What we can learn from John Singleton’s feature debut 25 years after its historic release.
Twenty-five years ago today the film Boyz n the Hood was released into American theaters to critical and commercial success. Written and directed by John Singleton, then a 23-year-old first-time filmmaker freshly graduated from USC film school, this devastatingly powerful drama chronicles the struggles of black life against a backdrop of urban violence and racial inequality in South Central Los Angeles. The success of Boyz ushered in a new wave of black American cinema, featuring superior performances by Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, and launching the careers of Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, Ice Cube, Nia Long, and Regina King. A quarter century since its momentous debut, Boyz prevails as a reminder of the importance of supporting new and diverse filmmakers in telling their unique and oftentimes personal stories.
Boyz’ deeply moving tale about three friends – Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy – and their tragic passage into manhood serves as Singleton’s portrait of his own observations and experiences in his hometown of Los Angeles. In a piece that revisited the film’s 20th anniversary five years ago, the Los Angeles Times wrote:
Released at the height of L.A.’s escalating gang wars and just nine months before the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers accused in the Rodney King beating sparked six days of riots that left 53 dead and thousands injured, “Boyz,” says Singleton, was simply the cinematic version of what rap groups like N.W.A had been doing for years – sounding the alarm about an untenable situation for people living in a particular part of Los Angeles.
“I couldn’t rhyme. I wasn’t a rapper. So I made this movie,” Singleton says.
Though it can come across as rather dated upon viewing today, Boyz is a time capsule of the black experience in 1990s South Central. Doughboy bringing Ricky’s dead body home to his weeping mother is a painful visualization of the all too common tragedy of the death of young black men. Tre’s confrontation with a corrupt black cop is a still relevant example of black-on-black crime and police misconduct. The United States Library of Congress even deemed the film “culturally significant” in 2002 and it was added to the National Film Registry.
Yet despite its historic success, the film’s route to production was not an easy one. When the script initially landed on the desk of Stephanie Allain, then a newly appointed executive at Columbia Pictures (now a producer and LA Film Festival Director), the studio balked at the idea of having an inexperienced filmmaker behind the camera. They tried to buy the script off Singleton, but he declined and threatened to walk away with the project. His persistence eventually got him the greenlight and the studio’s risky bet paid off.
On a reported budget of $6.5 million, Boyz earned $10 million its opening weekend and grossed just under $60 million. It went on to earn two Academy Award nominations for original screenplay and director, making Singleton the first black American and youngest person to have ever been nominated for the directing award. His filmography has since included projects like Poetic Justice, Rosewood and 2 Fast 2 Furious, yet none have reached the cultural impact and acclaim of Boyz.
A recent piece in the Los Angeles Times points out that one of the greatest challenges women and people of color directors often face is producing a second feature film. While first films are often made with low budgets and scrappy filmmaking strategies, second movies typically rely more on the “machinery of Hollywood” which has often excluded women and people of color. Colin Trevorrow’s colossal leap from directing the indie Safety Not Guaranteed to the blockbuster Jurassic Park versus Ava Duvernay’s modest move from directing Middle of Nowhere (which won the 2012 Sundance Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic Film) to Selma is a noted example of the inequality of opportunity for new directors from marginalized communities. Singleton’s backing from a major movie studio for his first feature, already a rare feat in its time, is almost unthinkable in today’s risk averse movie marketplace.
In a world of superhero franchises and blockbuster reboots, it seems as if the industry is living in a constant fear of trying anything new. Rather than developing diverse, new talent and shepherding them as they tell their own unique stories, studios often pluck out mostly white male filmmakers as directors for hire for their big budget tentpoles. The results are movies that exist simply for profit, sometimes forgotten just a few weeks after release, leading executives to cross their fingers with the hope that the films make up for their losses through international and ancillary revenue streams.
What makes Boyz so impressive is that it was a financial success that featured groundbreaking, independent storytelling that still resonates today. Its reflections on black life are still as relevant as ever as racism and prejudice have become the focus of national attention following several black deaths in the hands of the broken police system. The truth that black lives matter echoes in the fictional stories of Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy as it does in the realities faced by Philando, Alton, Freddie, Eric, Tamir, Michael, and countless others.
Before Boyz, Spike Lee challenged notions of portrayals of race on film in Do The Right Thing, which Singleton credits as a major inspiration. We need more opportunities for new Singletons and Lees to produce films that they want to make, that not only entertain but educate, empower, and innovate. Universal Pictures and the Sundance Institute are leading the way with the FilmTwo Initiative, a fellowship that provides filmmakers working on their second features tactical and creative support through development grants, meetings with key Universal executives, and mentorship from industry leaders. The inaugural FilmTwo Fellows include directors such as Anna Rose Holmer (The Fits), Andrew Ahn (Spa Night), Crystal Moselle (The Wolfpack), and Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl). The initiative is a sign of progress but it is not enough. The other studios, guilds, and film bodies need to step it up and improve their own outreach programs for fostering independent storytelling. More needs to be done to help new voices step forward to create new works that can help improve the stagnant movie marketplace.
Boyz was not only a win for Singleton and the studio, it ushered in a new wave of black American cinema, allowing new voices to shine. Though the movement was not sustained, it serves as prime example of the importance of taking chances on new filmmakers with something to say. This summer has shown there is an appetite for independent storytelling with releases like Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, Taika Waititi’s The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and the Daniels’ Swiss Army Man. Studios, financiers, and producers should take more chances on filmmakers like these and shake up the status quo just like Boyz n the Hood, Do The Right Thing, Love & Basketball, and Girlfight. There is plenty of room for these kinds of stories to co-exist with tentpoles and reboots. And promoting films from fresh and diverse filmmaking perspectives can help not only create a healthy movie ecosystem but produce enduring stories that are entertaining, refreshing, and culturally significant.