull between the didactic and the dialectic is what keeps Boyz n the Hood from showing its age (apart from the costumes). Or, rather, it’s one of the factors. Another major one, tragically, is that things haven’t improved for black Americans in the three decade interim. What holds it all together, though, is the characters. Singleton based them on people he’d known or, in some cases, versions of their real selves. The result is a movie convinced of the nobility of the individual mind, even as it’s forced along by currents out of its control.