If it already hasn’t been said then after 30 years, I’ll gladly do the honors. John Singleton’s “Boyz N The Hood” is one of the greatest filmmaking debuts in movie history and one of the finest films period. “Boyz N The Hood” is a film that any veteran filmmaker would be proud of, but to be a debut for a filmmaker is nothing short of amazing. At the time of release in 1991, Hollywood had rarely ventured into L.A.’s African American neighborhoods.
That’s until John Singleton, a 23 year old first time filmmaker and writer released “Boyz N The Hood”, a powerful examination of growing up black in the age of Rodney King. “Boyz N The Hood” was a complete game changer, had scored two Oscar nominations (Best Director and Best Original Screenplay), launched many careers of Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut and Nia Long
John Singleton attended Eisenhower High School, Blair High School, Pasadena City College and the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He graduated from USC in 1990 and was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and won the Jack Nicholson Writing Award two years in a row. Singleton considered pursuing computer science, but enrolled in USC’s Filmic Writing program. The program was designed to take students directly into the Hollywood system as proficient writers and directors. He cited the original “Star Wars” film as one of his strongest influences and credited the work of Steven Spielberg as a source of inspiration.
When John Singleton saw Spike Lee’s masterpiece “Do The Right Thing” the summer before his senior year at the University of Southern California, he thought to himself: “After the movie I just went to my dorm feeling intimidated but excited and I was like, ‘How am I going to make it in this business? How am I going to have some type of voice?’. I rolled down to my neighborhood where I grew up and it just came to me. I said, ‘I gotta do something for black South Central Los Angeles’”. Singleton also wrote “Boyz N The Hood” in response to the movies “Colors” and “New Jack City”,which he felt did not honestly depict the experience of African Americans in the gang ridden neighborhoods.
So in the fall of 1989, Singleton began writing “Boyz N The Hood”. Part of the story came from a film school project Singleton wrote called “Summer of 84”. He based the character of Tre Styles (played by Cuba Gooding Je.) on his own experiences as a child. Just like Tre in the film, Singleton also moved to South Central at the age of 12 to live with his mortgage broker father.
Singleton would write all night into the morning, sleep and wobble his way through a couple of classes. Once finished (Singleton completed the script in only three and a half weeks), his script quickly made its way around Hollywood. During an internship at Columbia Pictures, Singleton submitted the script for to executive Stephanie Allain, who passed the script to studio exec Frank Price.
Singleton’s script found a producer in frequent Rob Reiner collaborator Steve Nicolaides, who explained: “I was in Massachusetts on vacation with my family and got a call from a Columbia executive saying. ‘This is the greatest script I’ve ever read’. So I read it in one sitting. It really got to my soul, I said ‘I’m in’ and when I met John Singleton at his mom’s house. I asked, ‘Why me?’ He said, ‘Because you worked on my favorite movie, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me’”.
Upon completion, Singleton was protective of his script and insisted that he be the one to direct the project, later explaining at a retrospective screening of the film “I wasn’t going to have somebody from Idaho or Encino direct this movie”. He sold the script to Columbia Pictures in 1990, who greenlit the film immediately out of interest in making a film similar to Spike Lee’s masterpiece “Do the Right Thing”. Studio exec Frank Price was reassured by Singleton’s confidence and approved of the inexperienced Singleton attached as the director.
The budget for “Boyz N The Hood” was given between $5.7-$6 million and given 38 days to shoot. Producer Steve Nicolaides said “We had to go fast. On the first day of shooting, during the first take, John said, ‘Cut! Let’s move on’. Then we moved on to another and he said again, ‘Cut! Perfect’. I had to go up to him and say, ‘You know, you can do more than one take’”.
Principal photography began on October 1st, 1990 in South Central Los Angeles. Three gang members served as consultants, weighing in on “wardrobe, vocal emphasis and dialogue changes” to ensure the films authenticity. On-set security was provided by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Fruit of Islam, a religious organization well respected within the black community. The crew was predominantly African-American and many of the background actors were neighborhood locals plucked from crowds of spectators.
Singleton wanted to make an authentic, realistic film and sought actors who understood and could convey life in the hood. He also strove to hire an all-black crew and shoot on location. The lead character of “Tre Styles,” was largely autobiographical. Like Singleton, Tre first lived with his mother in Inglewood, California an area then controlled by the “Bloods” gang, before moving in with his mortgage broker father in a “Crips” controlled neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles.
The first people that read for the role of Tre were Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morris Chestnut. Morris comes in, reads it and he’s good and then Cuba comes in, reads it and he’s great. So during the audition Singleton said, “Well, that’s it, that’s done. He’s gonna play Tre and the chocolate one is going to be Ricky. I’m hungry, I’m going to lunch”.
Laurence Fishburne said of Cuba Gooding Jr: “Cuba had access to his emotions in a way I wished I had when I was his age. We were rehearsing the scene after Cuba’s been terrorized by the black cop. He’s in tears, and he starts punching wildly around the room, and he actually punched a hole in the wall. I was like, ‘Woooow’. That was rehearsal”.
Gooding Jr said about his role as Tre: “I could see how Tre expressed a street hunger necessary to transcend his environment. It became a character and experience I could craft from real people I came into contact with. I felt no other actor could bring what I could to the role”. Prior to Cuba Gooding Jr. being cast as the adult version of Tre, Will Smith was strongly considered for the role. Smith ultimately turned down the role due to his commitments to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”.
John Singleton first met Ice Cube, while Singleton was working as an intern at “The Arsenio Hall Show”. Singleton had actually written the role of Doughboy specifically for Ice Cube. The rapper, turned actor used his own experience growing up in South Central as inspiration for his character Doughboy and found the only difficult scene was one in which he had to cry.
