Twenty years ago this month, a small, hip-hop infused coming-of-age drama set in South-Central Los Angeles called “Boyz N the Hood” was causing extreme reactions from two very different audiences.
Written and directed by John Singleton, a brash 23-year-old just months out of USC’s film school, and made for a mere $5.7 million, largely with an unknown and untested cast of African American actors, the film had just played May’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival where it received a 20-minute standing ovation.
The urgent, profane, yet somehow sweetly sentimental story of three friends -- Tre, Ricky and Doughboy -- and their tragic passage into manhood, hit theaters on July 12 and earned $10 million in its first three days of release. Despite its “Increase the Peace” coda though, the movie triggered a spate of largely gang-related violence that left more than 30 people injured and one man dead, prompting some exhibitors to pull the film from screens.
“When the violence erupted in theaters, it was like a stab in the heart,” remembers producer Stephanie Allain, who was instrumental in getting the movie made at Columbia Pictures. “It was such the wrong thing to come of it.”
In retrospect, the bloodshed surrounding the film’s opening only made the movie seem more timely and profound. Released at the height of L.A.'s escalating gang wars and just nine months before the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers accused in the Rodney King beating sparked six days of riots that left 53 dead and thousands injured, “Boyz,” says Singleton, was simply the cinematic version of what rap groups like N.W.A had been doing for years -- sounding the alarm about an untenable situation for people living in a particular part of Los Angeles.
“I couldn’t rhyme. I wasn’t a rapper. So I made this movie,” Singleton says.
Now, in a much-changed Los Angeles, where the homicide rate in the last 20 years has dropped by almost 300%, to re-watch “Boyz” is to be reminded of how prescient, original and incendiary it was -- all of which critic Roger Ebert recognized at the time. He called “Boyz,” which had a special anniversary screening at June’s Los Angeles Film Festival and was released on Blu-Ray DVD last week, “one of the best American films of recent years ... a human drama of rare power -- Academy Award material.”
“Boyz” would go on to make more than $60 million at the box office and earn two Academy Award nods -- for original screenplay and director -- making Singleton the first African American to be nominated for directing (he would later lose both nominations, screenplay to “Thelma & Louise” and directing to Jonathan Demme for “The Silence of the Lambs”).
With his first feature, Singleton joined a band of emerging cinematic voices, young artists of color such as Spike Lee, Mario Van Peebles, Robert Townsend and Matty Rich, who were not only upending prevailing stereotypes, but challenging the very notion of who should be making mainstream movies and what they should be about.
“When ‘Boyz N the Hood’ came out, it became part of this small uprising” in black cinema, says Christine Acham, a professor at UC Davis, who specializes in African American film. “It had really been squashed since the early ‘70s. To see these black films come to the forefront was something that was pretty significant. Instead of being represented, you have a case of people trying to represent themselves.”
That’s exactly what Singleton was trying to do with “Boyz,” which was deemed “culturally relevant” in 2002 by the U.S. Library of Congress and added to the National Film Registry. It’s a tale that’s largely autobiographical. Like his protagonist Tre, Singleton grew up the son of single parents, first living in the notorious Inglewood neighborhood known as “The Bottoms” and later moving with his father, a mortgage broker, to a house in South-Central. And, like his character, Singleton also struggled against the self-destructive riptides of his neighborhood.
“Inglewood was Blood ‘hood,” Singleton says. “And where my father lived on Vermont and 101st, they were all Crips. So most of the people I grew up with, they were from 101st. And so, even if you are not affiliated, you’re affiliated. It’s nothing that I would ever claim, but it’s just like you know it. Even if you don’t rep it, you know it.”
Singleton came up with the idea for the movie when he and his friends would take the bus to Hollywood to see movies at Grauman’s Chinese and the Egyptian theaters. “We loved the characters and the stories, but we were like, ‘There’s nobody in these movies who looked like us,’ ” Singleton says. “So we spent all of our time on the bus talking about the movies that we would make.”
Once at USC, where he won awards for his writing, he cranked out “Boyz” in about three and a half weeks as a kind of West Coast riposte to Spike Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” “I was so enamored with Spike and what he did, painting Brooklyn as his cinematic turf,” Singleton says. “I was like, I have to come from L.A. so hard, so people really know that it has its own type of flavor and its own vibe. Even though we have beautiful homes and palm trees, a lot of stuff goes on.”
Offering an exegesis on a multitude of urban issues -- gang warfare, crack cocaine, black-on-black violence, AIDS, racial profiling, misogyny, single motherhood -- Singleton’s script eventually wound up in the hands of Allain, a newly appointed executive at Columbia and one of the few people of color working in the studio system.
“The dialogue was authentic and the heart in it was just booming,” Allain says. “I was sobbing by the end.”
