Director: John Singleton

by | May 25, 2020 | 0 comments

An Exploration of the DIrector Through a Deep Analysis of His First FIlm

Films about, from, or directed towards African-Americans have always had a difficult time crafting a singular identity and tone. Hollywood has been ruled by white people since its creation, and only recently have studios begun to put big money on black-led films (Black Panther (2018)). Up until that point, black filmmakers have been limited to the independent film world, and even here have encountered certain limitations. W. B. E. DuBois analyzed the aspect of duality in African-Americans, where they must put up one face towards society, while guarding their own real personality. This is apparent in how black-led films seem torn between pandering towards white audiences that might give them critical success, and black audiences that might give them financial success. One young director dealing with these two planes of viewership direction is John Singleton in his debut feature Boyz n the Hood (1991).

After the disappearance of the blaxploitation film genre, commercial films being catered specifically to black audiences disappeared. Instead black filmmakers were putting forth art-house fare in the 1980s through the filmic generation: the LA Rebellion. These arthouse films sought to craft a new language for black films as well as trying to throw off the inner city stereotypes of what black life was like – and which blaxploitation films were accused of harmfully dispersing. This led to quiet meditations of life in the city such as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978), but this subsequent movement also developed into an exploration of the culturally rich rural life that many black families were experiencing – and preserving – in the South. This was exemplified by such directors as Julie Dash with Daughters of the Dust (1991) and Kasi Lemmons with her hit Eve’s Bayou (1997). However, there were outliers to this attempt at repurposing the mainstream image of black Americans. This was most famously done by Spike Lee, who didn’t shy away from representing the complexities of life in New York with Do the Right Thing (1989) and it would also be the basis of John Singleton’s exploration in Boyz n the Hood.          

Boyz n the Hood is as political and critical of the societal failures towards the black community as Do the Right Thing. The two films’ main difference was that Singleton populated his script with more introspective speeches, while Lee chose to ponder these visually. Boyz n the Hood has a particular fascination with the cyclical pattern of violence in the black community of South Central Los Angeles. Much like in Do the Right Thing, there is a debate amongst many of the black characters about whether they want to embrace their “blackness” or try and hide it so white society can accept and “reward” them (this usually being financially). This is seen in the contrast between Ricky and Doughboy in Boyz n the Hood; both are brothers, but while Doughboy seems to have embraced his situation in his community, as part of his own gang, with no real prospects for a profession or education outside of it, Ricky is keen to put his football skills to garner a university scholarship, and in doing so “escape” from his community. This debate is seen specifically with how Ricky and Doughboy’s mother treats each of them. From the first scenes, when both are kids of a mere ten-years-old, there is a clear favoritism placed on Ricky, as he is seen as having the better chance of leaving their community. Doughboy is, meanwhile, bullied by his mother, called “fat” and “lazy,” and resented for not having an ambition outside of their neighborhood. This seeming hate of what Doughboy represents is exemplified heartbreakingly in the scene where Doughboy’s mother berates and guilts him of Ricky’s murder “what did you do?!” despite Doughboy having had nothing to do directly with it. There is an unconscious equation done by the characters where they relate blackness with poverty, thus their identity is all the more confused as they seem to bring a level of self-loathing to themselves.

This self-hate is explored more specifically with Tre’s father: Furious. Furious seems to be a veteran of dodging the blows and potholes that society has set up for the black community. Furious sees that his and his son’s existence will be conditioned because of the color of their skin, and that they will be forced to navigate a treacherous balance. The film shows how society has been built around black suffering and is tragically continuing such a trend. Furious has to be constantly on his toes, finding the right equilibrium in the DuBoisian duality that America seems to demand of him. Furious is a mortgage broker, and in this sense has already worked a way around the hurdles thrown at him by society. By being a mortgage broker, Furious is able to become financially literate, and in doing so is aware of the machinations that society has set to undermine the black community. We see this in Furious’ speech on gentrification, about how liquor and gun stores are littered among the black community in order for an indirect extermination/genocide to occur.

