Boyz 25:  Reflections on a Hip-Hop Classic

“Either they don’t know… don’t show … or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.”
–Doughboy, Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Twenty-five years ago, America was dealing with war in Iraq, growing concerns over racial profiling, an alarming rate of black-on-black violence, Donald Trump was in the news, and Bill Clinton was running for the president. The nation’s hottest hip-hop artist resided in Los Angeles.

Does any of this ring a bell?

Twenty-five years ago also marked the release of the most important film in hip-hop history, Boyz n the Hood. The film was released nationwide on July 12, 1991, just four months after the premiere of another hip-hop classic, New Jack City, introducing the notorious gangster Nino Brown. Boyz n the Hood, a fictional coming of age story about three young black males (Trey, Ricky, and Doughboy) in South Central, Los Angeles, grossed nearly $60 million during a summer highlighted by other films such as Terminator 2, Thelma & Louise, and Jungle Fever. With the aid of a hot soundtrack, lowrider cars, jheri curls, local slang, and the latest fashion (i.e. Doughboy’s LA Raiders fitted cap or Trey’s Georgetown Hoyas t-shirt) the film had an authenticity that made it timeless. The film’s success paved the way for similar hip-hop films including Juice (1992) and Menace II Society (1993).

Boyz n the Hood was the cinematic debut of recent University of Southern California graduate John Singleton. At the time Spike Lee, hot off the success of Do the Right Thing (1989), was America’s premier young black film director. Singleton based Boyz n the Hood loosely on his experiences growing up in South Central, Los Angeles. Future hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons initially offered to produce the film for Columbia Pictures, but was later cut out the picture after the studio purchased the film. Columbia offered him $100,000 to walk away and allow a more seasoned director to create the film, but he refused. Only 23-years-old at the time, Singleton became the youngest director in history to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Over the next few years, he would emerge as one of Hollywood’s most successful directors. Although, this film will always be his magnum opus.

The film made many whites and middle class blacks aware of the struggles experienced by poor blacks in the hood. Unfortunately, the film’s anti-gang message was marred by violence at theaters across the nation over its opening weekend.

The film’s cast, while mostly unknown at the time, featured several notable actors including Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding Jr., Regina King, Morris Chestnut, and Nia Long. Out of the noted actors and actresses, the film’s brightest star and arguably the best rapper in the music industry at the time was Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson), who played the role of Doughboy. After splitting with N.W.A. (hip-hop’s version of the Beatles) over differences with the group’s founder Eazy-E and manager Jerry Heller, Cube worked with Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production team to create his seminal album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990). This would all later be depicted in the 2015 blockbuster biopic, Straight Outta Compton.

Boyz n the Hood presented viewers with a kaleidoscope of issues from Los Angeles gang violence, police brutality, incarceration, drug abuse, education, dating, religion, collegiate sports, and responsibility. The film made many whites and middle class blacks aware of the struggles experienced by poor blacks in the hood. Unfortunately, the film’s anti-gang message was marred by violence at theaters across the nation over its opening weekend. In Los Angeles, eleven moviegoers were wounded by gunfire from rival gangs. A man was killed at a theater near Chicago. Leroy Delaney, a 19-year-old black male, was stabbed by two young men in Long Island. Moviegoers were wounded as violence struck theaters in Seattle, Minneapolis, and other parts of the country. 20 of the 900 theaters showing the film experienced violence. Most of the violence has been blamed on Columbia Pictures’ decision to use a trailer full of gangsta rap and the film’s most violent sequences to promote it. Similar violent incidents occurred four months earlier during the opening weekend of New Jack City.

Welcome to L.A.

In order to really appreciate Boyz n the Hood viewers must understand the historical context of the film. Ezra Edelman’s 2016 ESPN 30 for 30 documentary film O.J.: Made in America offers a great introduction to understanding race relations in Los Angeles. The black population in LA rose from 2.7 to 8.7% between 1920 and 1950. The allure of good factory jobs, homeownership, and an escape from the Jim Crow South inspired this great black migration to the West Coast. However, blacks soon realized that it actually does rain in Southern California. In 1950 William H. Parker became the city’s police chief. Parker recruited racist white police officers from the South and even supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

White teenage gangs targeted young black males causing them to form gangs for protection. The gains of the Civil Rights Movement allowed the black middle class to move into previously segregated communities. This resulted in the poor being left behind in the neighborhoods of South Central and black unemployment skyrocketing to 20% in South by 1965. The city was a powder keg ready to explode when police mistreatment of Maraquette Frye, an intoxicated black motorist, and his mother Rena on August 11, 1965. The incident resulted in the infamous Watts riots, August 11-17, 1965. The six days of rioting led to 34 deaths and over $40 million in property damage. In December 1965, CBS Reports aired “Watts: Riots or Revolt?” The documentary explored the causes of the city’s unrest.

