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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