There are three films I keep coming back to when I seek a filmmaker's two cents on the Black experience in the United States. The first is "Do the Right Thing," a Spike Lee joint that provides as much commentary as it does entertainment. The second is "Hoop Dreams," a documentary about two inner city Black boys who are followed for five years by a film crew as they grow up and seek college basketball stardom.
The third? John Singleton's "Boyz ‘N the Hood." Twenty years after its 1991 release, this brutally realistic look at the challenges Black youth face as they transition into and out of adolescence is landing on Blu-ray from Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Rarely does something as powerful and painful come along and retain its influence two decades later, but now, "Boyz ‘N the Hood" does so in High Definition.
If you haven't seen "Boyz ‘N the Hood," you should. But don't snag a copy because the film is preserved in the National Film Registry, or because Singleton was the youngest person nominated for the Best Director Oscar after releasing it (worth mentioning is that he was, at the time, the first Black director to be nominated). Experience "Boyz ‘N the Hood" because so much of what it comments on is still relevant and problematic today, meaning its value and significance to film as a medium and our culture as a discourse can still be analyzed, valued and shared with a new generation.
Things start in 1984 with a young Tre (Desi Arnez Hines II) on his way to a school where the classroom is almost entirely Black. Tre's bright enough, but combative and angry with his peers. After a confrontation, his mother Reva (Angela Bassett) is fed up with his behavior and takes him to live in south central Los Angeles with his father, Furious (Laurence Fishburne). Tre reconnects with three friends after his father has lad down the house rules: siblings Ricky (Donovan McCrary) and Doughboy (Baha Jackson), plus neighborhood boy Chris (Kenneth A. Brown). The four kill time together and bump heads with some nearby teenagers who harass them. Tre and Furious later bond while fishing, and when returning home, see Doughboy and Chris being arrested for theft.
The story jumps seven years ahead, with a grown up Doughboy (Ice Cube) just being released from prison. Chris (Redge Green) is still by his side but now in a wheelchair, while Ricky (Morris Chestnut) has grown into a talented star running back who dreams of going to college and playing at the next level. Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) has kept away from trouble, holds a part time job and has plans for higher education. His girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long) is an ally, but Tre indirectly pushes her away from time to time.
"Boyz ‘N the Hood" follows Tre, Ricky and Doughboy as they reunite and interact within a violent, uneasy and unclear world. Doughboy deals drugs and drinks, unable to kick habits and behaviors that landed him in trouble to begin with. Ricky meets a recruiter from the University of Southern California who tells him he must pass the SAT with at least a 700 to be admitted and play football. Tre continues to have difficult conversations with Furious about sex, racial discrimination, Black on Black violence, gentrification, cultural bias and his future. A minor conflict between Ricky and a gang member leads to Doughboy provoking violence that sends everyone at a nighttime car race running. Ricky is later targeted and murdered, leaving Doughboy and Tre to react and seek revenge.
"Boyz ‘N the Hood" has multiple powerful moments. Singleton doesn't waste time trying to over dramatize anything on screen, and because his film is ever so well cast, he doesn't need to. The characters are colorful and engaging, but don't overwhelm because they either offset or balance each other out. The film's script and its reliance on language, both good and vulgar, are meaningful to its credibility, while its commentary on everything related to growing up Black in the city, including violence, poverty, fear, issues with family structure and desire to get out, is essential to its themes and messages.
Speaking of themes and messages, you can find many in "Boyz ‘N the Hood." Some, like the importance a role model can play in a young person's life, are quite clear, while others such as the college admissions process, alcohol and drug abuse, racial stereotyping and gender roles with racial undertones, appear a bit more hidden from time to time. Numbness to violence is quite apparent all the way through, especially because Singleton's characters seem unafraid of death or consequences, no matter how bad their actions.
All this said, "Boyz ‘N the Hood" seems to circle back to Tre and his desire to break the cycle of violence and inferiority that surround him. He, like Doughboy, must deal with the consequences for his actions, and as we witness his transformation to manhood within the cruel, unforgiving circumstances that surround him every day, we sympathize slightly and cringe heavily at each decision he makes. As "Boyz ‘N the Hood" fearlessly shows, we truly are the choices we make.
This title is about much more than a few Black teens growing up in southern California. It's a non-sugarcoated look into a world that impacts us all whether or not we want to admit it. For as deep and meaningful as each gritty scene feels, "Boyz ‘N the Hood" is just as well made. This is Singleton's masterpiece, and should serve as an example to other filmmakers who desire a near perfect balance between a movie's most important components.
"Boyz ‘N the Hood" looks better than ever before in this 1.85:1 1080p High Definition video transfer. Natural sunlight is used in many scenes, both inside and out, to brighten everything, while many sequences at night are darkly intimidating. Some scenes display a little grain, but typically this is during a transition and not horribly distracting. The clarity is otherwise strong and a noticeable improvement over prior editions. Bright colors pop to life in this transfer much more so than the special edition released a few years back. Blu-ray makes it much easier to soak up details like the brand of Ricky's favorite football and Doughboy's choice alcoholic beverage.
The sound booms in this version of "Boyz ‘N the Hood." Natural background noise is critical as the film progresses, with empty bullet casings, car engines, cyclone fence rattling and rubber sneakers hitting asphalt all coming through in a clearer audio mode than I anticipated. Spoken words also hold their own just fine, and vocal toes are an easy way to tell where a character is emotionally. Fishburne's deep, commanding voice is unmistakable, as is the loud and proud rap music the film's soundtrack seems to rely on from start to finish. I was impressed with how thorough the English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack is in each scene. Like the film itself, there's great attention to detail when it comes to balance. Dolby Digital 5.1 options are available in French, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai, German and Italian, while subtitle choices are plentiful and include English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Hindi, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Thai and Turkish.
Even though a few of these special features might be repurposed from a prior edition, they're still valuable when looking to go even further into the film's inner workings. A ‘making of' featurette starts things off, while a Singleton audio commentary, some deleted scenes, two music videos and a few audition tapes round everything out. Exclusive to Blu-ray is a new featurette titled "The Enduring Significance of ‘Boyz ‘N the Hood'" modernizes the film in a unique way I didn't anticipate.
A Final Word:
As powerful as it is important, "Boyz ‘N the Hood" will always grab its audience and communicate its diverse themes and messages with passion. Progress has been made each time someone decided to watch it and in the very area where it takes place, but as was true at the time the film was made, there is still work to be done. With enough small victories, like those for Tre amidst a sea of violence and hate, "Boyz ‘N the Hood" can contribute to something much larger in the past, present and future.