The Crips, founded by Stanley “Tookie” Williams, Jamel Barnes, and Raymond Washington in 1969, referred to themselves as the bastard offspring of the Panthers.

Following the riots, the social activism of black power groups such as the Nation of Islam, the US Organization and the Black Panther Party spread throughout the city. The Panthers launched free breakfast programs and liberation schools for kids, worked to end crime in black communities, and called on blacks to “get in formation” to stop police brutality. Many Panther recruits were the “brothas and sistas” from the block, as opposed to the church folk marching with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. down South. Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, once a feared gangbanger in the Slausons street gang, became the founding member of the Black Panthers’ chapter of Southern California.

Bunchy would become a victim of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) which labeled black power groups like the Panthers as the worst threat to homeland security (PBS The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution). On January 17, 1969, Bunchy and fellow Panther, John Huggins were shot to death during a Black Student Union meeting at UCLA. The shooting resulted from lies spread by the FBI to incite a beef between the Panthers and Ron Karenga’s U.S. Organization. Within a few years these Black Nationalist groups were replaced by violent street gangs known as the Crips and the Bloods. The Crips, founded by Stanley “Tookie” Williams, Jamel Barnes, and Raymond Washington in 1969, referred to themselves as the bastard offspring of the Panthers. According to Mike Davis, LA historian and author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (2006), the Crips, along with their rivals the Bloods, soon turned the streets of L.A. into a warzone. In 1992, there was a record 2,589 homicides in Los Angeles County resulting from gang violence and race riots.

Crack was responsible for an illegal drug trade that turned poor young black men into millionaires, mothers into junkies, grandmothers into legal guardians for crack babies, and increased gang violence on the streets.

Throughout the 1980s, de-industrialization and the loss of union jobs increased the unemployment rate. South Central’s unemployment rate for black males was 45% by the time Boyz n the Hood debuted. Several young black males saw gang life as their only option. The rise of the crack cocaine epidemic only made matters worse. Powder cocaine was usually found in wealthy white neighborhoods. African-Americans that used powder cocaine tended to be wealthy or famous celebrities like Dwight “Doc” Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, and Whitney Houston. Less fortunate blacks, no longer using heroin or marijuana, settled for crack — a cheaper, smokable version of powder cocaine that was boiled in water. The residue was placed in cold water forming what was called “freebase”. The chipped-off pieces of freebase were called crack because of the cracking noise it made while boiling. Crack was immediately absorbed into the bloodstream, reaching the brain within eight seconds, providing the user an instant high (Planet Rock: The Story of Hip Hop & the Crack Generation, 2011).

Crack was responsible for an illegal drug trade that turned poor young black men into millionaires, mothers into junkies, grandmothers into legal guardians for crack babies, and increased gang violence on the streets. Crack kingpin “Freeway” Rick Ross built an empire in L.A. by using gang sets to “move his weight” throughout the nation’s black neighborhoods. President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Congress responded with a continuation of Richard Nixon’s 1971 War on Drugs. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, passed by Congress, implemented new mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. A first time offender caught with crack cocaine (even if there was no evidence of intent to sell) received a minimum five-year prison sentence. First time offenders caught with powder cocaine only received a year sentence. Michelle Alexander, author of the seminal study on mass incarceration The New Jim Crow (2010), says the war on drugs was an assault on young black men and women. By 1991, 25 percent of black males were behind bars serving time for drug offenses, while the other black males were serving time for violent offenses. The notion of a prison industrial complex was beginning to take shape.

