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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Boyz N The Hood (1991)

Director: John Singleton
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube

Boyz N The Hood is a coming of age film where it is an accomplishment just to survive adolescence without being shot. It is a film that is critical of the way minority communities are oppressed by the dominant ideology, and equally critical of the ways that those same communities collaborate in their own oppression by perpetuating a cycle of violence within themselves which divides so that they can be further conquered and kept in place. This is a brutal, well-crafted film whose issues remain relevant and powerful today.

The story focuses on Tre Styles (played as a teenager by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) who at the age of 10 is sent to live with his father Furious (Laurence Fishburne) after his mother (Angela Bassett) decides that what he needs to cure his rebellious behaviour is quality time with a good male role model. Although the film is, in large part, concerned with issues of gang violence, fatherhood is at its heart. Tre has a strong father figure in Furious, while his friends Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube) grow up with absentee fathers. Writer/director John Singleton doesn’t allow for the idea that it’s merely a coincidence that the boy whose father is a presence in his life is the only one who survives into adulthood. This isn’t to say that the film is necessarily dismissive of the role of mothers, but it emphasizes the idea that a young man will seek to emulate the nearest male who casts a dominant shadow. If that dominant male happens to be the leader of a gang… well, the end of the story almost writes itself.

As teenagers, Doughboy is a dropout and a member of a gang, Ricky is a football star and already the father of a toddler, and Tre is on his way to college. Ricky, too, is on the path to college, but because of his potential as an athlete rather than as a student. By contrasting Ricky and Tre, the film criticizes the way that education is made to be secondary to athletic achievements for young black men, whom educators may be willing to let slide scholastically provided that they help generate revenue for the school through sports. Through Furious, the film also voices its criticisms of other ways in which the dominant, white ideology maintains it’s social, education and financial hierarchies at the expense of black communities. “Why is it that there’s a gun shop on almost every corner in this community? I’ll tell you why. For the same reason that there’s a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves.” He encourages the people in the neighbourhood to keep the community from being dismantled, arguing that drugs and weapons are flooded into it in order to lower property values to the point that it will become desirable for people from outside who have money to come in and buy up the lots and remake the neighbourhood as “good.” The character of Furious is a delicate one to portray in that he’s essentially a mouthpiece for Singleton’s opinions and could therefore run the risk of coming across as too aggressively preachy. However, the careful writing of the screenplay, and the skilful portrayal by Fishburne, flesh the character out and make him real, rather than just allowing him to be a hammer with which to pound the point into our heads.

The performance by Fishburne is truly great as a man trying to balance his desire to guide his son with his desire to let his son be his own man. Throughout the film, the spectre of gang violence has been coming closer and closer to the center, finally erupting when Ricky is killed. This ridiculously wasteful death prompts Tre to go out with Doughboy and his crew to get revenge, and there is a great scene where Furious, realizing what Tre is on the verge of doing but knowing that it’s too late to stop him, sits in his living room, tense from head to toe, waiting and hoping that his son makes the right choice. It is amazing to me that the Academy, which recognized Singleton for both his direction and his screenplay, could overlook Fishburne’s performance, which is just so powerful. The performance by Gooding is excellent as well and enough to make you lament the downward turn his career took post-Jerry Maguire, because he is in actuality a very talented actor.

This is a film that stays with you because it makes no attempt to sugar-coat things. It looks with an unblinking eye at people who have been marginalized by society, but doesn’t excuse it’s characters by letting them rest on that marginalization. The system is bad, but it’s also bad to play into the expectations set out by the system. Although there are elements to the film which date it (those early ’90s fashions didn’t do anyone any favours), it’s message is what keeps it relevant.

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