Thirty years ago, young director John Singleton changed the face of cinema with the release of his groundbreaking first film, Boyz n the Hood.
New York City had Do the Right Thing, care of Spike Lee. But outside of West Coast rap lyrics, Boyz n the Hood was one of the first dramas to dive into the lives of Black families living in South Central LA. Starring Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett and Cuba Gooding, Jr., Boyz n the Hood tells the story of a young man battling the temptations around him, and how his father’s love steered him in the right direction. The film features breakout performances from Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut and Nia Long, and contains an early glimpse at the greatness of Regina King.
In the early ‘90s, coming-of-age stories set in Los Angeles almost always centered around beach blondes, the Beverly Hills elite and Hollywood types. Shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 captivated audiences nationwide who grew up on John Hughes films. But if 90210’s Dylan and Brenda had cruised a few miles south to visit South Central LA, they would have met high schoolers growing up with much different external stressors. At the end of Boyz n the Hood, Doughboy (Ice Cube) sums this up with one of the most memorable lines: “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.”
“For the first time you get a real sense of life in LA,” actor Keenan Ivory Wayans told ET at the film’s premiere in July 1991. “I mean, we’re standing in Century City and we’re talking about, you know, people who live five, six miles from here. Most people who live here in Century City either don’t know or don’t really care to know. And that’s what makes this movie great is that it’s a story that unfolds and everyone is able to see … It’s a movie that brings people closer together.”
One of the main themes of the film is fatherhood. “I had a father who taught me, just like Tre’s father taught him,” Ice Cube told ET ahead of the film’s release. “I had a father that always knocked me back on the right track.” Having just welcomed son O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube was inspired. “I know exactly what I have to do as a father to be a father to my son and raise him right. It’s opened my eyes, even though Boyz n the Hood is not a documentary, it’s so close to it.”
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Speaking on Singleton’s vision at the time, Ice Cube shared with ET that Boyz n the Hood is “a movie about who we are … especially by John, who lived in South Central Los Angeles while he was writing the movie.” He continued, “It’s not Hollywood’s interpretation of what life is in South Central. This is a young fellow from the street, who just called it like he saw it.” That young fellow would go on to become the first Black director to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, and Boyz n the Hood was also nominated for Best Screenplay. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it inspired a generation of Black artists to bring their stories to the screen.
Upon its release, Singleton hoped the film would have an underground following that grew. He knew the Black audience was primed for a new way to see themselves represented on screen. “This movie is for our generation, we’re ready for this.” he told ET at the premiere. “It’s straight out of South Central.” Boyz N the Hood was much more than a sleeper hit. It received critical acclaim at Cannes Film Festival and made $57 million at the box office.
After the success of Boyz n the Hood, Singleton became a voice for the young Black generation. He went on to write and direct more films, and complete his “South Central Trilogy” with Poetic Justice and Baby Boy. Today, titles like Snowfall — one of Singleton’s last projects before his death in 2019 — and On My Block explore similar themes and remind us that young people in Los Angeles are still dealing with the same issues the boys in the ‘hood dealt with in the ’90s. Boyz in the Hood star Angela Bassett commented on Singleton’s legacy at the CHANEL Tribeca Film Festival Artists Dinner in 2019, just after the director’s death. “Pretty difficult for all of us, because he made such an impression on our lives, on filmmakers, on actors, on audiences, on his family. On the world over, you know, a great storyteller. Great legacy he leaves behind, but we miss him dearly already. He had a real impact on my life.”
It’s staggering to celebrate 30 years of Boyz n the Hood while still reeling from the events of the summer of 2020. The murder of George Floyd and subsequent trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin have played out before us, verifying that Boyz n the Hood’s unofficial slogan, “increase the peace,” is still relevant today. The issues are still prevalent, and these stories still deserve to be told. Boyz n the Hood helped pave the way for these narratives by humanizing the experiences of inner-city families for a universal audience.
Ahead of Boyz n the Hood’s release, Ice Cube explained to ET why he thought “everybody should see this film.”
“Because when you see that person in the back of the police car, know why he’s there,” he noted. “And to know why he’s there, you gotta see Boyz n the Hood, you know? ‘Cause it shows you the road that a kid takes and all the pressure that’s applied on the kid when he’s living in like, a concrete Vietnam.”
Since Floyd’s murder, many celebrities — including stars of the film Ice Cube and Regina King –have spoken out against police brutality and the systemic issues Black communities face. “As a mother of a Black son, I know the fear so many live with, and no amount of fame or fortune changes that,” King shared during the 2021 Oscars opening ceremony. “But tonight, we are here to celebrate. This was a hard year for everyone, but our love of movies got us through.” (That night, nearly three decades after Singleton’s first Oscars ceremony, King celebrated three nominations for her directorial debut, One Night in Miami.)
And movies do help get us through, show us who we are and bring us closer together. “Everybody loves the film, because it’s a film about people,” Ice Cube said of Boyz N the Hood in 1991. “When you understand people, you respect each other, and that’s how people live together.”