“In any type of writing program, they say to write about what you know,” John Singleton told Walter Mosley during a conversation following a 25th-anniversary screening of his classic film debut, Boyz n the Hood, in New York in June.
“When you’re a certain age, you only have a limited amount of life experience. I only knew about what I saw growing up in the hood, so I went and hung out with my folks on Vermont Avenue and decided to figure out this story. That’s where this came from—me trying to make an identity for myself as a filmmaker repping Los Angeles, and using a certain part of L.A. as an identity.”
That coming-of-age story about three teenagers—Tre, whose unmarried parents are zoned in on his success; his best friend, Ricky, a football standout; and Ricky’s drug-dealer brother, Doughboy—in South Central Los Angeles opened July 12, 1991. At the time, urban communities across the country were grappling with alarming gang violence and staggering homicide rates mainly brought on by young black men killing one another. For many, rap music was the only insight into the violence that fed news headlines. In fact, Singleton told Black Tree TV, which filmed its own anniversary tribute in early January, “The movie for me was kind of like a rap album on film. Just like the rappers were speaking out in music, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Singleton didn’t take the braggadocio approach of showing drug dealers living out Scarface and The Godfather fantasies or showing the stress that cops endure in such tough circumstances as some other films did. Boyz was different. It took audiences into the world of South Central L.A., which also produced young men like Singleton, and it was eye-opening.
“At the time, drive-bys and this horrible black-on-black crime was just everywhere, and nobody was really talking about it until John made this movie,” Stephanie Allain, the diverse voice at Columbia Pictures who championed the film she would go on to produce, tells The Root. “It basically changed the world. It changed the neighborhood. It changed the perception of the kids in the neighborhood. It changed people’s perceptions about black people in general.”
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The evidence of that was fully on display at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival in France, where the film premiered and was given a standing ovation. When the time Boyz opened in the United States, it made a huge impact, one that even the Oscars recognized. Singleton became the first black director and the youngest ever nominated for Best Director, plus he was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Twenty-five years later, the impact of his Hollywood debut is still being felt, which is why the Oscar-granting Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted two anniversary screenings in Los Angeles and New York City in June.
“The reason the movie has stayed so relevant is because the writing was so specific and so true,” says Allain. “Those characters were so real. The actors that we cast were amazing, as they’ve all gone on to stardom. The honesty with which he shot that film as a first-time director, really bringing his voice to the screen, was so palpable and so real, and it will live on forever.”
Those amazing actors—Cuba Gooding Jr. (Tre), Nia Long (Tre’s girlfriend, Brandi), Morris Chestnut (Ricky), Ice Cube (Doughboy), Angela Bassett (Tre’s mother, Reva), Laurence Fishburne (Tre’s father, Furious), Regina King (Doughboy’s friend, Shalika) and Tyra Ferrell (Ricky and Doughboy’s mom, Mrs. Baker)—have gone on to even bigger and better things on the big and small screens over the years, but for many of them, Boyz was the main catalyst.
The film did a lot for black actors and actresses, Chestnut told Black Tree TV: “It made Hollywood take notice that there’s some real talent out there that is just untapped.”
Boyz also derived power from the fact that, like Singleton, many of the actors were personally tied to South Central. “I knew what it was like to go home from school and hear gunshots at night,” Long shared in the academy’s L.A. program, moderated by film critic Elvis Mitchell.
Ice Cube admitted to Black Tree TV that he underestimated the larger impact Boyz would have, precisely because the story hit so close to home. “I knew everybody on my street would love it. Hollywood? Not so sure,” he said.
“Nobody was doing movies like this about Los Angeles, how we grew up. Colors is one thing. This ain’t it,” Ice Cube explained. “This is a movie that’s not telling you how bad it is to be a [f—king] cop. This is telling you how bad it is to be in the hood and be innocent and trying to survive.”
Ice Cube later realized that Singleton had unlocked something truly revelatory. “John came at the perfect time with a different perspective of something that we all wanted to know about,” he said. “Everybody wants to know what goes on in the neighborhood that makes one kid do the right thing, one kid do the wrong thing.”
Fishburne, probably the film’s most seasoned cast member, understood the film’s power from the very beginning. “The idea that you had three young men who are living in an environment where every day their lives are potentially at risk,” he told Black Tree TV, “that’s human.”
For King, who was best-known as sweet Brenda in a completely different hood in 227 and who reinvented herself in Boyz as the edgy Shalika, Boyz’s universal appeal is simple. “Young people, kids, in broken neighborhoods, that’s a worldwide thing,” she told Black Tree TV.
However, it was only after the film opened and the Academy Awards nominations rolled in, Gooding admitted to Black Tree TV, that he realized how big “a statement film” Boyz was.
Gil Robertson, a founder and head of the African American Film Critics Association, which celebrated the film’s silver-anniversary milestone in February, believes “Boyz n the Hood has stood the test of time in a way that other films that are part of that genre have not. That doesn’t in any way diminish the merit of those other films,” he tells The Root. “Boyz was just an important film.”
According to Robertson, “The presence and success of Boyz n the Hood created a shift in the film and television industry” that is still felt now. “The success not only launched Singleton’s career but also opened the door for a number of other up-and-coming black directors to begin their careers,” he says.
For Robertson, however, measuring the impact of Boyz through other films isn’t even necessary. All that is required is to look at Singleton’s —which includes Rosewood, Poetic Justice, 2 Fast 2 Furious and two upcoming television shows—and the careers of Boyz’s primary cast. “Every one that was in that film in a principal role has gone on to have a successful career and a meaningful career,” he explains. “So it was special.”
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.