24Nov/107

Boyz N The Hood, Revisited

The Wayans clan’s genre parody Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood gleefully skewers every inch of celluloid from Boyz N The Hood; hardly a major scene, character, or plot device is spared. Other iconic  ‘hood flicks get curb-stomped but Boyz is tainted by a unique earnestness and is thus vulnerable in a way that films like Menace II Society can never be. Menace‘s O-Dog is a caricature through and through, regardless of the intentions of the writers. You can’t help but  laugh along and whoop it up to his nihilist antics. When he is parodied, his defining characteristics loom larger than life and his legend is secured. He is tough. Cartoonish, depraved, angry, but forgivably tough. The film displays little self-awareness but I cannot believe that its makers never anticipated a variety of viewer responses.

The characters of Boyz, even Dough Boy, however, are meant to be embraced as respectable sympathetic figures by an audience too polite and too invested in their emblematic strife to suspend disbelief. You are supposed to reassure yourself that ain’t shit funny when Tre breaks down crying  in front of Brandi or when Dough Boy insists that Ricky’s uncomprehending infant son be removed from the room where his father is bleeding to death from gunshot wounds. These are supposed to be serious characters living in serious times with serious problems.But these scenes are in fact uncomfortably funny. Boyz N The Hood came prepackaged with an agenda, an imposing stance, but it isn’t the oh so hip hop “fuck what you think” stance that Ice Cube scripted in the lyrics for Eazy-E’s song of the same title. It is an early 90s multi-culti pluralist gentleman’s agreement: sympathize with the plight of these characters or you will have to live with the knowledge that you don’t care about the people living in the real life ‘hood’.

The rules of adherence to this agreement are transparently announced at every pivotal moment and this is the film’s undoing. Try as John Singleton does to convince the world that his come-up from penniless film student to profitable director somehow authenticates the film’s alleged sense of realist urgency, it ain’t hood to bully one’s audience through passive aggression. Superior films like Strapped and Fresh do not command viewers how  to think abouts their themes and characters, so when plot turns or dialogue veer towards the realm of intentional stylization and fictive inflection, we are open to the idea that these stretches enhance the film’s worth and maybe even cast reality in a new and important light. Other films like Belly aspire only to transcribe the ethereal ‘hood of shiny suit era rap onto the silver screen. Even at moments when it is impossible to ignore Nas’s bush league turn as Sincere or any number of absurd or problematic elements, we love how the shit styles. Boyz gets all of this wrong, all the time.

This does not mean that Boyz does not depict a resonant version of reality. Far from it. But the reality at the core of Boyz — the unsettling experience of growing up ‘hood adjacent, in America’s rapidly declining inner-ring suburbs — is not the one that is advertised or expected. It is a theme that stays partly obscured. The film’s faulty treatment of generalized ghetto misery renders characters that are for the most part, so broadly drawn that they do not seem remotely familiar, let alone real. One’s inclination to learn more about their motivations and origins is drowned out by sirens, helicopters, and overacting. But if one plays close attention to the interactions between father Furious and son Tre, their bizarre predicament shines through. It is one thing to struggle for survival in a crowded downtown tenement; this narrative has its army.  Settling into a cozy bungalow nestled on a quarter acre lot in the hopes of providing a better life for one’s son and watching the neighborhood gradually deteriorate is its own version of strange.

Attempting to inculcate the concept of collective pride while warning your son to stray as far from the pack as possible. Resisting gentrification while at the same time realizing that working professionals can never feel at home in the neighborhood again. Protecting your little slice of the pie with a pistol while trying to convince your son that a real man eschews violence. Recognizing that chasing normative middle class existence in the land of inequality is insane, but insisting on raking the leaves with obsessive precision. Convincing yourself and your son that the problems across the street are not your problems, that the American vision of private property and unapologetic self-interest trumps all other concerns. Feigning solidarity with a grieving loser neighbor knowing damned well your future is all about college and his involves an early grave. Trying to live, work, and play in a verdant, unassuming place where all three activities are regularly disrupted by the sub-rational forces of gangsta posturing, greed, addiction, and apathy, with no end in sight. Boyz N The Hood captures this insanity, whether by accident or indirect implication;  while this will not make it easier to watch the film without smirking, it is a valid justification for revisiting it once in a while. — Thun

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8 Responses to “Boyz N The Hood, Revisited”

  1. Chaz says:

    Great read!

