Elevating the voices of those who had little stake in the makeup of contemporary society, John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood became a landmark film that well-expressed the hardship of the black experience when it was released in 1991. Taking on a non-exploitative, non-sensationalistic view of the lives of black men in ‘90s Los Angeles, Singleton offered a slice of the reality of life in the ghettos, bringing the issues of so many into the Hollywood mainstream.
Released a year before the L.A. Riots of April 1992, Singleton’s film came at a pertinent time, when American racial tensions were simmering on a subterranean hotbed, ready to boil over at the first of unrest. Following the lives of three young men, Ricky (Morris Chestnut), Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Doughboy (Ice Cube) each growing up in South L.A., Singleton tracks the upbringing of each young man who has either been helped or hindered by their childhood.
Suffering from a lack of a significant father figure, many of the boys seek paternal comfort in their own comradery, galvanising their masculinity through friendships and the pride of their own corner of L.A. Their identity within their tumultuous city itself becomes the film’s sticking point, with Singleton suggesting that personality and morality are not formed from circumstance but from personal choice and the wisdom of their own experiences.
Concerned with the sinister threat of gentrification that suggested violence was perpetuated by the predominance of gun shops and liquor stores that lined the street corners, Singleton presented controversial topics of conversation way before the rest of Hollywood and the wider world had even considered their existence. Using Tre’s separated father, Jason ‘Furious’ Styles Jr., played by Laurence Fishburne, as a mouthpiece to air such frustrations, the character becomes a sagacious figure for the wider community of young men who each lack the importance of paternal influence.
Explaining the significance of this thematic angle, John Singleton stated: “My main message is that African-American men have to take more responsibility for raising their children, especially their boys. Fathers have to teach their boys to be men”. In the absence of such influential figures, many of the film’s characters lead destructive lives devoid of direction, tempted away from progress by the allure of gang violence that conforms with their peers.
Screening such contemporary realities and uncomfortable truths was no easy feat in the early ‘90s, particularly as institutional racism was furiously simmering and ready to detonate a bitter, though crucial, societal transformation. Where the film industry had long-suffered under the sheer weight of its own racism, the early ‘90s offered hope for better representation, with Singleton’s film becoming one of nineteen released by black directors in 1991 in a movement known as New Black Hollywood.
With a powerful identity along with pertinent statements about modern life, Singleton’s film joined the likes of Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and the crime film New Jack City by Mario Van Peebles to create a mosaic of films that celebrated and critiqued the reality of the black experience. With its inspired free-thinking attitudes Boyz n the Hood would go on to become the pioneering film of New Black Hollywood, with many of its statements and ideas becoming key talking points in contemporary society.
Deconstructing the home and inhabitants of black people in southern Los Angeles, Singleton offers a comprehensive answer to the perpetual issue of young masculinity in the community, with the absence of father figures stripping essential growth for young boys, whilst white supremacy bred incessant hatred. Decades before the existence of the Black Lives Matter movement, John Singleton demonstrated how life for black Americans had been detrimentally damaged by centuries of racism, causing a cauldron of fear, hatred, hope and anguish to form an invincible storm.