It's an oddly disturbing sound, a persistent noise rattling around in the mind's back pages, the buzz of a nightmare that won't quite go away. Almost no one in "Boyz N the Hood," the strong and striking debut film of 23-year-old writer-director John Singleton, comments directly on it, but we know they hear it and we know what it signifies. It's the sound of police helicopters on perpetual prowl, insistently searching South-Central Los Angeles for the violence and crime that hang over that part of the city like a debilitating, pestilent haze.
John Singleton grew up next door to poor in South-Central Los Angeles, but moved on to a stint at USC's prestigious film school, where his talent was such that he was signed while still a student by the formidable agents at CAA. Not surprisingly, "Boyz N the Hood" (citywide) is curiously balanced between these two extremes, between Singleton's passionate desire to depict with gritty accuracy the life he left behind and the fact that, perhaps inevitably, he has poured this heady brew into traditional Hollywood forms that tend to feel shopworn at times.
Consequently, like the penetrating noise of the helicopter, it is often the peripheral sensations of "Boyz N the Hood" rather than its plot that stay with us longest and make the strongest impression.
The story "Boyz" tells focuses on Tre Styles, his relationship with his father Furious (Larry Fishburne) and his two best friends, the brothers Ricky and Doughboy. The picture's first half hour focuses on the boys as preteens, getting to know each other and their blighted neighborhood after Tre's divorced mother, reluctantly agreeing with Furious' contention that only a father can teach him "how to be a man," decides her son would be better off living with his dad.
Furious, it soon develops, is a Role Model with a vengeance. A low-key African-American nationalist, he teaches Tre not only personal responsibility but also cultural pride. Yet far from being a bore, he is the most charismatic figure in the film. In part this is because Fishburne manages to be both virile and sensible, kind of what it would be like if Mel Gibson played the lead in "Father Knows Best." But if Furious is appealing, it is also because Singleton, unlike his mentor, Spike Lee, is interested in human as well as political drama and clearly cares for his characters as people as well as symbols.
Most of "Boyz" takes place with its trio of protagonists as teen-agers. Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), with his job at the Fox Hills Mall and a steady girlfriend, has clearly benefitted by his father's tutelage. But Ricky and Doughboy, living across the street with their overburdened mother (a fine, edgy performance by Tyra Ferrell), are less secure. Ricky (Morris Chestnut), with enough football skill to interest college recruiters, is burdened with a wife and child. And Doughboy, in an unexpectedly affecting performance by rapper Ice Cube, late of the Compton-based N.W.A, is just out of prison and angry at the world at large.
If "Boyz" has a flaw, it is that what happens to these three boys, though possibly news to younger audiences, is more predictable than it needs to be to anyone familiar with an earlier generation of up-from-the-underclass, socially conscious melodramas, everything from "The Roaring Twenties" to "Golden Boy."
Yes, the denouement is disturbing, but it is rather too calculatedly so, and too insistently underlined by an overly sentimental Stanley Clarke score. Singleton's take on black life is more commercial but not as textured as the one Charles Burnett showed in "To Sleep With Anger," but, on the other hand, this writer-director is only 23 years old. When looked on from that perspective, the film's considerable virtues are that much more impressive.
What "Boyz N the Hood" (rated R for language, violence and sensuality) does best is present a convincing panoply of life as it is lived in South-Central L.A. Like a jazz ensemble, Singleton and his actors slowly involve us in an almost sensual melange of moods, images and situations that take us inside the ghetto in a way mainstream films almost never do.
Though it is often in the background and rarely emphasized, we see the endless hanging out on street corners, the substance abuse and, most of all, the frighteningly casual, ever-present violence of a world where college recruiters are mistaken for drive-by shooters and guns are pulled almost without a hint of provocation. If people here feel trapped, despairing of a way out, it is Singleton's gift to make us empathize with their hopelessness, and make us wonder, along with them, how long this must go on.