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  2. Teddy C.D. says:

    Great read indeed. However, I really don’t agree that BNTH should be lumped into the category of “hip-hop flicks” like Belly. Or… well, just Belly. Boyz N tha Hood is a great film all around, and the main characters were developed convincingly, and to me at least, they felt real. Completely different from many borderline self-parodying rap flicks, ie Belly or even State Property. I’m not sure exactly what your main gripe is though–do you share the Hughes Brothers’ disdain for its perceived sentimentality? Are you saying that Singleton tried so hard to make his scenes feel real to such a wide audience that he ended up overdoing it? Something tells me these opinions and attitudes toward the film itself were brought on more by the film’s success in “multi-culti” audiences across America concurrent with its adulation by the critics, and less of the actual filmmaking. Or, at least influenced by these more than they should have been. I agree that it takes itself starkly serious, and that some of the scenes are intended to be emotional and pull at the heart-strings, but in context (is this how you do italics?) they worked… I can understand how this makes BNTH vulnerable, as you put it, when parodied or scrutinized, but I don’t think that’s a drawback for the film at all. Just my two cents. Your analysis of the polarizing messages of the film and your last paragraph were spot on, though.

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    • Thun says:

      I wasn’t lumping it in with Belly as a “rap film”, I was lumping them together as “hood films.” I suppose I should have defined my terms, but I don’t think we need to overanalyze the nomenclature. I agree that there is a difference between Belly’s self awareness and that of Boyz, but it works more to the detriment of the latter than the former.

      Yes, the mawkish sentimentality of Boyz is a problem, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I refer to Armond White’s [he’s kind of anutcase but he’s on point with the following assessment] critique of the “Great Debaters”:

      “In The Great Debaters, a team of college students (Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker) lose their nerve after a road trip where they witness a lynching. “You’re never going to forget what you saw!” one screams to another. It suggests a trauma that is inauthentic to how Southern black Americans actually suffered and communicated the fact of lynching. That melodramatic alarm has more to do with Hollywood naiveté than with African-American forbearance and strength—and that’s what The Great Debaters gets wrong.”

      Replace “Great Debaters” with “Boyz N The Hood”, replace “Southern Black Americans” with “inner city/inner ring suburban residents” and replace “lynching” with “internecine gun violence” and that’s my main gripe with the film. In the late 80s and early 90s, we did not respond to the rise in gun violence in our neighborhoods in a manner that was melodramatic, hysterical, naive, or childish. We weren’t helpless against this particular scourge, and like other forms of violence we had encountered in the past, we developed family and community-based responses towards it, including mentoring youths to be aware, calm, and safe. There is nothing of the sort on display in Boyz, all you get is shallow melodrama that makes use of the prevalence of cloistered, bigoted notions about urban life and about black culture in general to sell itself as real.

      The realest aspect of the movie, in my opinion, is the strange, alienating mood that prevails. The characters and plot turns all come off as fake, contrived, stupid, etc. but the mood is miraculously accurate, probably by accident. As someone who grew up in a rapidly changing neighborhood on the edge of a city, this movie speaks to me, just not directly, or intentionally.

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      • Teddy C.D. says:

        I disagree that the plot turns come off as fake and contrived, and they certainly aren’t stupid–but you’re right in that the mood is one of the movie’s biggest strengths. But I really doubt Singleton achieved this “insanity,” as you put it, unintentionally. I think you summed up the feeling exactly: “Feigning solidarity with a grieving loser neighbor knowing damned well your future is all about college and his involves an early grave. Trying to live, work, and play in a verdant, unassuming place where all three activities are regularly disrupted by the sub-rational forces of gangsta posturing, greed, addiction, and apathy, with no end in sight.” That may very well have been the POINT of the movie; it’s this notion of trying to cope and find reason and live a normal, typical suburban American life under these insane circumstances. It’s not just about feeling sorry for black people “in the hood” (although if you didn’t feel sorry for the characters in this movie, I don’t think you were watching the same movie as me), it’s about THIS problem and THIS feeling that a lot of people can relate to, and a lot of people can both empathize and sympathize with, as you said you do. I think it was skillfully told.

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        • Teddy C.D. says:

          *that* a lot of people can both empathize, etc…

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        • Thun says:

          So this was John Singleton’s intention but he never announced it and not one single review at the time picked up on it? The film’s marketing and reception culture was singularly focused on this film being a slice of life, authentic “ghetto” tale. Hell, it’s called “Boyz N The Hood” not “Boyz N A Slightly Distressed But Still Striving Section of Crenshaw.” The “Hood” being a reductive, hollow representation of black urban/inner ring suburban life that resonates with people who lack either the direct experience or nuanced cultural and historical knowledge to see it for what it is, and feel satisfied that they were schooled on the “reality” of the “hood.”

          The plot is completely idiotic and a misrepresentation of internecine gun crime in the early 90s LA area. It is historically inaccurate and silly at the same time. I don’t feel sorry for any of the characters because they are all badly acted with the exception of Furious. Your “if you didn’t feel sorry for the characters in this movie, I don’t think you were watching the same movie as me” is indicative of the bleeding heart ideology that guides this movie. You are right, though, we weren’t watching the same movie – you saw a film that reinforced your pre-existing notions of the urban/black experience and I saw one that was a melodramatic, fundamentally oversimplified, reductive version of what I went through, with very little stylistic charm to make up for that.

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  3. Teddy C.D. says:

    Did you prefer “Menace” to “Boyz”?

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