Deliberate Choices For Artistic Flair: ‘Boyz N The Hood’ (1991)

Director John Singleton’s films are known to center around inner-city tension and have narratives that center African Americans. As a Los Angeles native, it shouldn’t be incorrect to assume that he wanted to see films that featured people who looked like him, for representation sake. As this film is inspired by much of his own experiences in South Central LA, it is a testament crafting parts of your life story into a script and dutifully moving forward to make a film of it.

Picking up two nominations from the Academy the following year as noted on the film’s IMDB webpage: one for best director for Singleton and the second nomination for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. It is worth noting that Singleton, (24 years old) at this point in time, became the youngest director and also the very first African-American in cinema history ever to be nominated by the Academy for Best Director.

Boyz N The Hood paints a picture of a hard truth — of boys becoming men with a lens of blackness. With a tagline of “Once upon a time in South Central L.A. … It ain’t no fairy tale”, Boyz N The Hood presents a narrative that includes music to foreshadow its plot and special attention to the editing to maximize tensions.

When 10 year old Tre (Desi Arnez Hines II) is sent to live with his father Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) , he’s gifted a man who seeks to teach him morals and responsibility. He’s gifted a man who bonds with him, keeps him on the straight and narrow. His father sets out to teach him how to be a man, something many of his friends and neighbors don’t have in the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood he grows up in. The film mainly follows Tre, his two friends, half-brothers Doughboy and Ricky as they become young men as they navigate the streets of their city and get caught in the vicious cycle of violence, gangs, drugs and death that inserts themselves into the lives of Black men in South Central Los Angeles.

We must know that with film, every choice is a deliberate one.

Every sequence, every stylistic choice, every section of the script — we must be mindful that everything is deliberate.

Boyz N The Hood has several illustrative examples — and they add artistic flair to the filmmaker’s vision and also add to the narrative.

The film opens with audio with disgruntled individuals with the Colombia Pictures logo lighting up the screen. Fading back to black we hear gunshots ringing out with screaming and police sirens. We see a caption stating: “One of every twenty-three Black American males will be murdered in their lifetimes.” The next slide is captioned with these words: “Most will die at the hands of another Black male”. This is a jump off point to start for audiences to start to get an idea of how this film’s narrative will go or at least what theme it might touch.

1991, 1992 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

There is also a particular framed shot that gives greater insight about the film earlier on when the boys are still young, at then ten years old selves before the seven year time skip that presents them as young men at seventeen years of age. When the boys walk the neighbor and walk the train tracks, there is almost a bird’s eye view shot of the four of them. First this shot is reminiscent of 1993’s The Sandlot another coming of age film featuring boyhood troubles featuring a father figure (Small’s step-father) and a ball (a baseball).

1991, 1992 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Secondly this shot calls to mind 1986’s Stand By Me which is a film where an adult recounts a boyhood adventure to find the body of a missing kid, especially when one of Tre’s friends asks the other boys, “Want to see a dead body?” Like Boyz N The Hood, these films touch upon the boys involved in their film’s narratives as adults later but have way more happier endings more or less. Where these films differ is that the majority of Boyz N The Hood is shot where the boys are older, young men and The Sandlot and Stand By Me as films focus more on their boys as children.

The music audiences hear in the film really helps set the tone in each arc of the film and successfully foreshadows what happens next in the narrative. Earlier in the film when Tre and his friends are still ten years old Furious takes Tre on a fishing trip to do some bonding. In a pleasant mood on the way home, Furious turns on the radio and the audience hears “Oh Child” by the Five Stair Steps in diegetic fashion. Furious starts to sing along until we see both his and Tre’s attention directed elsewhere: Doughboy (Baha Jackson)and their other friend being escorted away to juvie by police.

Ricky(Donovan McCrary) looks down morose while his and Dougboy’s mother, Ms. Baker (Tyra Ferrell) looks irritated and goes back into her home. The song continues in non-diegetic fashion as Tre and his father get out the car and young Tre looks on with a sad expression on his face. This sets the tone for the rest of the film with Tre managing to stay out of most of the trouble his peers like Doughboy gets into as the next thing audiences see is a title card with “Seven years later”.

