On July 12, 1991, John Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood” came roaring into theaters. The Black community was feeling the residual effects of the ‘80s crack epidemic. George H.W. Bush was in the White House, and the Los Angeles community was still reeling from the brutal beating of Rodney King by the LAPD four months prior.
Just twenty-three years old at the time of the film’s debut, John Singleton became the youngest and first Black director to be nominated for an Academy Award. The feature film debut of both Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut, “Boyz N the Hood” helped spawn an entire new genre of Black film including, Mario Van Peebles, “New Jack City”, Ernest Dickerson’s “Juice” and the Hughes Brothers “Menace II Society”. With continued attacks on our community, and in the midst of the Black Lives Matters Movement, films like “Boyz” remain exceedingly poignant. They give a voice not just to young Black men living in impoverished and crime riddled areas, but also to the community as a whole. As we continue to feel the immense devastation and trauma that stems from four hundred plus years of inequality, terror and unjust treatment these films remain painfully relatable. To commemorate the its 25th anniversary, I attended a special screening of “Boyz N the Hood” with John Singleton in NYC last month. After the credits rolled, he sat and chatted about making the film, the state of Black cinema, #BlackLivesMatter, and his friendship with the late and great Tupac Shakur.
“Boyz N the Hood” 25 Years Later
I look at the film as sort of a time capsule of what I was thinking and what I was feeling at the time. I wrote the script when I was twenty-years-old. I’d gone to see “Do The Right Thing” when it came out in the summer of ’89. I was so enamored with Spike [Lee]. Spike has always been like my big brother, and I met him two weeks before I started USC film school, when he came out with “She’s Gotta Have It”. I saw him in LA and he shook my hand. I told him, “I’m going to USC in two weeks, watch out for me.” So, I went to school for four years reppin’ Black cinema. I was one of the only Black filmmakers and Black students in a predominantly white film culture. Most people going to school back then, they knew people in the business. It was this continued marginalization. People were telling me, “There is only going to be one Spike Lee.” I told them, “I’m going to be the next John Singleton, I’m not going to be the next Spike Lee”. So my thing was, I’m going to get out of school and I’m going to be the first round draft pick just like in the NBA, but in film. My whole four years of school was trying to figure out how I was going to do that. Coming out of the theater after seeing “Do The Right Thing”, something clicked for me. It was about writing about you know. At a certain age, you only have a certain amount of life experience. I only knew about what I saw, and what I knew about growing up in the hood. So I said, “OK, I’m gonna go and hang out with my folks for a little while back down on Vermont and I’m going to figure out this story.” That’s where this came from. It was me trying to really make an identity for myself as a filmmaker reppin’ Los Angeles, or a certain part of LA as an identity. That’s how I came up with “Boyz N the Hood.”
On Making “Boyz N the Hood”
I can’t really say that it was a hard movie to make because I was coming out of school, and even though I didn’t know anything about making movies, I knew film theory. I’d watched a lot of films. I had my own ideology about what would make a good film, but I didn’t know how to make a movie, so I just acted like a director. When the dailies started coming out I thought, “Whoa, I guess I’m giving a good performance.” To make that type of film, you have to be very immersed in whatever culture you are trying to present. I like films that speak to a specific time and place. You can be from a certain culture and not know anything about where you’re from. That’s why a lot of Black filmmakers are making marginal films right now, because they’re not really astute as to what came before them. Like if you make a gumbo and the rue is bad, it ain’t gonna taste good. Even if everybody else is telling you, “This is nothing”, you have to believe that the story that you are telling is valid. It has to be valid to you and that’s what’s really important. It doesn’t matter if a few people see it, or a whole lot of people see it, it has to be valid to you first, before anyone has to believe that it’s something. The script for “Boyz N the Hood” got written because I was at USC, which is still adjacent to the neighborhood that I grew up in. I was having, I don’t want to say post-traumatic stress because I’m still in that environment, but I was having dreams about the stuff that I had seen during my childhood and my teenage years. But, I was on an island, because USC when you step off the campus, you’re in the mix and this was in the ‘80s still. So that’s where “Boyz” came from.
