Every once in a while a film comes along which is able to transcend cultural, social and racial boundaries and present a relatable and poignant tale which is immediately accessible to a wide spectrum of audiences. One such film is the South Central LA-set, coming-of-tale tale, Boyz N the Hood. Having recently celebrated the twenty year mark since its initial cinema release (and now out on Blu-ray), it's a film which touched the hearts of many, due to its moving and sometimes unflinching look at the lives of a group of teenage kids living in a constant, gang-inspired suburban war zone.
The debut film of director John Singleton (who, at the ripe old age of 23, showed remarkable maturity and a solid gasp of human nature for his youthful years) it's the tale of the daily struggles of a teenager named Tré Styles (alongside best friend and neighbour from across the street, Ricky) who is on the cusp of adulthood and is living in a poor, gang-ridden South Central district of Los Angeles. Both boys are determined to escape their environment, although situations are tempered as many of their friends, including Ricky's brother, Doughboy (played by rapper Ice Cube) are involved in that milieu, and the conflicts which go hand-in-hand with their surroundings.
Nowadays, 'urban cinema' is no longer a niche genre, but back in the early nineties the likes of Boyz N the Hood and its violent, altogether bleaker and nihilistic predecessor, Menace II Society, were part of a handful of dramas out there to document young black males growing up in an explosive environment where tribal warfare and a perpetual soundtrack of gangster rap prevailed, and two decades later, the film hasn't lost any of its power. Compared to 'Menace', Boyz N The Hood is definitely the more palatable of the two, but this doesn't mean that the overall impact of the story is diluted in any way. Singleton doesn't shy away from representing the volatile world which Tré encounters on a day-to-day basis. He never once goes the preachy route either, and even the tragic consequences of one of the main characters never feels overcooked and is emotionally bang-on. This is very much key to the films' success and longevity, and also its ability to reach out to that larger audience. The themes touched upon throughout are pretty universal, and while the majority of audiences out there don't necessarily live in that world, that feeling of longing to escape the home turf and forge a successful life outside of it is felt by many.
Singleton also proves he was incredibly adept at eliciting fine performances from his mostly fresh-faced cast members. Cuba Gooding Jr. has never been better as the grown-up Tré (the first 30 minutes or so of the film introduces the character five years earlier) and Laurence Fishbourne in the role of his father, Furious, is terrific and manages to remain quite the opposite of his character's moniker and is a caring, supportive figure in his son's life, who is equally strong and authoritative when the situation calls for it. He is the father-figure Tré's friends lack and could so desperately benefit from, particularly Doughboy. Angela Bassett has a small and memorable role as Furious' ex-wife and mother to their only child, and both actors would go on to portray husband and wife again (albeit in a much more strained fashion) when the two appeared as real-life couple Ike and Tina Turner in the 1997 biopic, What's Love Got to Do With It? It's to Fishbourne's credit that, at the relatively young age of 30 (and only seven years older than his screen son at the time), he's able to infuse his character with an intelligent and maturity which far exceeds his actual age.
The film wasn't just a hit for audiences either, and it managed to garner some strong notice and attention from the critics around the world. It was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival and received Academy Award nods for Best Screenplay and Director. At age 24, Singleton was the youngest person ever nominated for Best Director, and (perhaps more significant) the first African-American to ever receive that accolade.
Boyz N the Hood very much remains an astute and heartfelt slice of Hollywood social history, and is as relevant now as it's always been. Even the film's tagline, "Increase the Peace" (which crops up on screen before the end credits) still offers a simple yet intrinsic lesson for these fraught times.