1991, 1992 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Two more songs in Boyz n The Hood that help set the tone are “Growin’ Up In The Hood” by Compton’s Most Wanted and “Septembro” (Brazilian Wedding Song) by Quincy Jones. When Furious takes Tre and Ricky on a trip to Compton to look at billboard and teach them about gentrification. The first song plays as the two friends look uneasy as they comment on how dangerous Compton is, which Furious dismisses. Furious’ spoken observations about Black communities draws a small crowd including many locals. He waxes on about how African American communities suffer with liquor and gun stores present and how they are detrimental because a people who aren’t able to reproduce are doomed.

With Quincy Jones’ “Septembro” (Brazilian Wedding Song), we hear that in non-diegetic fashion in a scene with 17 year old Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) visits 17 year old Brandi (Nia Long) after his horrific ordeal of being a victim of police brutality. After his tearful breakdown she comforts him and the two make love, for the first time. The song starts once they are in her bed and it is significant because of her continued hesitant attitude to commit to this form of intimacy with Tre. She told him early on that as a Catholic she wanted to wait until she was married but also she wanted to focus on school and make it college, not wanting to become a teen mom. This song plays with them in bed and it helps cements their relationship as we see in the end when a title card tells us that Tre was accepted to college and Brandi at a nearby one across the way.

The attention to detail when comes to the editing for this film really helps guide the narrative along for the audience and helps us understand tensions and motivations. Early in the film before young Tre goes to live with his father, he’s walking home with friends when Bobby (Valentino D. Harrison) leads them on a mini adventure. When the kids enter an alley there’s a jump cut to a poster of President Ronald Regan ridden with holes with a gunshot sound effect. Another jump cut to a closer shot of another Regan poster next to it, this one torn with another gunshot sound effect.

1991, 1992 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

An even more close up shot of the poster to that one with yet another gunshot effect. The children get around the yellow tape to a crime scene, young Bobby even flips off one of the posters. This short sequence is demonstrating the general ire of Regan and his administration by African American communities felt in the 1980’s as the policies set forth by his administration criminalized Black folks heavily with that decade’s war on drugs.

In regards to editing, this film features a more elliptical narrative style as the film starts when the boys are child with a time skip to teenagers, young men. This is further demonstrated with a flashback scene of that we see of Tre recounting how he lost his virginity (which turns out to be a lie) to his father in an attempt to be seen as more mature. Jump cuts are perhaps the most obvious transition in editing that calls attention to itself and they are used plenty here in this film. In a scene later when the boys are teenagers, there is a close up shot of their friend, Monster (Baldwin C. Sykes) holding a gun with him stating that “I’m going to shoot his motherfucker”. A shot ring out. A jump cut reveals he is playing Duck Hunt on the original Nintendo game system and this is a nod to the violence heavy, gun familiar culture that these young men find themselves in.

When we speak about privilege in the film industry, there must be dialogue on who gets to be a film maker, on get gets to become an auteur. There must be dialogue on what stories get the chance to be told and made for the big screen. It is not often that films made by people of color: directed, written and starring people of color in narratives that center them get made and make it to stage that is the Academy Awards. Boyz n the Hood made its way onto the prestigious National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and into the history of Angeleno filmmakers making efforts to center films in and around their home city. Singleton’s films usually center stories in the inner cities and usually his leading men are usually Black men, who historically weren’t fist billed or cast in films centering them.

Singleton became the first black director to be nominated for an Oscar, for his debut film ‘Boyz n the Hood’ (pictured in 1991) GETTY IMAGES

Boyz n The Hood presented a narrative that included music to foreshadow its plot and special attention to the editing to maximize tensions and motivations. Presenting on screen the vicious cycle of life and death in Los Angeles that young Black men face where some succumb and others find a way out, Boyz n The Hood ends with one last line on screen after the logo: “Increase the peace”, which is the film’s second tagline.

Rapper Icecube (who, like many Black, male rappers this year has been roasted online and off for endorsing Trump or at least engaging with his reelection campaign) who was cast as the older Doughboy, whose film career was launched by this role can be heard by via song as his song, “How to Survive In South Central” plays while the credits role. The director who passed away in 2019 cemented his legacy with this film. Singleton’s portrayal of social problems in Los Angeles inspired by his own life is closer than fiction for many young Black men. I, too, have known a few Doughboys and a few Rickys alongside some whose lives resembled Tre in Los Angeles, the city I grew up in.

Carrie is a writer, editor & media Scholar with an affinity for red lipstick living in California. She writes about literature, art, cinema & amazing women here on Medium. See more of her online on Twitter and Instagram!

⭐️ Writer, Editor & Media Scholar with an affinity for red lipstick living in California. Writes about literature, art, cinema & amazing women. ⭐️

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