President Reagan signed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act into law granting police departments access to military weaponry, bases, and intelligence. In Los Angeles, California, Police Chief Darryl Gates’ Operation Hammer introduced the “Batteram,” a modified military tank with a long battering tool — a ram, which destroyed the stash houses where police believed the drugs were located. When L.A. hosted the 1984 Summer Olympics, Time Magazine praised the LAPD for “keeping the peace”. L.A. rap songs like Ice-T.’s “6 in the Mornin,’” Toddy Tee’s “Batterram,” and “F_ _k tha Police” by N.W.A. expressed the growing frustration in black communities from militarized policing. On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was nearly beaten to death by 4 white police officers. Thirteen days later Lataha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl, was shot and killed by a Korean-American store owner in South Central over a bottle of orange juice. The owner was given a $500 fine and 400 hours of community service, but no prison time. This was the historical context surrounding the release of Boyz n the Hood.

The (Mis)education of Trey Styles: good kid, m.A.A.d city

Kendrick Lamar’s triumphant debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012) could be the soundtrack to the life of Boyz n the Hood’s protagonist, Jason “Trey” Styles III. Trey (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a good kid trying to survive in South Central. The film begins in 1984 with ten-year-old Trey walking past posters of Ronald Reagan, yellow police tape, and dried up blood on the ground as he and his friends walk to school. Trey is suspended after getting into a fight during class and is in danger of becoming another statistic in the school-to-prison pipeline. Educator Jawanza Kunjufu argues that there is a conspiracy to destroy black boys by suspending them from school for misbehavior and setting them on the path to incarceration or the graveyard. Trey’s single mother, Reva Devereaux (Angela Bassett), sends him to live with his father Furious (Laurence Fishburne) with hopes of preventing his self-destruction.

The majority of the film revolves around Trey’s life in his father’s Crenshaw neighborhood. Furious, a Vietnam veteran, was only seventeen-years-old when Trey was born. He volunteered for the military because he thought it promised him an opportunity, but grew to view the military as an exploiter of black men. Now Furious owns a finance business that helps people get home loans. His parenting style could serve as the blueprint for President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program more than twenty years later. Within the first ten minutes of Trey’s arrival, Furious puts him to work doing chores around the house until sunset. Furious uses a fishing trip to discuss the birds and the bees. After the film skips ahead to 1991, Furious’ messages become even stronger now that Trey is reaching manhood. He scolds Trey when he mistakenly believes that he is having unprotected sex. He preaches self-help, responsibility, and black ownership. One memorable scene involves Furious taking Trey and his best friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut) to nearby Compton for a lesson on class inequality and gentrification. Ironically, this issue of gentrification is still a controversial issue for blacks in L.A. today.

Boyz n the Hood’s (mis)treatment of black women harkens back to the rhetoric of Assistant Secretary of Labor, Daniel P. Moynihan’s disturbing 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.”

Furious is a hybrid of Malcolm X and everyone’s favorite fictional black dad, James Evans from Good Times. The success of his tough love is evident when Trey scores high enough on his SAT, in hopes of attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA. It is also evident when Trey gets out of his friend Doughboy’s car. The boys are looking to get vengeance on a trio of Bloods that killed Ricky. Trey’s decision to exit the car saved his life.

Early in the film Furious tells a ten-year-old Trey that he is tough on him because he doesn’t want him to end up like his best friends Ricky and Darrin “Doughboy” Baker who lack discipline. In Singleton’s attempt to uplift black fatherhood, he contributes to the film’s biggest flaw. Ricky and Doughboy are raised by their single, unemployed mother, Brenda. The boys have different fathers. Brenda favors her handsome, athletic son Ricky over her overweight son Doughboy. Her verbal abuse contributes to his violent demeanor, Crip affiliation, disrespect for women, and constant run-ins with the law. When Ricky is killed in a drive-by shooting, on the same day he received his passing SAT scores to play football at USC, her first reaction is to blame Doughboy. I was always disturbed by the film’s depiction of black mothers in particular; black women in general. Trey’s mom initially sends him to live with Furious because she “can’t teach him to be a man.” He ends up staying with his dad for seven years because she is pursuing her master’s degree and moving up the career ladder. The mother of Ricky’s son is a fellow high school student. Another mother is a crack addict who offers Trey oral sex in exchange for a few dollars to buy more drugs. She is so far gone that she does not even realize that her infant daughter was nearly hit by a car crossing the street on her own. Trey’s girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long) is reduced to a one-dimensional role as the exceptional good girl in the hood who ends up attending Spelman College.