Furious is determined to discipline Tre into finding this balance as well, specifically through education. Furious is also adamant to break a certain chain in young pregnancies with his son, while he himself was only seventeen when he had Tre, he was able to provide a parenthood to his son that many characters in the film remark as “unique.” Furious, however, sees young pregnancies as a further trap in dragging African-Americans down by the greater society, which is why there are a lot of talks between father and son on “using a rubber, even if she’s on the pill.”

Sex plays a particularly important role in Boyz n the Hood. Sexual exploits seem to be a form of comforting insecure masculinities between the characters who are frequently boasting about how many women they’ve slept with. While many of the characters’ sexual claims seem exaggerated, there is a curious parallel to how sexual prowess is seen as something of pride amongst Tre’s friends, but is something that Furious and the other parents are wary of. While this boasting vs. caution contrast is common between any adolescent and parental groups in the world, the differences in Boyz n the Hood are of seeing such numerous teenager pregnancies on the same street. There is a particular scene to show how this form of young pregnancies is a further hinderance on the black community from larger society. This is seen when Ricky receives a visit from a college scout, after greatly impressing such scout Ricky’s son comes running into the room, where the scout asks: “is he your brother?” and Ricky replies, “no, my son.” Ricky never notices the subtle change in expression on the scout, and yet there is a delicate form of pity substituting the happiness there. A student with a son is suddenly seen as less appetizing for the university. While this revelation doesn’t discard Ricky from the university just yet, it does show how an image of rejection can start forming in the institution’s eyes. Another form of how these young pregnancies are crafted roadblocks for black ambitions is seen with Tre’s mother, who is finally able to study for a master’s degree when she sends Tre to live with his father. This allows her to triumph in her professional life, similar to how Furious was able to triumph earlier in his life when Tre was first living with his mother. Children are therefore seen as early burdens, which, while precious keep a sense of stagnation and repression in young dreams and ambitions. When seeing the boastings of sexual exploits by the characters in Boyz n the Hood, from this perspective, one sees that being able to boast about having many women without having children, is a sign of status and a symbol that one has beaten the hindering system that society had imposed on them.

Gender and its relationships aren’t as thoroughly explored in Boyz n the Hood, with women tending to stick to the margins of the narrative. There is a monotony in how the female characters are only used and seen as sexual conquests or “reservations” for marriage. This disregard for women is most blatantly shown with how Doughboy speaks of girls, calling them “bitch” constantly. It is also seen with how Tre (the character regarded as the most level-headed) regards his relationships with women. Tre recounts the story of how he almost got a woman to bed to his father, with a curious use of voiceover. In this narration, Tre is the only one speaking as the screen begins to depict the events. As the characters speak, we only hear Tre’s voice retelling the different phrases each said. This adds a curious unreliability to Tre’s story, as we seem to only hear the facts as told by him, but it is also an indication of how he uses the figure of women as a way to impress his father (who seems to see through this). In Tre’s story he literally steals the ability for the woman to speak, thus using her as an imaginative puppet. We also see Tre’s perspective of women with his other sweetheart, Brandi, whom he shows sexual restraint to as he sees her as a future prospect as a wife. However, when faced with a dramatic scene, Tre starts crying in front of Brandi, and only remarks how “embarrassing it is to cry in from of a woman.” He later is somewhat comforted when Brandi agrees to sleep with him, thus using her body again as a symbol of comfort for his own insecurities. However, this perspective of women is a curious encapsulation of adolescent men’s perspectives. Teenage boys don’t view women as much more complex than what Boyz n the Hood represents, and it is a curious contrast to see this seeming immature point of view contrasted with the reality of how many of the male characters are already fathering children alongside the women. Singleton doesn’t leave women as one-note characters, rather he lets an aura of rebellion and autonomy to issue forth instead. This is most notable with Tre’s mother, who is able to pursue her dreams outside of the domestic life, but it is also seen in how some girls stand up to Doughboy and his immature way of talking about women. There are brief flashes scattered that show equal intrigue and turmoil occurring in black female’s lives, however, Boyz n the Hood was intent of focusing on only the male side.

