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Boyz N the Hood (R)By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 12, 1991
"Boyz N the Hood" is a rude, insistent rap, an unflinching, often funny, always compassionate look at coming of age in South Central Los Angeles. Written and directed by homeboy John Singleton, the film is as ethnocentric as dreadlocks, but its theme is eternal: Maturity doesn't come easy anywhere. But too often it doesn't come at all in the black neighborhoods of urban America.
Singleton emphasizes both the colorblind commonalities and the color-specific differences in his opening flashback, an obvious quote from the white, rural memoir "Stand by Me." Like the kids in that Rob Reiner film, a gang of curious 10-year-old playmates sets out to see a body -- only this will be the first of many forgotten corpses, an omen of things to come.
The foundation laid, the innocence shattered, the story catches up with the Boyz again in the even more violent present, where macabre meets commonplace. Only seven years have gone by, but life has swiftly overtaken the teens in this disintegrating neighborhood, so deceptively paradisiacal with its neat lawns, palm trees and California skies.
Rap artist Ice Cube, whose song "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" partially inspired the story, makes an impressive acting debut as Doughboy, the fat, philosophical kid who's already an ex-con at 17. Morris Chestnut plays his model-handsome brother Ricky, their mother's coddled favorite. Ricky himself is already the father of a toddler, but he leaves the child's care to his young girlfriend -- which is the issue at the core of the film.
Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Tre, the only boy with a future -- because his mother throws up her hands and sends him to live with his stern father, Furious. Larry Fishburne portrays Furious as an authoritarian self-starter who finds it easier to respect his son than to warm to him -- "You're the prince," says Furious. "I'm the king." He's distant and preachy, but his tough love makes all the difference. While the boy's friends fall by the wayside, victims of temper, neglect and indigence, Tre perseveres.
Singleton is not one for subtleties. As a 23-year-old black man who grew up in the 'hood himself, he knows only too well that life can be short. So he scrawls his message across the screen with the urgent insolence of a graffiti artist: "Any fool ... can make a baby, but only a real man can raise his children." Women, referred to for the most part as "bitches" and "hos," apparently make lousy parents on their own.
Mostly "Boyz N the Hood" focuses on epidemic problems in the African American community: the drug users, the overzealous black cops out to impress their white partners, the awful chasm between black men and women. It doesn't blame "the man" for everything -- culturally biased aptitude tests and deceptive Army recruiting methods aside -- but it is inclined to preach to its audience. With its energetic cast and insistent street score, it still manages to be poignant without becoming bathetic, and violent without being exploitative.
The movie ends as happily as it can, while being true to the statistics: "One out of every 21 black males will be murdered before he is 25 -- most will die at the hands of other black men." Of course, realities hide behind statistics. And these Boyz are real.
Copyright The Washington Post