Urban Life and Individuality: Boyz n the Hood
Any representation of urban life in Black cinema during the early 90′s would inevitably find itself contending with John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. The amount of praise Singleton received was enough to make him the first of only two African-Americans to receive an Academy Award nomination for best director. The rising tide of Black experience in cinema came at a time when African-Americans in poor Los Angeles neighbourhoods were suffering from the internal violence of gang warfare fueled by the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, as well as the external forces of oppression from the Los Angeles Police Department. Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., directed by Leslie Harris, was released to mixed reviews. In Sheril D. Antonio’s essay on the film from her book, Contemporary African-American Cinema, she speculates that Harris may have been anticipating her film would become the female example of the Black urban youth dramas of the period. Both films attempt to argue how the identity of their characters are under a constant spotlight, whether it’s a very literal spotlight of the constant presence of police helicopters in Boyz n the Hood or the constant stereotyping of Black women by the White media. This essay will examine the how Harris and Singleton challenge stereotypes of Black Americans by using film to argue for their individuality.
As previously mentioned, both Singleton and Harris have made films that make a critical argument about the way the media distorts the image of Black youth. These films are not directly about media. However, they do want to show the sensitivity African-Americans have toward their depictions in the media. Harris takes a direct approach to this with the film’s lead, Chantel, who is an abrasive, loud, determined character, in both dress and personality. The mysterious image, which opens the film, shows a nervous young Black man, walking through the streets, carrying a garbage bag. Any immediate explanation is denied to us. When the true nature of the scene is explained in the film’s third act, we learn the bag contains Chantel’s baby. Harris plays Chantel’s voice as a non-diegetic source about the way the media will portray the onscreen events. Harris goes on to show throughout the film the numerous material circumstances that have led to her baby ending up in the garbage, including an oppressive educational system, economic conditions that cause parents to spend a majority of their time at work, and a culture where responsible sexual education is only available from a media she and her friends do not trust. Harris aims to take control of the media’s negative image of Black female sexuality.
A three-dimensional characterization that allows for the blossoming of their sexual identity cannot be found in either the White media or the realm of rap music videos. Even Boyz n the Hood depicts its minor female characters as sex-starved and devoid of self-respect. In a film told from a male perspective Chantel would definitely fit the prototype of the sexually ravenous and cheeky image of the sexual bad girl stereotype.
In Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. Harris puts the girl at the helm of the narrative, challenging the misconceptions the gaze has about her by frequently having Chantel address the camera. The characterization is then deepened by various other factors, such as her success in calculus class, her desire to work as a doctor, and how she handles paternal responsibilities to which her working parents do not have the time or energy to attend. Chantel is boorish at times, materialistic, cowardly (she uses the $500 her boyfriend gave her for an abortion to go shopping instead of confronting him). This type of binary opposition can backfire when approaching works of art where there is a Black female heroine who is frank about sexual activity. Female sexuality continues to be subject to a meek binary opposition between amoral sexual desire and goodness, with Black women excluded from the latter.
There was a relatively small amount of depictions of African-American female sexuality in American cinema before this film came out. A cursory Internet search does not show any instances of sex-positive screen personas until Blaxploitation. Harris’s argument is that Chantel is just as susceptible to the vulnerability and fear that we would empathize with in a character that has been coded as “appropriate’ for our concern.” When Chantel ends up pregnant, she swings between feeling fear and complete denial; in the strictest sense, she turns into the exact opposite of image she portrays at the film’s beginning. Despite the efforts made by Harris to eradicate the stereotype it should be clear that she is not remotely trying to excuse the human being behind it. Chantel’s actions usually occurr out of cowardice, irrationality, selfishness, or stubbornness, and in spite of all this, the film dares us to see behind the construction of an image that has hijacked Chantel’s personality. Harris wants us to understand that the character has to continue fighting for her voice since giving that up would allow the media to regain its power over young Black girls like her.
John Singleton takes a much more eloquent approach to exposing the humanity behind the stereotype of the Black male. The casting of Ice Cube as Doughboy proves advantageous to the film by giving the audience an artist who taps into the racist preconception of what young Black masculinity represents. Before making his screen debut, Ice Cube was among the more visible rap artists in the late 1980s; he had already made a name for himself with the group N.W.A. in addition to having his solo album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, released in 1990 to critical acclaim. Singleton’s expose of the gangster stereotype has more in common with the characterizations in film noir where an anti-hero adopts the elements of a virtuous hero. For example, Don Siegel’s 1971 crime thriller, Dirty Harry, features a corrupt cop as a lead character. Despite the caliginous morals of character he prospers as a cinematic hero, as evidenced by the four subsequent sequels. Anti-heroes can transform themselves into a heroes purely by the benefit of their surroundings. In vengeance cinema, their duty is not to uphold morality in themselves but to destroy those who defile the innocent. In the case of Boyz, Doughboy inhabits an environment of “ignorance and want.” The film opens with the statistic that “One out of every twenty-one Black American males will be murdered in their lifetime… usually at the hands of another Black male.” What the film accomplishes with this statistic and the final speech by Doughboy in which he condemns the media’s avoidance of the realities of the Black urban experience is a plea for change. The offscreen death of Doughboy after his final thoughts suggest that an incurable exhaustion has taken the place of anger.
