The summer's most important movie -- What we can learn from ''Boyz N the Hood''

The thing that makes this story so sweet is that no one could have predicted it. In a summer crowded with strong, surprising new films about inner-city life, moviegoers were having a bit of trouble keeping all the titles straight. From Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever to Joseph B. Vasquez’ Hangin’ With the Homeboys to 19-year-old Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn, the theaters were throbbing with important voices, and there was no reason to think Boyz N the Hood would break away from the inner-city pack. True, the Hollywood buzz made much of 23-year-old writer-director John Singleton, a kid from the ghettos of South Central L.A. by way of the University of Southern California’s Filmic Writing Program. He had won several awards there — even had a CAA agent before he graduated. But for all the chatter, no one was touting the kid’s debut as the Next Big Thing.

So how come, when the dust settled, Boyz N the Hood was not just the biggest money-maker of the bunch but the summer’s most significant movie? Why is this the film that has drawn not only black crowds but a still-growing white audience for whom it redraws perceptions of urban life? And how has the success of this heartfelt drama affected the high-stakes poker game that is Hollywood — a game not previously known for openness to black and inner-city themes?

The sheer quality of Singleton’s film overcame the notoriety of its opening night. After an ad campaign that made Boyz seem more of a shoot-’em-up than it was, the night of July 12 became a replay of events surrounding the premieres of such other gang-related films as Colors and New Jack City: Two people were killed and 33 injured in and around theaters, and for days Singleton was defending his work to the press.

Despite the violence and its South Central L.A. setting, though, Boyz was no tale of gang warfare like 1988’s Colors but rather a growing-up saga with a forceful, almost heavy-handed antiviolence message. The surprise is that audiences — black and white — quickly figured that out for themselves. Boyz grossed over $22 million in its first two weeks, earning more per theater than the summer’s blockbuster, Terminator 2. It has gone on to make more than $46 million so far, and is sure to become the highest-grossing black-themed film in history.

The movie’s runaway success, like its plot, is simple. Boyz, which takes its title from a song on N.W.A leader Eazy-E’s debut album, is the story of Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a 17-year-old South Central kid who is fortunate enough to have behind him the moral strength of his complex father, Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne; see story on page 40). Tre’s two best friends don’t have a dad on the premises: Ricky (Morris Chestnut) is a sweet, graceful jock seemingly headed for a football scholarship until he runs afoul of a gang; Ricky’s half brother, Doughboy (rapper Ice Cube, in a powerfully artless performance), is a small-time drug dealer seemingly headed for the pen.

In its troubling depiction of the differing ways these three deal with growing up in a neighborhood filled with drive-by shootings and hovering police helicopters, Boyz has struck a nerve with a large chunk of the black inner-city audience that knows it to be telling the truth. At the same time, the film’s realism is a revelation to many whites used to seeing the ”urban black experience” in thuggish caricatures. As for the movie industry, the message is clear and present: A broad audience does exist for black-made movies on topics other than drug-dealing gangsters. With this coming-of-age story, Hollywood’s whole approach to black films may itself have come of age.

From the Inside

When asked recently by the Chicago Tribune to describe his film’s ideal audience, John Singleton said that he wanted to ”show it to the brother that has a son on the way and is thinking about running out on his girlfriend. Then I’d show it to another one.”

He seems to have done just that. Léon Bing, whose just-published, widely acclaimed book Do or Die delves into the heart of L.A.’s gangs, saw the film opening night at a Pasadena theater filled with young gang members. ”It was the most quietly behaved audience I have sat with in a long time,” she recalls. ”The only sound I heard was when the father character had a long talk with Tre, his son, I heard the kid sitting next to me crying. The scene obviously struck so closely to him. The whole audience was in a hush.”

”The movie is basically the truth about what’s going on,” says John Alyn, 23, at Miami’s Omni Theater. ”It gives you a real hurting feeling, because the problems still stand out. When will we be helped? When will we as black people be helped?” Across the country, blacks have responded to the realism of Boyz N the Hood, calling it the first movie to portray accurately and sensitively the crises of drugs, gang violence, single motherhood, and crime. ”It was one of the best pictures of the year,” says Harry Blacher, a 30ish black man who saw Boyz at the Hillside Mall Theater just outside Chicago. ”Everybody talks about South Africa and Lebanon, but this movie makes you think about what is happening right here in Chicago, in the projects.”

But the movie goes beyond documenting the difficulties of growing up underprivileged. It also offers a way out and, through the character of Furious Styles, taps into a much-debated strain of contemporary black thought. Furious embodies a traditional middle-class ideal: He is raising his son to be a principled man who can lift himself out of his circumstances. This self-help theme appeals to many whites and to black conservatives such as Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and writer Shelby Steele, who has argued in his book, The Content of Our Character, that blacks’ self-image as victims stymies their progress. ”There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind,” Steele says today, ”that throughout history blacks have been victimized by racism. But you don’t have to think of yourself as a victim. Blacks themselves have to try to break that cycle.”