On Black Voice in Cinema
When I was in film school watching “The Bicycle Thief” and “Open City” and all of those post- World War II type films, I was seeing how filmmakers like [Martin] Scorsese and [Francis Ford] Coppola were influenced by those films. However, they were very culture specific in their Italianness. It’s the same way Woody Allen is very culture specific not just in the fact that he is Jewish, but it’s an Upper East Side thing. I wanted to have Black cinema where if you weren’t a part of a certain thing some of the jokes you may not get, but on a human level, you will understand what these people are going though. That’s what I was trying to do with this movie initially, and that’s what I try to do with a lot of my work over the years from “Baby Boy” to “Rosewood”. It’s very difficult to do that within a system that continues to try and marginalize artists of color. The whole idea is to get it out to as many people as possible. I always say, “Listen, if I was a musician and I was making a rap or whatever, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Everybody would dance to my shit.”
On the Spike Lee Comparison
Spike and I are very much different as filmmakers. I think he’s more influenced by filmmaking in a way. The films that he does, sometimes feels like you’re in a dreamland, and I think I’m more like [Roberto] Rossellini, I like the realistic aspects of things. But, I would like to have more dream imagery in my work.
How Cinema Has Changed in the Past 25 Years
American films are not like international cinema, where you have various sources or even the government giving artists free reign to have dissenting culture. Our film culture is really all based on commerce. The film has to make money. You have a cost of personal voices. Yes, you have a lot of independent films that are still getting made, but even so, they are not what they were. You don’t have that many anachronistic true voices that are different from the norm. You have that on a lower level, people have their iPhones and what not now, but there used to be a time where you had a support of these anachronistic voices. I’m not just saying Black Cinema. I’m saying different cultural voices, where different types of cultures were able to make films that were very specific. You don’t have that with the studios right now. That’s why American film is really suffering. It’s almost as if that stuff is the farm team for the big films. If George Lucas didn’t make “American Graffiti”, he wouldn’t have “Star Wars.” “American Graffiti” is very specific to a time and place that was changing. So you can never make that movie again; you can never make “Boyz N the Hood” again.
Continue to page 2…
On the State of Black American Film Today
It’s dismal and abysmal. It doesn’t matter how many hits and how much money the pictures are making, I don’t think they have any cultural consciousness. They have smatterings in them here and there, but it’s abysmal. It’s not like every movie has to make a statement. Movies don’t have to be preachy, they are entertainment first and foremost. But, in terms of cultural weight, if we have cultural weight then they will be entertaining. That’s what I try to go for. I don’t want to denigrate anyone else tryna do their business but… I still try to rep hard for what Spike did when he was starting; what he was trying to do. He was trying to get people to say, “Hey listen, we can have our own medium with film, we can have a Black film esthetic. We can have a thing that is unique with Black American cinema.” For example, I made “Baby Boy” to shock Black people, but it played as a comedy because our experience in this country is so shocking. The movie works at different levels, men feel something and women feel something but it’s so specific to a certain time and contemporary place, That movie interestingly enough over the years, we have called it kind of a companion piece to “Boyz N the Hood”. It’s propagated to different people; people say it’s something that we haven’t seen before. That movie is all about women coming together, Black women specifically and Black male infantilism. It’s saying, if we’re not going to have a marriage sort of thing then at least there has to be some sort of peace between men and women. The men are at each other’s throats, the women are at each other’s throats, the men are against the women, etc. Under segregation, we had to come together because we knew we were at war. People forget that we are still at war. So that’s what I tried to infuse in a very subtle way.
On His Upcoming FX’s Project “Snowfall”
It’s like the same years as the beginning of “Boyz N the Hood”, and it’s got a lot of similarities. There are so many different stories that have yet to be chronicled about what really went on in Los Angeles during the early ‘80s; Black Los Angeles especially. The series is about how drugs came to everywhere. The came to South Central and then they went everywhere and they changed everything. It was that shift from cocaine to crack.
Well the sensibility that we had in the ‘80s and ‘90s was built off of what we were trying to do in the mid-to-late ‘60s. So, it’s not even about a time frame thing, it’s about how is that going to play out? Going through the late ‘70s and ‘80s, it was a time when hip-hop could comment to people whose parents came up during the movement. Think about what Public Enemy was trying to do, think about what Native Tongues was trying to do. That kind of went on the wing when hip-hop was appropriated as kind of a corporatized thing that made a lot of money. Now don’t get me wrong, we’ve always had a voice in music but, I’m hoping that that transfers to film and TV and social media, which is right now. Images are so so powerful.