Cuba Gooding Jr commented on that very scene: “I remember how nervous Ice Cube was about the emotional weight of that final scene. He didn’t want to disappoint anyone with his inability to cry. My only advice was to just say the words and the emotion will take care of itself”. Ice Cube commented that he had to think back of his friends who had been killed and it helped bring the tears.
Singleton approached Cube several times at rap concerts, but Cube was hesitant to commit to an official screen test.
Once he accepted the role, Singleton later encouraged Cube to write his own scripts, leading to theFriday franchise a few years later. Doughboy and his crew are patterned after the Rollin 60s Crips street gang in Los Angeles. In real life, the Crips’ gang rival, the Crenshaw Mafia Bloods, took issue with their cowardly depiction in the film.
Laurence Fishburne was cast after Singleton met him on the set of “Pee Wees Playhouse” where Singleton worked as a production assistant and security guard. Laurence Fishburne said: “When I read the last three pages, I was in tears. It was a story about the African-American community in South Central L.A. by one of its sons. The scene with me giving Cuba a haircut, the idea that I’m sitting down and cutting my son’s hair in the kitchen, is very specific to our culture”. When Fishburne was cast as Jason “Furious” Styles, Tre’s tough-loving father. Fishburne was only seven years older than Gooding Jr. in real life. Eddie Murphy was first considered to play Furious Styles in the film.
In addition, the actor (Lloyd Avery II) who fatally shoots Ricky at the end of the film joined the real Crenshaw Mafia Bloods after the movie was completed. Avery was arrested and convicted in relation to a double homicide, receiving a life sentence as a result. In 2006, Avery was killed in jail by his cellmate.
In keeping with the autobiographical theme, the abusive and self-loathing black Police Officer Coffey (played by Jessie Lawrence Ferguson) is based on a real-life cop Singleton had encountered as a teenager. Singleton included the character in the film because he thought it was vital to show how systemic racism and police brutality isn’t always limited to the color of one’s skin and how black on black crime exists within the police community, as well.
The sequence at the beginning of the film when Tre, Doughboy, and Little Chris go to see a dead body was shot one mile from Florence and Normandie streets in South Central. This is where Rodney King was brutally beaten by police officers in 1992, one year after the release of the film. To help achieve the utmost authenticity, John Singleton never told his actors when gunshots were going to be fired in the film. As a result, the actor’s reactions to gun violence and gun fire in the film are natural. Singleton also shot the film in sequence, as he later noted that as the film goes on, the camera work gets better as Singleton was finding his foothold as a director.
The San Francisco police Gang Task Force arranged an advance screening in June 1991 for 350 youths involved with gangs, followed by two days of counseling which stressed the film’s anti-violence message. Columbia Pictures also arranged similar screenings in conjunction with youth counselors and organizations dealing with gangs.
As it was feared, opening night shooting incidents occurred at several Los Angeles area theaters. They included the Universal City Cineplex Odeon, Upland Mann’s theater and Chino Movies Eight complex. Shootings also took place in Illinois, where a man was killed. Other locations included Seattle, WA; Long Island, NY; Jersey City, NJ and Minneapolis, MN. In August 1991, a fifteen year-old girl was shot and killed, with three others wounded, in a drive-by shooting outside a California theater showing the film. The death toll stood at three, with roughly thirty-five people wounded since the film opened.
As a result of the opening weekend violence, “Boyz N the Hood” was pulled from nineteen theaters, but Columbia Pictures maintained plans to expand to roughly eighty more screens. Singleton spoke out against accusations that the movie was to blame for the incidents, stating: “I didn’t create the conditions under which people shoot each other…there’s a whole generation of people who are disenfranchised”. Singleton also argued that to pull the film from theaters would be “an act of artistic racism”.
The film was a critical and box-office success, with final grosses to be $57.5 million. It also set an overseas record as the “most lucrative black-themed film to ever open” in Paris, France, with 11,954 ticket sales on 23 screens within its first day. John Singleton received Academy Award nominations for Directing and Writing (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen), making him the youngest person and first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Directing. Singleton was also nominated for a Writers Guild of America (WGA) Award for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.
The film won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture, and was named one of the ten best films of 1991 by the National Board of Review. President Bill Clinton stated that “Boyz N the Hood” was a movie “a lot of elementary-age kids in the inner city” should see for its unromantic depiction of gang life. Legendary film critics Siskel & Ebert ranked “Boyz N The Hood” as their 3rd (Siskel) and 2nd (Ebert) best films of the year. The film was deemed “culturally relevant” by the U.S. Library of Congress in 2002 and added to the National Film Registry.
On April 17th 2019, Singleton suffered a stroke and was placed under intensive care. He reportedly began to experience weakness in his legs after returning to the United States from a trip to Costa Rica. On April 25th, it was reported that he was in a coma and on April 28th, Singleton was removed from life support and he died at the age of 51 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
John Singleton was only 23 when he made “Boyz N The Hood”, an urgent state of the nation drama. But his skill with the camera, the handling of actors and raw dialogue suggests that he was a seasoned pro right out the gate. He took us through moods, images and situations that took us inside the ghetto in a way mainstream films almost never had done up to that point.
The violence in “Boyz N The Hood” is prominent and it’s neither gratuitous nor melodramatic. But it’s aftermath is shattering and it’s one of the many things that make “Boyz N The Hood” so powerful. Alongside Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”, this was the most astonishing directorial debut of the 1990s. Singleton’s film is very affecting, with powerful moments and fantastic performances. This is an accomplished debut and even through Singleton’s 20 directing credits. “Boyz N The Hood” still represents the best work of his career. He was never able to match his debut, “Boyz N The Hood” which is a game changing film, a masterpiece of cinema and one of the most important American films.