Jesse Bernard casts a modern eye back at early 90s Compton
In 2012 a young rapper from Compton released his inimitable debut studio album good kid, m.A.A.d city, a coming-of-age story centred on the lives of a group of young black men navigating teenagehood. The eternal evasion of gang culture, peer pressure, poor social conditions appear to be a common rite of passage for African-Americans from low-income areas. In 1991, it would’ve been difficult to imagine that Kendrick Lamar would address the same issues John Singleton critically addressed in cult classic film, Boyz n the Hood. Particularly in a country that posits itself as one of the most socially advanced nations in the world. On it’s 25th anniversary, the themes explored in Boyz n the Hood are particularly pertinent in today’s sociopolitical climate. In addition, Boyz n the Hood’s understated success sparked a wave of black coming-of-age films.
Less than a month until the 2016 US elections, one of the key talking points between the two presidential candidates is how to best to tackle issues such as mass incarceration, particularly in African-American communities. The prison industrial complex affects African-Americans disproportionately and with reforms on the possession and sale of cannabis being made across several states, questions are being raised regarding the inequality within the distribution of recreational drugs.
Singleton’s snapshot of a post-Reagan South Central LA shone a microscope on the effects of the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs; effets which are still felt today. Boyz n the Hood follows the lives of brothers Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube), and their close friend Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr). It revealed the nuanced complexities of adolescence in crime impoverished areas in a way that conveyed a wide range of emotions not typically explored in male-centric films. Comparisons can be drawn with good kid, m.a.a.d city, which follows the lives of a group of high school friends navigating life in Compton. Although it was a rap album, its likeness to Boyz n the Hood merely reinforces the legacy it created.
As a growing conversation around the concept of respectability politics grows among black people, the film struggles to subvert stereotypes regarding black fatherhood and abandonment. Whilst many elements of the themes contain a truth to them, to some audiences who are perhaps less nuanced, it reinforces the myth of black fathers abandoning their children and families. However, one of the film’s unsung moments was the subtle dialogue surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder and how it can manifest among young black men in areas where gun violence is high. Although the conversation surrounding the effects of PTSD on black men hasn’t quite reached a mainstream level, Boyz n the Hood was able to at least raise awareness.
Not only did Singleton address issues affecting predominantly African-American neighbourhoods at the time, he provided a glimpse of what was to come with his focus on gentrification. His ability to create art that maintains its relevance well beyond its initial creation is arguably one of his strongest points in the film. When compared to other films within this category, few were able to stand the test of time, while maintaining a weathered eye on the horizon. Menace II Society, directed by the Hughes Brothers, zeroed in on the oft fatal consequences of peer pressure in LA’s poorest neighbourhoods.
As we near the reality of a post-Obama America many films have provided a narrative which continued to address and bring to light the growing problem with the prison industrial complex and the War on Drugs. Hollywood’s history of institutional racism and erasure pushed black cinema and genres such as these to the periphery. It’s celebration at this year’s BFI Black Star is nothing short of deserved and a credit to the work of directors such as Singleton, Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler who aim to tell the stories of African-Americans in the most authentic way possible.
Boyz N The Hood ‘s release is part of BFI Black Star which champions the achievements of black stars from the earliest years of cinema through to the present day.
The film opens today at BFI Southbank, HOME Manchester, Showroom Sheffield, Peckham Plex and selected Vue and Odeon sites UK-wide.
Jesse Bernard is a music journalist and writer whose work has featured on sites such as The Guardian, Boiler Room, Noisey, PAPER, Complex UK, TRUE Africa, Pigeons & Planes. He is the radio producer for Kamilla Rose on Radar Radio, and workshop facilitator focusing on British black identities and black masculinity for schools across London.