Boyz n the Hood’s (mis)treatment of black women harkens back to the rhetoric of Assistant Secretary of Labor, Daniel P. Moynihan’s disturbing 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.” The Moynihan report, inspired by E. Franklin Frazier’s studies on black families in the 1930s, blamed single black mothers for creating a tangle of pathology in the black community. According to Moynihan, female-headed households contributed to the dysfunction of the black family unit and an ongoing cycle of poverty. Bill Moyers’s 1986 documentary “The Vanishing Black Family – Crisis in Black America” revitalized the Moynihan Report 30 years later. Dorothy Height and the National Council of Negro Women tried to counter these reports by establishing the National Black Family Reunion.

Furious is a hybrid of Malcolm X and everyone’s favorite fictional black dad, James Evans from Good Times.

Although Singleton meant well, the underlying message is that black single mothers in rough areas are incapable of raising productive young black men. He promoted a similar message in his 2001 film Baby Boy starring Tyrese Gibson and Empire’s Taraji P. Henson. Tyrese’s character Jody was an irresponsible 20-year-old manchild raised by his single 36-year-old mother Juanita. Jody has 2 kids with different girlfriends, nearly kills a man, and almost commits suicide. It takes his mother’s new boyfriend Melvin, an ex-convict, to save his life. There is little difference between Singleton’s messages and the 1960s rhetoric that promoted strong black manhood and patriarchy at the expense of gender equality. (Bell Hooks, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity) Addressing the issues of black girls in the hood was also minimized throughout Boyz n the Hood. Perhaps Singleton’s sophomore film, Poetic Justice (1993), featuring Janet Jackson as a young black woman in South Central, was his attempt to rectify this error. Nevertheless, Singleton’s failure to acknowledge intersectionality in Boyz n the Hood is a flaw that should not be ignored for the sake of praising the film.

Black Lives Matter: A Requiem for Ricky and Doughboy

Boyz n the Hood was addressing many of the issues of today’s Black Lives Matter Movement twenty-five years ago. After an attempted robbery on his home Furious calls the police. Furious and a ten-year-old Trey wait outside in the dark for nearly an hour before two officers, (one black and one white) arrive. The black cop tells Furious he should have killed the burglar because it would have been one less nigger on the street. Ironically, seven years later this same black cop stops Trey and Ricky while they are driving. He puts Trey up against the car, puts a gun to his neck, and falsely accuses him of being a Crip. The cop’s rhetoric is eerily reminiscent of that being spewed on the FOX News Channel by ultra conservative black talking head, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.

The police brutality in the film speaks to the climate in L.A. in early 1990s. According to Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, “Treating the city as occupied territory became institutionalized. From 1984-89, there was a 33 percent spike in citizen complaints against police brutality. Between 1986 and 1990, 1,400 officers were investigated on suspicion of using excessive force, less than 1 percent were prosecuted.” All of this was happening just a few years after LAPD officers shot and killed a 39-year-old black woman from South Central named Eulia May Love during a dispute over a $22.09 unpaid gas bill. Love lay dead on the ground two minutes and 27 seconds after the police arrived on the scene. LAPD Chief Darryl Gates defended his officers. Gates once famously blamed black deaths from police choke-holds on the inability of African-American arteries to “open up as fast they do on normal people.”

On March 3, 1991, the nearly fatal beating of an unarmed black motorist Rodney King by four white LAPD officers was caught on videotape by George Holliday. The acquittals of the four officers (Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno) by a jury of 10 whites and 2 minorities, sparked the match that set Los Angeles on fire for six days one year later. The 1992 riots in South Central left 53 people dead, over 2,000 injured, and over $1 billion in property damage. In 1995, the LAPD was at the center of controversy again during the O.J. Simpson trial. Juror #9 Carrie Bess recently admitted that their not guilty verdict was “payback” for the Rodney King verdict.

Rather than simply point the finger at the LAPD, Singleton places the majority of blame on young black men killing each other over something as petty as gang colors.