But the studio balked at the idea of having such an inexperienced filmmaker behind the camera. Singleton was offered $100,000 for his script. He refused and threatened to walk with the project.
“John was all bravado and conviction; he believed in his heart that this was his movie to direct,” Allain says. “That’s all he needed. He had the clarity and passion that Hollywood craves, you know? It’s just sort of undeniable when someone looks you in the eye and says, ‘I got this. I can do this.’ ”
When casting the movie -- which would include several future Oscar winners -- Singleton first went to Laurence Fishburne to play the role of Furious Styles, a proud but struggling single father trying to instill the right values in his son, Tre. Fishburne, who became the elder statesman of the production, then recommended Angela Bassett and Tyra Ferrell for the parts of the two single mothers.
Singleton had worked as an intern on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” where he first met Ice Cube, the chunky, scowling N.W.A rapper who would go on to give a surprisingly nuanced and humanizing performance as the domino-slamming, Dickies-clad gangster Doughboy in his first big-screen appearance. “Even if Cube was bad, I would have put him in the movie,” Singleton says. “I wrote that role for Ice Cube. There was nobody else.”
As for the leads of Tre and the athletically gifted Ricky, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morris Chestnut were the first two actors brought in by casting director Jaki Brown to read. Afterward, “I said, ‘Fine, we’re done,’” Singleton remembers. “And she said, ‘I’m just getting started.’ And I said, ‘I’m going to lunch. Cuba is going to be Tre and the chocolate guy is going to be the football player.’ ”
As director, Singleton’s inexperience surfaced only briefly, Allain says. During the shooting of Doughboy’s barbecue after he’s released from jail, “John was so into that scene he couldn’t see his way out of it,” she says. “It was supposed to be a one-day shoot. But then Day 2, he’s still there. So we go down there and it was a party and John was the center of attention.”
Singleton disputes the idea that he ever lost control on set and remembers only two major studio notes during production -- to add a fist fight between Doughboy and Ricky right before the film’s tragic climax to heighten the drama, which he did, and another requesting a more explicit reconciliation between Tre and Furious at the end of the film in which Tre would explain to his father that he had refused to participate in the retribution killing of the men who killed Ricky.
“I said no. Furious doesn’t know that his son has done the right thing,” but he doesn’t need to, Singleton says. “The audience knows.” Unbeknownst to the father, Tre has actually taken in all his advice, the director says, “and become a man by making his own decisions.”
And while the movie helped to spotlight the struggle in places like South-Central, it ultimately did little to change the habits of Hollywood, which seemed more interested in tapping the financial potential of a new sub-genre than further democratizing the filmmaking process.
Singleton would continue to make movies focusing on the black experience, but none would match the critical, commercial and cultural impact of “Boyz.” Looking back, the director, who was finishing the late-September release “Abduction,” starring “Twilight’s” Taylor Lautner, calls his first feature “a time capsule of what Los Angeles was 20 years ago” and “a great example of what can be made within the studio system if the right people have a chance to express themselves.”
“That’s what the dream is for all of us,” agrees Allain, “to work on something important and that changes lives. This movie did that.”
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Making their mark
In the 20 years since the release of “Boyz N the Hood,” the film’s principals have all gone on to solid acting careers, including an Academy Award:
John Singleton: The director is preparing to release his eighth film since “Boyz,” including a “Shaft” sequel starring Samuel L. Jackson, and “2 Fast 2 Furious.” His latest, “Abduction,” a thriller starring “Twilight’s” Taylor Lautner, will open nationwide on Sept. 23.
Laurence Fishburne: With a steady stream of film and television projects to his credit -- perhaps most notably his roles as Ike Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and as Morpheus in the “Matrix” films -- Fishburne recently concluded a stint on CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in HBO’s “Thurgood” and stars in “Contagion,” hitting theaters on Sept. 9.
Cuba Gooding Jr.: The actor famously went on to receive an Oscar for his performance in “Jerry Maguire,” delivering an exuberant acceptance speech. He starred with Robert De Niro in “Men of Honor” in 2000 and in 2003’s “Radio,” and just completed the Lucasfilm production “Red Tails,” about the Tuskegee Airmen, set for 2012 release.
Ice Cube: After his debut in “Boyz,” the rapper went on to thrive in his film career -- in addition to becoming a major music producer -- starring in several film series, including the “Friday” movies, the “Barbershop” movies and the family-oriented “Are We There Yet?” movies. He just wrapped “Rampart,” with Woody Harrelson and Steve Buscemi.
Morris Chestnut: Following “Boyz” with such films as 1997’s “G.I. Jane” with Demi Moore and 2004’s “Ladder 49" with John Travolta, the actor most notably starred on the recently canceled sci-fi series “V,” in which he played an alien determined to save Earth from his lizard-like race.