The relationship with violence is the most important part of Boyz n the Hood. Curiously the film itself was the site of some gang-on-gang violence where rival gang members would find themselves watching the film in the same theater. Ironically the anti-bellicose message brought by Singleton turned out to have an unintended opposite effect in this case. However, these instances were anecdotal, and do not retract from the greater achievement of introspection that this film brings on the subject of violence in the black community. From the opening scene, where we read “one out of twenty-one Black American males will be murdered…”  and how “most will die at the hands of another black male.” Throughout the film, we are showered with a reminder of the ubiquitous violence in our characters’ neighborhood. We see this represented subtly with how every other scene has background shots startling our characters, or by how little kids are discussing the gun models that they have at home. This linkage between violence and black life seems to be Singleton’s single greatest concern. For even Furious, who seems to be the character most in control of his life, sees it necessary to keep a loaded gun under his bed. He even has to make use of this when an intruder enters his house; blasting a hole through his front door. Unlike Do the Right Thing, this violence isn’t shown as being waged by the police, rather by rival gangs themselves. In fact, the police and their absence seem to be one of the contributing factors to the ongoing massacre. After the break-in at Furious’ house, the police take over an hour to arrive. The scene where the police finally arrive at Furious’ house is one of the most curious, as it features a black cop being filled with a self-hate towards other black people; he claims he wishes that the entire black community would “kill each other off.” This representation of a self-loathing cop was a curious dimension Singleton brought, as it only further exemplified the confused sense of identity that black Americans are forced to have. The violence and death that are wrought in Boyz n the Hood aren’t blamed on those pulling the trigger, but on the society pressures that placed a finger on such trigger in the first place.

Much like how teenage pregnancies seemed to be holding black communities back in a cyclical way, violence works out much the same way in Singleton’s representation. Due to the insecurity in gang leaders’ masculinities, specifically regarding women and sex, the use of violence is used to exemplify power. This is what leads to an initial confrontation between Doughboy’s gang and the rival Ferris’ gang. What seems initially to only be guns being sprayed in the air, leads to the death of Ricky on the day when he got back the acceptable scores of his SAT, confirming a future college education. This murder leads to an avenging domino effect, where Doughboy massacres Ferris and his companions in (equal) cold blood. This cyclical pattern is continued when the final scenes feature explanation of Doughboy being killed only two weeks after the funeral of his brother. This trap of cyclical violence and revenge is identified and broken by the prescient Furious who, when Tre is ready to go with Doughboy and avenge Ricky, sits his son down and talks him over the futility of continuing such carnage. Tre is therefore saved from falling back into the murderous patterns that would have taken him off his “enlightened” path. The end credits reveal that he was able to escape his community and attend college in Atlanta. Curiously Atlanta was becoming a haven for African-Americans, where they were crafting a new urban identity out from an intrusive shadow of local whites.

The societal injection of violence in the black community is explained to be rooted in America’s obsession with drafting African-Americans into the army. This is explained by Furious when he reveals he is a Vietnam War veteran. Furious explains that once you join the army you “lose ownership of your own body.” This perspective is a way of seeing how the state is still looking for ways to exploit black bodies for their own capitalistic/imperialistic gains. Joining the army proves to be the only profession he bars his son from pursuing. This is heavily contrasted with how Ricky, after seeing an ad on TV, is inspired to join the army after losing confidence in his own self-worth to join college. It is mere minutes before his is shot that Ricky reveals his plans to join the army enthusiastically to Tre, who advises him against it regurgitating his father’s own words. However, it may be a subtle use of foreshadow that Ricky is not convinced. It is in this moment when Ricky falls into this ultimate trap and decides to “lose ownership of his body” that he is killed and Furious’ prediction happens quite literally. Black life in American is shown to be full of land-mines, set by society; by the end of the film, Tre is the only character who successfully evades these traps.

