Twenty years ago this month, a small, hip-hop infused coming-of-age drama set in South-Central Los Angeles called "Boyz N the Hood" was causing extreme reactions from two very different audiences.
Written and directed by John Singleton, a brash 23-year-old just months out of USC's film school, and made for a mere $5.7 million, largely with an unknown and untested cast of African American actors, the film had just played May's prestigious Cannes Film Festival where it received a 20-minute standing ovation.
The urgent, profane, yet somehow sweetly sentimental story of three friends -- Tre, Ricky and Doughboy -- and their tragic passage into manhood, hit theaters on July 12 and earned $10 million in its first three days of release. Despite its "Increase the Peace" coda though, the movie triggered a spate of largely gang-related violence that left more than 30 people injured and one man dead, prompting some exhibitors to pull the film from screens.
"When the violence erupted in theaters, it was like a stab in the heart," remembers producer Stephanie Allain, who was instrumental in getting the movie made at Columbia Pictures. "It was such the wrong thing to come of it."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, July 30, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
"Boyz N the Hood": An article in the July 26 Calendar section about the 20th anniversary of the film "Boyz N the Hood" said the homicide rate in Los Angeles had dropped 300% over the last two decades. The homicide rate in that period has dropped 75%.
In retrospect, the bloodshed surrounding the film's opening only made the movie seem more timely and profound. Released at the height of L.A.'s escalating gang wars and just nine months before the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers accused in the Rodney King beating sparked six days of riots that left 53 dead and thousands injured, "Boyz," says Singleton, was simply the cinematic version of what rap groups like N.W.A had been doing for years -- sounding the alarm about an untenable situation for people living in a particular part of Los Angeles.
"I couldn't rhyme. I wasn't a rapper. So I made this movie," Singleton says.
Now, in a much-changed Los Angeles, where the homicide rate in the last 20 years has dropped by almost 300%, to re-watch "Boyz" is to be reminded of how prescient, original and incendiary it was -- all of which critic Roger Ebert recognized at the time. He called "Boyz," which had a special anniversary screening at June's Los Angeles Film Festival and was released on Blu-Ray DVD last week, "one of the best American films of recent years ... a human drama of rare power -- Academy Award material."
"Boyz" would go on to make more than $60 million at the box office and earn two Academy Award nods -- for original screenplay and director -- making Singleton the first African American to be nominated for directing (he would later lose both nominations, screenplay to "Thelma & Louise" and directing to Jonathan Demme for "The Silence of the Lambs").
With his first feature, Singleton joined a band of emerging cinematic voices, young artists of color such as Spike Lee, Mario Van Peebles, Robert Townsend and Matty Rich, who were not only upending prevailing stereotypes, but challenging the very notion of who should be making mainstream movies and what they should be about.
"When 'Boyz N the Hood' came out, it became part of this small uprising" in black cinema, says Christine Acham, a professor at UC Davis, who specializes in African American film. "It had really been squashed since the early '70s. To see these black films come to the forefront was something that was pretty significant. Instead of being represented, you have a case of people trying to represent themselves."
That's exactly what Singleton was trying to do with "Boyz," which was deemed "culturally relevant" in 2002 by the U.S. Library of Congress and added to the National Film Registry. It's a tale that's largely autobiographical. Like his protagonist Tre, Singleton grew up the son of single parents, first living in the notorious Inglewood neighborhood known as "The Bottoms" and later moving with his father, a mortgage broker, to a house in South-Central. And, like his character, Singleton also struggled against the self-destructive riptides of his neighborhood.
"Inglewood was Blood 'hood," Singleton says. "And where my father lived on Vermont and 101st, they were all Crips. So most of the people I grew up with, they were from 101st. And so, even if you are not affiliated, you're affiliated. It's nothing that I would ever claim, but it's just like you know it. Even if you don't rep it, you know it."
Singleton came up with the idea for the movie when he and his friends would take the bus to Hollywood to see movies at Grauman's Chinese and the Egyptian theaters. "We loved the characters and the stories, but we were like, 'There's nobody in these movies who looked like us,' " Singleton says. "So we spent all of our time on the bus talking about the movies that we would make."