Films are portals into worlds; hood movies are no different. The crème de la crème are layered scans of life in the ghetto. In many cases, they’re also the necessary reminders that your remote control isn’t “ghetto” when it doesn’t work. Your locker isn’t “ghetto” because it won’t open and your iPhone screen damn sure isn’t “ghetto” because it’s cracked. Something is ghetto when it’s left to rot by the rest of the world. The ghetto is where detainees are waterboarded by life. The ghetto eats its young.
For 25 years now, John Singleton’s brilliant debut, Boyz n the Hood, has been lionized as a definitive hood classic for painting a remarkably evocative image of what it’s like to grow up in a war zone. The film follows Tre Styles and his friends, half-brothers Ricky and Doughboy, as they navigate South Central Los Angeles’s minefield from childhood to the cusp of adulthood. The whip-smart Tre is college-bound, and although he benefited from spending adolescence under the guidance of his principled father, Furious, his safety isn’t guaranteed. Ricky is a prodigious athlete and teenage father hoping to provide for his family with his gift. Doughboy has a conscience, but has already been in and out of jail. Hope isn’t waiting around the corner for these kids, death—in the form of society’s ills (drugs, disease, violence)—is. The police, tasked with restoring and maintaining order, are an equal threat. Boyz n the Hood is irrefutably urban, but simply categorizing it as an “urban film” undercuts the blunt force of its impact. It’s a coming of age story—one that shows, in explicit detail, how children are victimized by their surroundings.
Boyz n the Hood, the work of a 22-year-old writer and director, is also a teen movie. The principal characters are forced into adult situations, but many elements of the teen films that marked the 1980s are present. The difference between them and Boyz n the Hood is what’s at stake in the latter. If the main characters make it to adulthood and out of South Central, congratulations are in order.
John Singleton was born in 1968. He’s the same age as Molly Ringwald, eminent queen of the ‘80s teen movie, and Anthony Michael Hall, the genre’s reigning geek overlord. As a Gen Xer and aspiring filmmaker, he grew up a fan of John Hughes’s work. And as Singleton mentioned during an Academy screening and panel discussion about Boyz n the Hood last month, he even asked Hughes to read his script. Despite his appreciation for Hughes’s films, he noticed a glaring omission: any and all traces of the black experience. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off helped define a decade and generation, but they only showed the teenage experience from an exclusively white, suburban perspective.
“I loved the pictures, but none of those people looked like me,” Singleton admitted to NPR when discussing Boyz n the Hood’s 20th anniversary. “So me and my friends would catch the bus up to Hollywood, and we'd go see the movies, and we spent the whole time going down Vermont talking about the movie we would make. And the movie that we would make would always be something like what I did with Boyz n the Hood.”
Like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Spike Lee before him, Singleton was inspired by his surroundings. He wrote what he knew, and as a South Central native who didn’t stray far for college, Boyz n the Hood was his world. In his world, childhood ends early. As elementary schoolers, Tre, Ricky, Doughboy, and Chris follow train tracks to find a dead body in a not-so-subtle nod to another coming of age film: Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. The corpse they ultimately locate isn’t the end of their journey, though—it’s an ominous casualty of their surroundings. They aren’t even horrified by what they discover; it’s something they grow accustomed to seeing. But as they grow, an early grave is a fate they hope to avoid because each of them—even Doughboy—wants more out of life than what South Central has to offer.
Boyz n the Hood, similar to the coming of age films that preceded it, tackles the issues teenagers face on a daily basis. Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy’s bond carries the film because the endurance of friendship is essential to teen movies. Then there’s the future. Before Boyz n the Hood, many teen movies sold the idea that it was guaranteed for their characters. They had their whole lives in front of them. Fans of Risky Business could rest assured that Joel Goodsen went on to be successful beyond Princeton. The kids in Boyz n the Hood didn’t have it that easy. Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy weren’t antagonized by the school principal like the bulk of the Brat Pack was in The Breakfast Club, they were trying to cheat death on a daily basis. The typical ‘80s teen movie featured at least one party scene where the biggest concern was the tempered wrath of authority figures: parents and police. Boyz n the Hood took place in another reality—one where gatherings were broken up by stray bullets, where anyone could lose their life in a heartbeat.
Living under these conditions can give anyone PTSD, especially if they’re still in the formative stage. This motivates Tre’s emotional bloodletting. His infamous breakdown stems from 17 years of claustrophobia and pent-up frustration over things outside of his control. When life forces him into a corner, he feels like he has to fight his way out.
Tre and Ferris Bueller live in vastly different worlds, but share key characteristics. Both are intelligent, have a natural charm and parents who love them, and are ambitious. They want the same things out of life, but the major difference is what’s standing in their way. Ferris has no obstacles; Tre has South Central. That’s where the anger and urgency come from: Tre has limitless potential, but knows anyone’s can be extinguished at any time, without reason. This jarring fact is why Ricky’s murder remains one of the most traumatic moments in cinematic history, memes and other jokes considered.
While Boyz n the Hood may not have said anything new about the odds stacked against blacks youths’ survival, Singleton managed to say the necessary in a more emphatic, affective fashion. Ferris Bueller is iconic because he’s an exalted representation of cool. He’s a fantasy. Boyz n the Hood’s characters are iconic because they feel real, and what they endure on a day-to-day basis is frightening. They aren’t from where you want to be from; if you’re from there or someplace similar, you know the only thing to glorify is the escape from it. That has to be part of what steered Tre and Brandi to Atlanta—the opposite end of the country—for college. They wanted to get as far away from South Central as possible.
America embraces the white youth it produces while their black counterparts are largely left to fend for themselves. By adding more acute “teenage angst,” as Singleton told the Guardian in 2011, he separated Boyz n the Hood from the teen movies he was inspired by. They share themes, but a crippling dose of realism pervades the former. It’s a coming of age film, but it’s also a tale of morality and mortality. It’s social commentary told through youthful eyes, depicting life as a crapshoot where pure chance determines whether you end up like Tre, or like Ricky and Doughboy.
Boyz n the Hood’s two Oscar nominations are noteworthy, as is its addition to the National Film Registry. But its true legacy—beyond outlasting the bulk of its main characters; beyond the parallels between it and Dope, or Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city and Vince Staples’s Summertime ‘06—is revealing how being born into chaos forces kids to grow up quickly. That alone makes it more powerful than the dozens of teen films that influenced it.