It’s hard for me to watch Boyz N the Hood. As far as films go, it’s damn good, but there’s that one scene that gets me choked up no matter how much I prepare myself emotionally. I’ve seen it a dozen times, I know exactly what’s going to happen, and still I can’t help scream “ZIG-ZAG! RUN ZIG-ZAG!” as those slow motion bullets fly in Ricky’s direction. He never listens.
Boyz N the Hood played a huge role in jump-starting that sub-genre of films released in the early 1990s that have become known, rather pejoratively, as “hood films.” That name isn’t wholly accurate. Yes, they were set in the “hood,” common slang that denotes an inner-city neighborhood usually inhabited by racial minorities and low income earners, but at their core these were coming of age stories for young Black men in the 1990s, who too often didn’t get a chance to age.
New Jack City, Above the Rim, Clockers, South Central, Fresh, Sugar Hill, Jason’s Lyric, New Jersey Drive and others were all produced around this time, with varying degrees of critical and commercial success. It was a more diverse era in Black filmmaking than these titles would suggest, but “hood films” were so ubiquitous at the time they tend to be most remembered/discussed/celebrated, and even earned a Wayans parody in the form of Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.
I have a soft spot for these movies; they helped raise me. I’m 25 years old now and Juice, Tupac Shakur’s film debut, recently celebrated 20th anniversary of its theatrical release. Boyz turned 20 last year and the Hughes Brothers’ inaugural film Menace II Society will join them next year. They’ve been around practically my entire life and their cultural influence was felt throughout my formative years. As we’ve got older together, I realize more and more how they shaped my understanding of what it means to be a young Black man in America.
Like their predecessors, their fictive big brothers/uncles/father figures in film, they captured a mood, an idea, a sense of being and place in the world. In the 50s and 60s, Sidney Poitier personified the politics of respectability. The blaxploitation era of the 1970s was the visual representation of the Black Power movement. Eddie Murphy became the face of the cosmopolitan 1980s. The young men at the helm of early 90s “hood films” had a different agenda.
They told stories about the people Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson might label the “Abandoned.” They were the byproducts of Reaganomics and urban decay. These were the kids left behind to fend for themselves as their Black middle class counterparts escaped to enjoy the spoils of the Civil Rights movement. They were the film world’s version of crack babies. The ones caught up in the drug war and living under the threat of police brutality and incarceration. The “young, Black, and just didn’t give a fuck.”
There’s a consistent vein of hopelessness pumping through these films, and understandably so. Black men were taking inventory of their realities, contrasting it with the promises of America, and concluding they were being shortchanged. Locked up. Cast aside. Killed off. These films, much like the hip-hop music they were inspired by, were an opportunity to speak to one another about what was going on and to develop a plan of action. The message was clear: we must survive.
It’s the focus of Charles Dutton’s brief monologue in Menace. Ice Cube laid out “How to Survive in South Central” for the Boyz soundtrack. It’s what we as a people have been charged with doing since we were brought to these shores. Above any and everything else, survival has been imperative. It was even more so as the 80s gave way to the 90s. The question was, how?
The brothers in Juice figured it was about respect. Bishop (Tupac) felt he and his friends, by virtue of their existence as Black men, were worthless and the only way to change that was by way of the gun, being unafraid to take the life of another. He felt no control over his own life, so by exercising control over another he could earn the respect through fear, and meaning through respect. But that only took him so far, and in the end was trumped by Q’s (Omar Epps) quiet determination. The search for respect, however, dissolved the crew, leaving more than enough death in its path, and though Q comes out on top, he’s dismissive of his newly acquired respect and the way in which it came to him.
In Boyz N the Hood, the fact that Tré (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is the only of his friends to live with a father and ultimately the only one who doesn’t die seems to be writer/director John Singleton’s way of suggesting that the presence of a strong father is the best way to ensure Black men survive their circumstances. He not only survives, but escapes the ‘hood, attends college at Morehouse in Atlanta, and presumably goes on to live the Black middle class dream alongside Brandi (Nia Long). It’s tough, so we’re told, but there is hope if we educate ourselves.
Menace drops any pretense of hope. You can have a father and educate yourself, like Black and proud Nation of Islam convert Sharif (Harold Lawson), but bullets have no discernment. You can recognize the evil in your ways and have a genuine desire to change and escape, like young Caine (Tyrin Turner), but karma never forgets. According to Menace, nothing will save you. Frightening prospects, but I choose to believe what the Hughes Brothers really meant to say was that Black men’s survival wasn’t predicated simply on personal choices, and societal reform from top to bottom would be required before anyone was truly safe. I may be reaching.
And where do Back women figure in all of this? No one seems concerned about their survival. As so often happens in stories about Black men, Black women are pushed to the margins, never central to the narrative. Almost everyone has a mother, but there is little she can do to govern the behavior of her troubled manchild, minus the presence of a stern father. The sisters/mothers/girlfriends are largely tragic figures, and their and the emotions they experience in witnessing their brothers/sons/boyfriends exist in this state of constant upheaval is never pierced. Women serve primarily as a means of sexual gratification, a reward for success, or as a threat to a young Black man’s survival in the form of the vindictive “baby mama.”
There’s more worth unpacking in these films, but the theme of survival is so crucial because it becomes such an integral component in the Black man’s guidebook. There is literally nothing else more important. To an extent, that’s true, because everything else flows from the ability to survive. But when survival is valued above all else, so many other important aspects of self-actualization are rarely explored. Instincts rule, development is stunted. That mentality tends to play itself out in self-destructive ways.
I love these films, I grew up with these films, but I also grew up. They just got older. What I’ve had to learn that these movies couldn’t teach me was that it’s not enough just to survive. You need a vision for making a life and a support system to help see it through. We are a community. Our love for one another runs deep, but our hopes for each other are often misguided. We have to do more than save Ricky from getting shot. We need to be teaching him what he’s living for.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Visit his official website or follow him on Twitter.