The flip side of Furious’ politics is an isolationism that Nicholas Lemann, author of the best-seller The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, finds perfectly in synch with trends in black political thought. ”The truth is there is a black self-help movement,” Lemann says, ”but it has a nationalist ideology. It’s a movement that both preaches responsibility and blames white society.” Furious believes blacks must create separate institutions to help themselves because the ravages of the ghetto are caused by a white conspiracy. ”How do you think crack comes here?” he asks in Boyz. ”We don’t own any ships. We don’t own no planes. Why is it that there’s a gun shop on every corner in this part of town? I’ll tell you why: because they want us to kill each other off. What they couldn’t do in slavery, they are making us do to ourselves.” Says Singleton, echoing his character’s feelings, ”The only way change is going to come is from within. Black men have to take care of their own.”

From the Outside

”I was surprised I liked the film so much,” says a 30ish white woman at the Hillside Mall Theater. ”I understand a little bit more about the lack of opportunity and how people go bad when they’re not given a chance.” For her, as for others who live outside the inner city, Boyz counters the widespread media image of young urban blacks as wilding teenagers, muggers on the street, suspects on the six o’clock news. In Boyz, audiences see people fighting for better lives, and it’s a good bet that they’ll never look at one-dimensional Hollywood homeboys quite the same way again.

The message has hit home because there is a sense that the problems of the inner city have gotten worse. ”Some of it is the times,” says Alex Kotlowitz, author of the best-selling There Are No Children Here, an account of two brothers growing up in a Chicago housing project. ”We’ve come out of a decade of enormous self-indulgence and self-involvement, and the nation is really searching for some purpose and direction. People are beginning to look at the part of America that simply went totally ignored. And people are finding themselves horrified at what they’re seeing.”

And Boyz has struck a chord also because it is simply a realistic story almost all audiences can identify with. While the media may find it convenient to compare Singleton to Spike Lee, the truth is that they are very different. Whereas Lee’s latest, Jungle Fever, is a complex, visually baroque polemic about race relations, Singleton uses a more restrained style and characters audiences can really care about to get his story to the greatest number of people without selling it out.

It’s working, too. A white woman in her early 40s outside a theater in Santa Monica, Calif., says, ”The thing that touched me the most was the message that everyone is a human being. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or where you live. People are killing people, period.”

From the Stretch Limo

If its effect on moviegoers is evident, Boyz N the Hood‘s impact on the movie industry is profound. It is the latest in a string of successes — beginning with Lee’s 1986 She’s Gotta Have It and including Mario Van Peebles’ recent New Jack City — that demonstrate the power of both black moviegoers and black films at the box office. The breakthrough appeal of Boyz means that the studio gates are now open wider for black filmmakers. ”Positively, more films will get made about black people,” says Tom Sherak, executive vice president at Twentieth Century Fox, which is readying the basketball comedy-drama White Men Can’t Jump, starring Fever‘s Wesley Snipes, for next summer. ”These stories need to be told.” And by December, 19 such stories will have been told this year — more than in the entire preceding decade.

”Black folks are definitely ‘in,”’ says journalist Nelson George, cowriter and associate producer of Strictly Business, a Warner Bros. release due this November that focuses on an uptight, Ivy League black executive who learns to balance racial identity and economic success through his friendship with a homeboy mailroom clerk at his firm. ”And when the year is totaled up, we’ll have at least three films (New Jack City, Jungle Fever, and Boyz N the Hood) making over $30 million. And that will confirm the market. The budgets are getting bigger, and the ambition levels are getting bigger.”

But how big can black budgets and ambitions get before they hit the wall of Hollywood cost-consciousness? Spike Lee has had to fight publicly to get a $25-million budget for his biopic about Malcolm X, and commercial flops like Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger are just the kind of critically appreciated disappointments that can cause a production head to start thinking about the next cycle of buddy films. If Singleton’s second movie — or Matty Rich’s, or Mario Van Peebles’ — nosedives at the box office, the renaissance could rapidly be over. As a Columbia Pictures executive says, ”You’ll see a lot of small-budget black pictures. Then somebody’s going to make a big-budget one, and somebody will take a bath.”

Blacks in the film industry have a less cynical set of fears. ”The only thing I’m worried about,” says George, ”is that we’re so concerned about being part of the mainstream that we’re losing the edge that brought us there. Being in the Hollywood system will suck everyone dry.”

That note of caution seems about right, given what happened to an earlier group of pioneers: the black directors of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Despite similar pronouncements at the time, the tough, hard truths of Gordon Parks’ Shaft and Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song dead-ended in the formula blaxploitation of Fred Williamson action flicks such as Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem.

With his first film Singleton has done something amazing — reminded all of us that a ghetto is also a home. But if he’s smart (and he is) he’s aware that the bottom line always means more in Hollywood than doing the right thing. What gives Boyz N the Hood its true and lasting importance is that it represents a rare confluence of conscience and profit. The message, for once, is the message everyone wants to hear.