Friday, July 8, 2011

Happy Birthday Doughboy: ‘Boyz n the Hood’ Turns 20

1991 proved to be a landmark year for black cinema.  New Jack City was released to both controversy and enthusiasm.  It reintroduced black exploitation to a new generation under the guise of a feature length anti-drug PSA.  It also became the highest grossing black film of all time up until that point.  Spike Lee kept his as yet unbroken winning streak going full bore with Jungle Fever.  As the summer movie season got underway, audiences the world over were enthralled with liquid metal spectacle of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  While the masses were being distracted by Cameron’s technical wizardry, an unknown filmmaker from Los Angeles offered them an as yet unacknowledged side of African American life.

Taking its name from a classic rap song that was penned by star Ice Cube and performed by former group mate Eazy-E, Boyz n the Hood told the story of three young black males growing up together on the streets of South Central Los Angeles in the year 1984.  7 years later, they begin embarking on different paths in life.  Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is being raised by his strict but loving single father Furious (Laurence Fishburne) who keeps him on a tight leash.  Darrin “Doughboy” Baker (Ice Cube) and Ricky Baker (Morris Chestnut) are half-brothers being raised by a single mom who favors the latter and resents the former.  While Tre and Ricky prepare for college, Doughboy peddles crack and loiters with friends in between prison stints.  He resents his younger half-sibling but is still protective of him.  Unfortunately, the streets of L.A. ultimately prove too much for mere familial bonds to withstand. 

Spike Lee had been the golden child of black cinema at the beginning of his career, and his reign went uncontested for quite some time.  New Jack City was successful, but largely seen as exploitive populist entertainment.  Mario van Peebles slick gangster pic was never much of a threat to Lee’s legacy, but Boyz was something different entirely.  It told a coming of age story immersed in maudlin sensibilities.  Beneath its gruff exterior of profanity, violence, and sexuality, it was actually a whimsical  and delicate morality tale.  It took its inspiration from like-minded slices of Americana like American Graffiti, Stand by Me and Cooley High.  It also offered something that Spike Lee’s docudramas often lacked: a simple yet affecting story.

Darrin "Doughboy" Baker (Ice Cube), leaning on his lowriding 64 Impala. 

While Dennis Hopper’s overblown buddy cop film Colors broadcasted the Los Angeles gang scene in alarmist fashion, Boyz took a different approach.  It humanized its characters and placed them in a middle class milieu.  Even in the grittiest of situations, they remained sympathetic.  Though the Bloods and Crips are never mentioned by name, the film contains lots of clues as to the characters affiliations.  Ricky’s murderer, Ferris, drives around in a red car.  Doughboy wears various shades of blue.  Their rivalry isn’t given any specifics or reasoning.  It simply exists, like the neighborhood itself.

The emotional core of the film is the crude yet likeable Doughboy.  The proverbial lost child, Doughboy nurses his pain with sips of malt liquor and the counsel of his friends.  He has a good heart, though he dabbles in hand to hand crack sales and openly disrespects women.  He sees no future for himself, yet protects his family and friends zealously regardless of the consequences.  Ice Cube slides into the role as naturally as a pair of house shoes and cut off khakis.  In many ways, it was a tenderer version of his Hip-Hop persona.  There was talk at the time of a best supporting actor nomination, as laughable as may seem today.

Boyz n the Hood went on to become the highest grossing black film of all time up until that point, earning 57 Million dollars at the domestic box office.  It garnered academy award nominations for director and screenplay.  Singleton remains the youngest filmmaker ever to receive such an honor.  The years have not been kind to the film, as it’s “after school special” pretensions now stick out like a sore thumb.  It also didn’t help that the Hughes brothers fierce and scorching debut Menace II Society would emerge two years later as the definitive ‘hood flick.  Nevertheless, Boyz remains a quaintly affecting if blatantly melodramatic film.  It may have been overpraised in its day, but it’s not without merit.  Rest in Peace Doughboy.  No more pain.   


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