In between the macro-level sociocultural examinations that bookend the film, Singleton is attempting to navigate the private lives of the people who inhabit what the media affectionately refers to as a “war zone.” In order to decipher the stereotype of the gangster Singleton had to glean elements that represented the image of the Black lower classes of the period: Doughboy’s physical image as the fat, sloth-like, drunk stereotype of the Black man in the late ’80s, particularly the one associated with the Los Angeles hip-hop music scene. Then there is Furious Styles, father of our protagonist Tre, who serves as a rare image of positive Black male masculinity. These men, as well as Doughboy’s brother, the athletically inclined Ricky, serve to represent something about the urban representation of African Americans. As previously mentioned, both these films present African-American youth as being in a state of enduring contention with the way in which the media’s image continues to enslave them. Chantel’s challenge is the disrespect with which others regard her; in Boyz n the Hood, the challenge to the Black male echoes the frightening statistic in the beginning of the film. This challenge can be a call to a violent response or an accusation of being a violent criminal. It is imperative to consider Tre as the films antithesis to the gangster/athlete dichotomy that has come to represent Doughboy and Ricky; that dichotomy is also a microcosm of the lack of post-grammar school opportunities that plague many African-American youth. While the problems of Doughboy and Ricky speak of a massive institutional failing in the educational systems (Furious remarks SAT tests are culturally biased towards Whites) they pale in comparison to the image the media sells of the young Black male as a homogenous creature.
Even worse is the racism fueled by it that becomes personified in characters such as Doughboy and his friends, as well as enemies and the group of young African-American women and men we see among the crowd when Furious gives a speech in Watts. The laissez-faire attitude the media is criticized for at the film’s end has its counterpoint in the oppressive, racially charged, and violent manner the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) deals with the Black community. From the constant running of the police helicopters that circle the neighbourhood at night, crimes of robbery and home invasions are treated with Godot’s sense of punctuality, and then there is the more direct violence that regularly afflicts young Black men. Since Tre is a character who is neither an athlete nor a criminal, he represents the film’s version of the everyman, the Ralph Bellamy of the ghetto. During a typical Friday night on Crenshaw Boulevard a show of masculine posturing between Ricky and the chauffer to Ricky’s killer erupts in an escalation of posturing where Doughboy lifts up his shirt to reveal a gun sticking out of his pants. The whole hullabaloo ends when the future driver of Ricky’s killer takes a machine gun out of the trunk of his car and fires an entire clip into the air. Upon driving away from the scene of the gunfire Ricky and Tre are pulled over by the LAPD. Tre, being the driver, deals with a Black cop. This scene is especially valuable in Singleton’s argument about how the media presents the young Black male to White culture. Tre is the victim of assault by a Black officer of the same police force that is accused being militant towards African-Americans. The officer puts a gun to Tre’s throat, labels him a gang member and tries to test his toughness. In a single tense moment, Singleton is able to expose the LAPD’s inability to bestow individual identity to African-Americans. By putting our everyman, Tre, through a brutal treatment of racism, Singleton shows the belief of Black male homogeneity by the government.
Despite Tre’s presence and promise of a future without the hood he is still not the film’s hero; he remains the apprentice of his father and Doughboy. Tre’s narrative journey is education, Ricky’s is the loss of potential, and Doughboy’s is simply the cycle of violence spinning its wheel. Tre’s father remains the films hero up until Ricky’s murder, after which Furious must abdicate his role as hero to Doughboy. Doughboy is the only character who can be a hero in the traditional Hollywood definition of what a cinematic hero is supposed to be. This is where Singleton makes a conscious effort to use the trope of antihero in the form of Doughboy to further humanize and complicate the image of the gangster. From the moment of Ricky’s death, time in the temporal structure slows down to the point where it feels as if the film is now working in real time. Tre, still soaked in the blood of his friend, defies his father and goes off with Doughboy to hunt down Ricky’s killers. The film is now primarily about vengeance and this is where the characterization of the antihero is thrust onto him. Justice on a state level is rarely approached in this story; it can be inferred from its absence that the credentials for justice rest solely on the gun. In this case, Doughboy is now allowed to take on the antihero role. With the murder of Ricky, the film must go through the motions of killing those who have cut down Black masculinity before it could achieve its potential. There is still however, another threat to potential in Tre: he enters the car with Doughboy and his friends who are out for blood. Tre’s status of the everyman must be protected and at this point, he is in grave danger of losing his ability to rise above the trappings of the ghetto through vengeance. When Tre begs to leave the car, all Doughboy can do is allow him to leave. This is where the tragic irony of Doughboy exists, he is allowed to protect the only other surviving innocent, however leaving with Tre would be impossible for him as his morality has already been compromised long before he even entered the car. The antihero must fulfill a duty to a society (and the media to an extent) that harbours the sort of feelings you get when you release snakes to kill rats. Once the vengeance conventions have been achieved, the film can now comment on its actions. The following morning Doughboy shares a conversation with Tre in the films closing scene. He describes the stories of violence reported on the morning news. There was no mention of his brother or of South Central. His remarks on the media’s ambivalence towards the problem of violence in his community drape the film in a pall. This message is a powerful indictment of the American media. The words come through Doughboy as a way to once again challenge the preconceived notion that criminals have nothing valuable to add to any national discourse. Ice Cube also serves as the image of hip-hop is therefore often considered by conservative Americans as a scourge on pop culture; you can find an intertextual analysis in the way the facets of the media believe rap artists should not even be allowed to participate in any national debate.
Harris and Singleton use cinema to claim a point of view which has been denied to them by the news media and by doing so they can counter the accepted image mainstream culture thrusts on to them and speak directly to the audience. The irony of using cinema as a means of challenging stereotypes is not lost on Harris. Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. closes with the epigraph “a film Hollywood could never have made’ . The chronology of cinema’s depictions of African-Americans entitled Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Film by Donald Bogle only cements her endnote. The media often descended on Black communities like silver-fleshed demons in suits intent of robbing the denizens of their voices. While Harris and Singleton are finally able to tell their own stories, the films themselves prove the importance of an independent cinema and press. Fighting against the media’s shallow depiction of African-Americans means separating yourself from the ubiquitous nature of the mainstream and using independent sources to challenge and educate.
Edited by Matt Schneider.