One of the great films about black American life returns to cinemas
‘Increase the peace’ pleads the final frame of John Singleton’s angry, era-defining 1991 story of young black manhood on the streets of Los Angeles. In this era of Black Lives Matter and #Oscarssowhite it may feel like little has changed – the peace has notably failed to increase. But that just makes this re-release, part of the Black Star season at BFI Southbank, all the more relevant.
‘Boyz n the Hood’ opens in 1984, as ten-year-old Tre is sent to live with his dad Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) in South Central LA and falls in with a gang of local kids. Seven years later Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr, who really does look a lot older than 17) is struggling to find his own path. His best friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut) hopes for footballing glory and neighbour Doughboy (Ice Cube) just wants to be a gangsta.
Employing a loose, episodic structure, Singleton’s script is a masterclass in making complex social and political issues easy to digest and audience-friendly – remarkable for a writer-director who was just 23 when the film was released. The characterisation is sharp, the plot basic but compelling and it’s all lightened up with lots of creative swearing. The central performances are strong too: Gooding is a pouty, relatable teenage hero and Fishburne an icon of self-contained masculinity. But it’s Ice Cube in his acting debut who steals the show as the loose, unpredictable gangbanger with mommy issues.
‘Boyz n the Hood’ hasn’t aged perfectly. Despite the occasional ‘I ain’t no ho!’ outburst, there’s clearly a problem with women, who tend to be mouthy and troubled or maternal and saintly. The supporting actors struggle a bit, and despite a great hip hop soundtrack, the jazz-tinged score is shockingly syrupy. Still, this is an important film for a reason: one of the first to lay out the truth about black American lives, it remains politically astute and fiercely entertaining.
Cast and crew