Rather than simply point the finger at the LAPD, Singleton places the majority of blame on young black men killing each other over something as petty as gang colors. The young black men in the film have become crippled by their nihilism (Cornel West, Race Matters 1994). They carry out their frustration, with the larger system, against each other. It still chokes me up to see Ricky stretched across his mother’s plastic covered couch with his white shirt soaked in blood and blood trickling down his chin. After three Bloods gun down Ricky, Doughboy and his crew of Crips track them down at a local dinner later that night resulting in Doughboy killing all of the young men. As fate would have it, he is murdered two weeks after burying his brother. (Ironically, the actor Dedrick Gobert who played Doughboy’s homeboy Dooky – the teen with the pacifier – was murdered in 1994). The film opens with the following text on the screen: “One out of every twenty-one Black American males will be murdered in their lifetime. Most will die at the hands of another Black Male.”

In some ways I believe that mainstream America had an easier time accepting this film because the chief villains are black people (gang members, single mothers, promiscuous single women, and black cops). This was a message that both white conservatives and liberals could be comfortable with. Middle class and elite blacks that joined in the white flight from these neighborhoods, without looking back, were also given a pass.

As the film concludes the words “increase the peace” appear on the screen. Sadly, the film’s message has not been heeded. South Central is safer, but gangs are still a problem. This fact is manifested in the 2015 teen “dramedy,” Dope. It is also manifested in albums by contemporary L.A. rappers, The Game and Kendrick Lamar.

“Prior to rapping I was drug traffickin’. In the dope spot playing John Madden, Homie I ain’t bragging, I took five, If you wanna die run up on that black 745.” (The Game “Westside Story,” The Documentary 2005)

“So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? When gang banging make me a kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!” (Kendrick Lamar “Blacker the Berry,” To Pimp a Butterfly 2015)

South Side Chicago is today’s version of 1991 South Central. The police department is being investigated for racial profiling and unlawful actions against black citizens like Laquan McDonald. Black-on-black violence is rampant in the city’s streets. Fifty-five people were shot in Chicago last year over the Fourth of July weekend. This past Memorial Day holiday weekend Chicago experienced sixty-nine shootings and six deaths. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly has suggested that the National Guard be sent in to occupy the city.

Spike Lee’s 2015 film, Chi-Raq documents the city’s gang violence. Lee begins his film in a manner that is similar to Boyz n the Hood. The film’s opening sequence features the following text on the screen: “2001-present day, 2,349 American soldiers died in Afghanistan War. 2001-2003, 4,424 American soldiers died in the Iraqi War. 2001-2015, 7,356 murders in Chicago.” The third installment of Ice Cube’s Barbershop franchise is dedicated to ending the Windy City’s gang violence. Ironically the actor who once played Doughboy now portrays the role of a strong “woke” black father, reminiscent of Furious, desperately trying to keep his teenage son off the streets. Chicago emcee, Chance the Rapper, like his LA counterparts, addresses the South Side’s problems in his lyrics: “It’s too many young angels on the Southside. Got us scared to let our grandmommas outside.” (Chance the Rapper “Angels,” Coloring Book 2016)

Boyz n the Hood: 25 Years Later

In spite of its shortcomings, Boyz n the Hood is one of the most powerful films in the history of African-American cinema and Hollywood. In 1993, Boyz n the Hood received the award for “Best Motion Picture” at the 25th NAACP Image Awards. Nine years later, The Library of Congress added the film to its National Film Registry for being a “culturally significant” film. This past February the African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) celebrated the film’s 25th anniversary. John Singleton received the 2016 AAFCA Special Achievement Award. Theaters nationwide are showing special screenings of the film this summer.

As for the hip-hop community this film is the cinematic equivalent of legendary albums such as The Chronic (1992), Illmatic (1994), Ready to Die (1994), Me Against the World (1995), and The Blueprint (2001). It is no coincidence that rappers still reference this film. Kendrick Lamar compares himself to Trey in his soul stirring song “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” Twenty-five years ago Doughboy asked Trey why the mainstream media ignores the black lives lost every day in the hood. In retrospect, he was basically asking Trey and viewers, “do black lives matter?” Sadly, if Doughboy was alive today he might be asking that same question.

By Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D

Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D. is an associate professor of History and coordinator for the Social Studies Teacher Education Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.