Boyz n the Hood ★★★★★

The unexpected death of John Singleton made me realize that I had never seen this film, and that I needed to rectify that oversight as soon as possible. So I immediately jumped onto Amazon and ordered this on blu-ray.

I had always enjoyed Singleton's work, even though the only films of his that I had seen were "2 Fast 2 Furious" and 2000's "Shaft". I know those are probably two of his lesser films, but even they demonstrated a confident command of visual storytelling. I was always hoping that he would be handed the reigns of a "Star Wars" movie based on the evidence of "2 Fast 2 Furious", to be honest. He filmed those cars like they were spaceships, and with such vibrant energy and coherent action choreography. That and I remember him talking about how the original "Star Wars" inspired him on a documentary on the "Star Wars" trilogy DVD set back in the day, so he seemed like the perfect guy to handle a "Star Wars" story.

Having now seen "Boyz in the Hood", I only wish that he'd directed a "Star Wars" film even more. His more commercial efforts showed his command of action choreography and the energy he brought to a film, and "Boyz in the Hood" demonstrates how masterful he was at building characters that felt real and creating an enveloping atmosphere that puts you smack in the middle of a lived-in environment. Those attributes would have been great to see in a "Star Wars" flick. Of course, they're also the reason "Boyz in the Hood" practically kick-started the "in the hood" sub-genre, which led to movies like "Juice", "Menace 2 Society" and others (none of which I have seen, and all of which I need to check out).

"Boyz in the Hood" reminded me of "Stand by Me" in its early stages, even before a group of boys is walking down a set of train tracks and one of them asks the others if they "want to see a dead body?" It has the same great sense of how kids interact, how young boys talk when they're trying to figure out how to be teenagers and, eventually, adults. These kids have an awkward and thoroughly realistic swagger and level of bullshitting camaraderie. The first half an hour introduces to these kids and lets us see them interact and develop, and that becomes crucial to the rest of the film.

Once they become young adults, and we see what has happened to them in the 7 years since, the movie is even better. Singleton knows these men and the streets they inhabit. He has clearly lived some measure of this life, and its that authenticity that makes this movie great. Singleton immerses us in this life and makes us feel it. He also lets us hang out with these people until we're completely wrapped up in their concerns before we even realize it. We feel the tension of their daily lives, the racism and the gang warfare that rages around them, so that merely growing up instills them with PTSD. They could die in a hail of gunfire any moment, and we feel that tension, we feel the weight of that upon them, and see how it shapes them into the people they become.

Despite all of this, Singleton's film is also surprisingly funny. Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morris Chestnut have great, playful camaraderie together and those moments of light banter make their fates have even more weight, and suck us into their situations even more deeply. Their location and skin color are almost beside the point: no matter who you are, you can relate to these kids. They're kids on the cusp of adulthood, doing their best to figure it out in a tense environment. If you can't identify with each of these characters to some extent you were either grown in a lab or you lack all sense of empathy.

It's one thing to hear about the plight of the inner cities, but quite another to experience them secondhand as we do in "Boyz in the Hood". Singleton and his remarkable cast (Ice Cube is very strong, Gooding has never been better, and Laurence Fishburne is at his most powerful) bring this situation to life and help us to experience a riveting, seemingly authentic facsimile of the circumstances people face every day. He uses humor and relatable interactions to draw us in, so that when one of these characters meets a terrible fate it hits like a ton of bricks. Singleton gives us a full emotional gamut of experience as viewers, involving us emotionally at every moment so that the ending has every ounce of power possible.

I've always liked Singleton, based probably on his two lightest films, but now that I've seen what he's capable of I realize just what a tremendous talent he was, and ache for what we, as cinephiles, have just lost. I will definitely be catching up with more of his work, and will probably miss him more with each film. "Boyz in the Hood" is just as powerful and heartbreaking as I had always heard, if not more so. If, like me, you've never caught up with it, you owe it to yourself to do so. You won't regret it.

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