It’s been 25 years and many of us are still agonizing about that one scene in John Singleton’s first and best film, Boyz n the Hood. You know the one. It’s near the end. The sun beats down on an alleyway in South Central. Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Ricky (Morris Chestnut) have seemingly escaped from a red Hyundai carrying an antagonistic trio that mean them harm. Ricky is curiously calm for a hunted man (a kid, really), having just pissed on a wall and now taking a leisurely stroll down the alley, trying his luck at some scratchers. Then the Hyundai pulls into frame. Cuba Gooding Jr. belts out the line of his career:
Ricky, an amicable running-back being courted by USC, runs for his life. We know what’s coming, but we’re still hoping he somehow manages to evade the blast of the shotgun and make good his escape the eponymous hood. Of course, Ricky never makes it. He’s shot twice, and dies in Tre’s arms. It’s a great scene, one of the most memorable scenes in 90s cinema. And for nearly as long as that scene has existed, people have had certain opinions on Ricky’s final run, one in particular that comes perilously close to blaming Ricky for being shot.
Screaming at fictional characters to zig-zag is an old tradition, and indeed sometimes characters do seem to listen! The In-Laws features the (in certain circles!) famous “Serpentine!” sequence, in which Alan Arkin runs comical zig-zags towards a car evading several of Tijuana's worst marksmen. Apocalypto gives us a memorable scene that features a complete lack of go-routes, as our hero and his doomed buddies flee Mayan arrows and spears with precise cuts and clear disdain for running in a straight line. However, Ricky’s legacy of fidelity to the straight-line has been taken up by another Rick, the scarcely seen and even more scarcely heard Rickon Stark. Rickon’s final run, in this past season of Game of Thrones, immediately reminded basically the entire world of Ricky’s own dash to keep on living, and got us all chattering again. Rickon, of course, has seemingly even less of an excuse for not boldly deciding to run diagonally for a moment or two, as he was given a head start across a massive no-man’s-land length area, and was being shot at by a single archer. But Rickon was basically a plot-device with shoes. Ricky Baker was important.
You can make the case this is John Singleton’s fault. He is after all, both the screenwriter and director, and a first time director in his early 20s at that. What did you do in your early 20s? Did you direct Boyz n the Hood? Probably not! It seems hardly possible with the benefits of hindsight, but there is the possibility that Singleton didn’t realize that folks would one day dissect Ricky’s final run like it was Zapruder footage.
Morris Chestnut, the actor who portrayed Ricky, was accosted by a TMZ camera crew, who shout-asked him “Why didn’t Ricky zig-zag!?” This happened in the year 2014, over twenty years since the young actor following the script’s directions bolted down that alleyway. With good humor and only a little bit of exasperation Chestnut manages to say “I think he did it so we could have an interesting end to a movie.” That’s kind of a cop-out Morris, but the answer is revealing. He has no idea and also doesn’t really care.
A few years back, Greg Ellifritz, the President of Active Response Training and also a guy who is holding a gun in his Twitter AVI, conducted an experiment to test the validity of the zig-zag theory. Three groups would flee from experienced shooters firing paintballs out of glocks. One group would run in a straight line, another in a crouch position, and another in a zig-zag. The results were not promising for zig-zag truthers, as 54% of the zig-zag group were hit, compared to 52% straight-liners and 55% for the crouchers. Of course, this was done using pistols loaded with paint, and Ricky was murdered by a sawed-off shotgun. I asked Ellifritz how the experiment would differ using a shotgun but he remained confident, saying “The wider spread pattern of the shotgun would make zig zagging even less practical. Benefits of sudden changes reduced. Straight line fast movement to cover is best strategy.”
Of course, most people wouldn’t rag on Ricky so hard about not zig-zagging if he wasn’t a blue chip running back. He should know how to run routes! It should be instinctual. Some folks on the World Wide Web have even hotter takes.
We hope the majority of the caterwaulers have never had a shotgun pulled on them in an alleyway, and have never had to grapple with the failure of instincts, the inelegance of sheer terror and panic. Why didn’t Ricky zig-zag? Who knows? You can only ask Ricky, and he’s a dead fictional character. To our eyes, his last desperate rush was just about putting distance between himself and pain and death. In those moments there’s nothing left but what your body allows. The knowledge you accrued playing a game that has rules might as well not exist. It might kick in. It might not. In Ricky’s case, it did not.
Blame John Singelton for not directing Morris Chestnut to incorporate even the most entry-level of jukes! Blame Ricky himself for being so distracted and indifferent to mortal danger in the moments before the shooting! Blame yourself for being so invested in the fate of a fictional character from a movie in the early '90s even as the world burns down around you! But, in a way (a small way!), the discourse that surrounds Ricky Baker is almost weirdly uplifting and hopefully counter-factual. It comes bearing the full gamut of audience participation: victim-blaming (why didn’t you zig-zag), back-seat driving (this is the point you should zig-zag, dummy), and also sad, enduring affection (I wish you had zig-zagged).
At the heart of it, we just wanted Ricky to survive. And we’ll keep wanting that, 25 years later and beyond. Maybe that’s sort of a silver lining in a slaughterhouse, but it’s a silver lining nonetheless.
DJ Khaled, MC Ren, and Tray Chaney (Poot from The Wire) ignored aggressive Twitter queries to comment on Ricky’s final run.