Singleton was faced with the dilemma of representing his own black experience from growing up in South Central LA for a white audience. Singleton is clearly searching for a balance, between representing black life in American cities, while also explaining the situation to white audiences. There is an aspect of hand-holding to Boyz n the Hood, as the political and societal injustices are painted out, not only visually, but verbally as well. While many of Furious’ speeches are a joy to hear, being delivered by Laurence Fishburne and fabulously written by Singleton, they are also blunt explanations being clearly directed at white viewers. There are many scenes, which seem less representative than explicative to FAQs white audiences may have had. The final conversation between Furious and Tre’s mother is the most indicative of this last fact; the complications of gender roles in the black community being described. Furious is angry at not being acknowledged over his parenting of Tre but is answered that this is what “black women have been doing since the beginning of time.” Singleton is thus trying to illustrate how the conflict of duality is seen in black lives even in the act of parenting, which for white America had been defined along nuclear/conservative values. This “white clarification” clearly bore its fruit, as the film was a critical hit and went on to garner two Oscar nominations for Singleton as a screenwriter and director – he even became the youngest directing nominee in history at twenty-four. Like many of his contemporary black filmmakers, Singleton was directing his film towards white viewers because of his frustration of white Hollywood being incapable of delivering satisfying African-American portrayals. Singleton chose to dive into the cliched aspects of black inner-city life, and to represent it as much more complex than simple drugs and violence. While Singleton might have been appreciative of the rural life that was being represented by many other black filmmakers of his time, he was also adamant to show that while the violent aspects of urban black lives were very much present, they were not the only components of it. Having been raised in South Central LA himself, there’s a certain auto-biographic content and authenticity that Singleton can bring to Boyz n the Hood’s orientation and aesthetic. Singleton found it necessary to show how cruel and shattering the violence in his neighborhood can be, but he also sees it very necessary to show characters at a fun garden party, eloquent intellectuals such as Furious, and an emotional introspection into his own characters and their motivations. This eagerness to show a certain realism and authenticity in his film prompts Singleton to maintain an unfiltered and unapologetic aspect to his black experience. While there are clear explanations making it “easier” for a mainstream white audience to understand the film’s exploratory issues, there is also a clear championing of an African-American culture. This is seen represented subtly in many ways, such as the title itself: Boyz n the Hood making reference to a slang-spelling that might be blatantly playing into white viewers’ stereotypical expectations of what a black film could be titled. There is also the more localized championing of casting Ice Cube as Doughboy, with Ice Cube also coming from a similar LA urban background and calling out societal injustices and contradictions in his music. In this way, Singleton achieves a certain balance between the dualities that his film exhibits of catering to white critics while maintaining a sense of identity and origin. The film and its own existence are an example of the complicated balance in black multiplicity that happen in black life.

Boyz n the Hood is a milestone film that was able to launch the career of one of the boldest filmmakers of his generation. Singleton was not shy from exploring the dangerously pigeon-holed expectation of inner-city life, blatantly showing what mainstream American was being sold on: violence, teenage pregnancies, but also finding a way to explore the deeper roots and causes of such patterns. Specifically, there is a complex array of characters wrought, and their journeys followed to exemplify the difficult and deadly societal circumstances that they are forced to suffer through. Singleton was able to examine the ubiquitous black duality that DuBois explained in the early 20th century, and very clearly represents it through the conflicted characters of Tre and Furious as well as through his own screenwriting and thematic infusions. In the end, a hit film was produced that launched multiple careers on the acting front as well as bringing to light many uncomfortable racial aspects linked to authority’s actions and societal systems. Boyz n the Hood proved to be an indie break out that brought both large amounts of black and white audiences to the movie theater. However, despite the Hollywood Cinderella story that Singleton had with this film, the greater trends of the industry continued to marginalize black films into a secondary sphere of influence.

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