Friday, October 27, 2006

Picked Flick #36: Boyz N the Hood

I remember like it was yesterday the televised moment when Kathleen Turner and Karl Malden strode onstage to announce the 1991 Oscar nominations, transcending the usual levels of obligatory hype by unveiling two Academy "firsts" that surged with real excitement. And what different breakthroughs they were: Disney's tuneful and resplendent rendering of Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film to earn a nomination as Best Picture, and in a double-barreled achievement, 24-year-old John Singleton became the first African-American and the youngest filmmaker to be nominated as Best Director, for his severe and proudly didactic debut Boyz N the Hood. The times truly seemed to be a-changin', even if Singleton's rallying cry, born equally of anger and despondency, was still jockeying for space with the avatars of white middlebrow liberalism; in the category of Best Original Screenplay, Boyz stood side-by-side with Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon, another hit film about race relations in contemporary Los Angeles that nonetheless appeared to spring from an entirely different cosmos. Bear in mind, too, that 1991 was also the year of New Jack City and Jungle Fever, with Ernest Dickerson's Juice and Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust lurking just around the corner in January 1992. In the same twelve months that witnessed the public proclamation and the first, pathbreaking successes of the "New Queer Cinema," a New Black Cinema seemed equally viable and just as culturally urgent, furnishing common cause to established (mostly white) critics, urban (stereotypically black) audiences, and a rising and complicated tide of suburban (white youth) enthusiasm. Boyz was, in every way, the biggest hit of the bunch, and despite the grim despair that permeates its climactic cycle of violence, it augured most brightly for the future.

Is it possible now to watch Boyz and feel no pangs about Singleton's subsequent trajectory? Despite their generic diversity and ambitious premises, neither the distaff road-movie rumination Poetic Justice nor the inflammatory campus drama Higher Learning nor the historical commemoration Rosewood nor the sexually cautious but adventurously acted Shaft remake nor even Baby Boy, styled as a sort of post-date to the Oedipal tensions and turbulent maturations in Boyz N the Hood, generated much heat; by the time of his relative commercial successes, 2 Fast 2 Furious and Four Brothers, Singleton seemed to have capitulated to strict studio mandates, starting over at a lowly rung of an industry he was once so keen to crack open. Perhaps it is a convenient, retrospective fallacy to see in Boyz an allegory for the cruelly limited ecosystem of black Hollywood, where even the brightest talents have a hard time breaching the stern perimeters of ideology and corporate subservience. Or maybe Boyz—scripted, shot, acted, and edited with a clenched and gathering force that excuses its occasional gracelessness—derives its very potency from Singleton's first-timer energy, and the proper response is therefore not to mourn the disappointments that followed but to preserve our marvel at the might and the moment that Boyz so definitively embodied. As obedient as the film is to Hollywood grammar, conceived and rendered through utterly conventional and occasionally overstated techniques (dramatic close-ups, portentous inserts, dated and trivializing music), it sits almost wholly at odds with mass-manufacturable Hollywood sentiment. The passion behind the story, the hotheaded political outpourings, the relentless dichotomies of hope and danger, lucidity and impulse that fuel the montage bespeak the kind of personal signature that no one much expects from Hollywood movies anymore. Singleton strips his art of almost all ambiguity in the service of thematic and emotional and political transparency. Whether he was or is capable of greater formal sophistication than this seems beside the point; Boyz finds the boldness, the directness, the persuasive power in Hollywood style, rousing its audience toward renewed belief not only in the script's Afrocentric memes of economic and educational self-determination but in the modes of Hollywood storytelling, marshalling every beginner's trick in the book toward a tragic purgation of pity, anger, and fear.

The annihilation of Ricky Baker, harrowingly realized as both a repulsive coincidence and a graven inevitability, remains one of the most shocking and affecting deaths in modern movies. It occasions a test of virtually every character and relationship in the movie—the patient pacifism of Tre Styles, the flinty and precautionary wisdom of his father Furious Styles, the frightened but solicitous empathy of Tre's girlfriend Brandi, the unappealing but ferociously optimistic favoritism of Ricky's mother Brenda, and most of all, the loyalty and heavy-browed pessimism of Ricky's brother Doughboy, whose unexpected inheritance of the movie's moral weight is one of Singleton's most audacious moves as both writer and director. Through Doughboy, and through Ice Cube's superb inhabiting of the character, Boyz articulates the very logic and credence behind retaliatory, intramural violence that so much of the movie—particularly Furious Styles' various sermons on various local mounts—has worked hard to denounce. The impossibility of Tre's choice at the end of Boyz, whether to help avenge his closest comrade or to honor his family and his own beckoning future by recusing himself, strikes equally at our heads and our hearts, positing an ethical dilemma that is all the more gruesome for its very rootedness in everything Boyz has recounted and reflected up to that point (as opposed to abstracting a moral paradox and erecting a thin, beatific scaffolding of Movie around it, as in Sophie's Choice or The Green Mile). However forthrightly the film implores us to "Increase the Peace," Boyz conveys a rigorous sense of how difficult and self-alienating this seemingly faultless imperative can be, and Ice Cube, without glamorizing or glorifying Doughboy in the slightest, invests the character with his own critical, introspective grasp of this predicament. The choices these characters must make, so thickly in the midst of their youth, their frustrations, and their desires, present a crucible that no one really escapes; even when some closing captions inform us that Tre and Brandi succeeded in their quest for an all-black college education, the film never actually leaves their neighborhood. I suspect that Singleton believes that part of Tre and Brandi will always be stuck on these small lots and gridded streets of South Central L.A. No one, Singleton included, makes it out of this film unscathed, but instead of simply hectoring us with the hypothesis of cruel cultural determinism, Boyz enables us to feel this tragedy. We grasp the paucity of choices that present themselves in a world like this (the racial ghetto, the working class, the abandoned city) while the film nonetheless exhorts us, as well as its own characters, to choose—to change, quite simply, the world. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1991 Columbia Pictures.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

B- for Marie-Antoinette. Agreed, dude.

12:46 PM, October 27, 2006  

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