Nadia Battle found herself fighting tears during a recent screening of "Boyz N the Hood," John Singleton's movie based on life in a South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood.
The vivid images were all too real for the 30-year-old Community Youth Gang Services counselor, who lost a brother in a gang shooting.
Battle took 17 gang members with her to watch the film at a special preview screening at Columbia Pictures. "I was crying and I looked over to the side and my little killers were crying too," Battle said. "All that cussing and killing, it was real. And it's always the innocent person that gets killed. That's what I felt truly needed to be publicized."
"Boyz N the Hood" revolves around two black families' struggles to raise their teen-age sons in a tough L.A. neighborhood. The movie opens Friday in about 800 theaters nationwide.
So far, Battle and more than 3,000 other people in Los Angeles have seen "Boyz N the Hood" in 25 special screenings set up as part of Columbia's release strategy.
For one thing, the cast, despite the presence of rapper Ice Cube and actor Larry Fishburne, doesn't ensure that the film will "open" strongly; the studio is trying to spread strong word-of-mouth about "Boyz."
But Columbia has also showed the film to a diverse audience including youth counselors, social workers, politicians, psychiatrists and police officers, a guest list the studio drew up with the help of Uniworld, a black marketing firm. The object was to identify and show the movie to L.A.'s black opinion leaders, who would get the word out to youthful and older audiences that "Boyz N the Hood" is, as the studio wants to emphasize, a "coming of age movie" that does not endorse gang violence.
Some people who have seen the movie have praised its portrayal of a strong black single father who raises his son to manhood in a neighborhood where young children at play find bloody corpses in a nearby vacant lot. It is a compelling, realistic story, some viewers have said, that is finally being told with sensitivity and understanding by a young black filmmaker who grew up in the area where the movie takes place.
However, others raise concerns about its depiction of everyday acts of violence in one black neighborhood and the gang members who operate there. Some counselors who work with gang members worry that the movie's positive message about how a black family largely avoids gang involvement may escape frustrated inner-city youths too close to the violence to distinguish between poignant filmmaking and real life. They wonder whether the movie's identification of certain gangs by name and the subtle use of hand signals, trademark colors and attire to denote others will encourage some impressionable youths to act out their aggressions.
"I just hope the gangs will accept the movie for what it is and what it represents and not take it any further," Battle said. "I went all the way to my pastor and asked him to pray."
Dr. Eugene Jennings, a psychiatrist at UCLA Medical Center currently working on a research project about gangs, says these are valid concerns.
"You're talking about folks who are very angry about the way they are living," said Jennings, who has seen the film. "Common sense would tell you that you would have to be very careful when showing a film like this in the summer"--when most youths are out of school with idle time on their hands.
Columbia Pictures Chairman Frank Price calls such remarks "ridiculous."
"It's just like saying you shouldn't let Eugene O'Neill tell stories about the Irish because it will drive them to drink," Price said.
The release of "Boyz N the Hood" is not the first time that someone has raised concerns that a movie based on life in the inner city could inspire violent incidents. Some predicted that Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" would incite rioting when it opened two summers ago. But those fears proved unfounded.
Columbia's efforts to defuse concerns about the movie included inviting Los Angeles police officers who work with gangs to preview screenings. "Someone telephoned me and said they had complimentary passes that they would like to offer to the officers of this department--particularly those who work gang detail," LAPD spokesman Fred Nixon said. "She said they were making (passes) available to various segments of the community and the Police Department was just one of those segments."
Nixon said he accepted the passes after the studio representative assured him that Columbia was not seeking the department's "input" on the film. "I asked that question specifically because as a department we are not movie critics and we don't want to be in that position," Nixon said. "As far as we know, it's simply entertainment."
Los Angeles policewoman Tina Ayala, one of about a dozen Los Angeles officers who saw "Boyz N the Hood" at a recent screening, dismissed speculation that the movie could influence gangs.