Revisited by Jessica MachadoRevisited

Boyz N the Hood:

John Singleton's Furious Styles

By Jessica Machado

Boyz N the Hoodurious Styles is, if not the best, possibly the boldest name choice for a movie character who is not a rapper in a Sacha Baron Cohen movie. When I heard his name casually mentioned in Boyz N the Hood the other night, I about spit out my ramen. The man known as "Furious" is a nonviolent, well-spoken dad who tries to steer his kid right in gritty South Central L.A. in the early '90s. Out of context, his name sounds like a hasty decision made by a white scribe looking to jibe with the then-prevalent gangsta-rap culture. Or it sounds like an eager young filmmaker trying to get attention for the life he knew well—and the thug lifestyle that had become a national phenomenon.  

When John Singeton's Boyz N the Hood came out, I was a freshman in high school. It had already been three years since N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton was released, which redefined what the new American badass looked like for kids all across the country—from the projects to the heartland to the tract homes of suburbia. Unlike the over-the-top excesses of new wave, synth, and hair metal that had preceded it in the pop-music canon, gangsta rap wasn’t a production. Nor was it '80s hip hop—where smart lyrics and messages of racial inequality were submerged in chummy, rump-bouncing beats. The stuff of N.W.A. was in-yo-face. A testament to what a voiceless section of the population had to do and become to endure growing up poor, black, and male on the fringe of a city. Gangsta rap was some brutal, survivalist shit that emerged out of a Southern California no one had ever seen before. A place that wasn’t all Malibu beach strolls, Valley Girl talk and 90210 love triangles.  

Boyz N the Hood was the fictionalized document for the gangsta era, the piece de resistance of West Coast thug rap. That’s why I was surprised at how unsurprised and, frankly, how unmoved I was when I recently rewatched it. The film seemed very middle-of-the-road for being about the nuances of poverty and relentless violence during a very specific place and time. Within the movie’s first five minutes, the bulk of the plot line came back to me in an "Oh, yeah" kind of way, which both speaks to the impact the movie made on me as a teenager (I usually remember nothing I rewatch, which is half the motivation for writing this column) and to the predictability of your standard commercially viable film, especially a bang-bang-shoot-'em-up one: The character with the bright future who the audience is less invested in winds up dead, while our protagonist, a slightly more complex cat, gets close to the edge of danger but chooses the cleaner, more righteous path. Also expected, but in a good way: Ice Cube plays the O.G. version of Ice Cube.

Boyz is the first step in the trajectory that would be Ice Cube’s acting career. (Cut to 2005, and I'm driving near Inglewood and passing a billboard for Are We There Yet, in which Cube appears goofily frightened by a hoard of rambunctious kids and a kangaroo. My first thought is, "Wow, I’m surprised no one has defaced this.") For Boyz N the Hood, Cube’s greatest purpose was to add cred—he was an actual gangsta, gangsta rapper, and part of the premier gangsta-rap crew. The fact that by the time this movie was made, the former hood rats of N.W.A. had already raked in millions in album sales and were now being offered starring roles in a blockbuster film says a lot about the hold gangstaism had on popular culture.

Whereas Cube is the greatest scene-stealer, the most flimsy character in Boyz is Tre’s mother. Her motivations are hard to understand. Fine, her kid was getting into trouble in school, so she sent him to live with his dad, Furious. I get that he needed fatherly guidance and that Singleton was possibly preaching the importance of having a father figure in a culture inundated with single mothers, but why would she drop him off in a neighborhood that was worse off than hers, where hours later, his house would get broken into? And if Furious was such a good role model, which he was (he was furiously poignant and stoic), then why wasn’t he a larger part of Tre's childhood before? And once his mother made herself a schmancy life, lounging in a high-rise condo, listening to jazz and swilling teacups, why wouldn't she be more insistent that he live with her again? Singleton gives us only barely rendered, thrown-in scenes to answer plot holes like this. Nothing is overly complicated or developed.

While in many ways this film was groundbreaking—never had the current black culture been recognized so critically; never had a black director been nominated for an Oscar—it's not clear whether Singleton's vision had been slightly watered down by the execs who'd bought into the popularity of shitty urban life, or if Singleton, the man who would go on to direct 2 Fast 2 Furious, wasn't a filmmaker concerned with the fine details, who perhaps instead worked, um, fast and furiously (man, did he have an affinity for that word—and apparently, so do I). Or maybe now, after all that gangsta rap has spawned—from Jay-Z and Eminem to the everyday vernacular of "bitch" and "hood," even—he is having the last laugh. "Styles" is now his heroes' legacy.  

Rewatchability: 5

Jessica Machado is an assistant editor at Rolling Stone. Her work has appeared in Bust, The Awl and The Economist’s More Intelligent Life, among other publications.