I’m interested in really continuing the foundation that was set with “Boyz” with movies that are very culture specific and making character journeys that are uniquely Afrocentric. A lot of people are affected by our journey. I’m doing “Snowfall”, I have another show called “Rebel” [coming to BET] which is a noir thriller with a Black female detective. She’s a private investigator, she’s not a cop. It’s like “Shaft” with a sister. It’s funny because when she was a cop, she used her authority as a police officer the way white men use their authority; but as a Black woman. She’s a human tornado, if something is going awry she’s going to whoop some ass. She’s not a self-hating Black person. She wears her hair natural; we celebrate natural hair on the show. It’s a contemporary show; the speech is very specific to Oakland.
On Staying in the Hood
I’ve always wanted to be the kind of storyteller that is accessible to folks. My office in LA is on 43rd and Crenshaw. I go out to the park and the park right there is Leimert Park. You have people there who have just gotten released, you’ve got people there who are schizophrenic, and you have people who are living from halfway house to halfway house. But, when you’re around folks, you get stories. Everybody has a story to tell, but not everyone has the wherewithal to tell it. Not everybody can write it or make a movie about it. So, I’ve always thought that I’m a messenger for those folks, and I’m not so visible that I’m not accessible. I’m not on TV all the time, I’m not doing the celebrity thing all the damn time; I do that on occasion. That’s not me. I look at it as Ernest Hemingway, where he would travel to different places and he would write about his experiences. I love actually being able to do that still, being a chameleon and listening to people. That’s where I get the cadence and the rhythm of languages and I just store it away. I always try to say when I’m doing a story that I don’t over intellectualize things. You have to feel it.
Tupac was supposed to star in “Baby Boy”. The last conversation that I had with Pac, he was making the video for “To Live and Die in L.A.” at Crenshaw Mall. I hadn’t seen him since he’d gotten out, and he was making the video when I ran in to him. We were supposed to have lunch actually within the week and I told him, “Pac this script is going to get you an Oscar.” And that was that. I was so devastated when he passed. I actually went to Africa. I just hung out with this kid and I was in a French speaking country but the kid didn’t speak any French, he only spoke Wolof. But he used to go swimming everyday; he was maybe about 16 or 17. We were sitting one day, and because he was really into hip-hop I gave him The Source magazine. I asked him if he knew about Tupac. He saw the magazine, and I had to explain to him in broken French that Pac had passed. As a testament to how powerful Tupac was, and Pac didn’t even know his power, this kid who was 17-years old was just crying. He was broken that Pac was gone. Pac wasn’t even totally aware of the gifts that he had. Who knows if he was going to evolve into a true leader, but he had that potential, and I think that’s why he’s not with us anymore. As a 21-year-old kid blasting on TV about every wrong that is going on in this country socially and multi-ethnically he was holding hard for Black people and human rights. It was like wow, “You’re from that generation where we said we didn’t want nobody to come up to do that. We have to quell any type of Black Messiah. And, even as misguided as you are, we can’t have you speaking like that.”
On the #BlackLivesMatter Movement
One thing I do take the Black media to task for is not supporting alternative voices. When I go speak in Chicago or Detroit I just get real with it. Yes, people make their own choices but some people the way that their parents raise them, or their environments; they don’t have a choice. I was in Chicago a couple of years ago, and I’m driving through the neighborhood and the blocks were hot. You could tell somebody was going to get shot. It was like LA was in the ‘80s. I think that people have to be changed from within. People have to want to foster brotherhood and sisterhood from within. I think that’s what the Black media needs to be fostering first and foremost. I get really mad when people aren’t banging on Black on Black crime consistently. There is a way in which that can stop, because I grew up with it. We were taught to go up against each other. That’s what has to change in terms of the media and reaching out to each other to create a fostering of love. Because, when things were really really bad, and they have always been bad for us since we got off the boat here, but I’m talking about thirty-five or forty years ago in the ‘60s and ‘70s. When they killed Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and stuff, we were in a true war, and they won that war by destroying those people from within with drugs and police brutality. People have to understand that those were heroes, and they were supported at a certain level, but they couldn’t do that on their own. We have to continue to foster that among ourselves because as bad as it looks, it could get worse.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a Black cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami