Sometimes a filmmaker can’t win for winning. The success last year of Boyz N the Hood was a signal event in modern Hollywood history: Directed by a first-timer, telling a sad, hard story of black life in the inner city, the film overcame opening-week violence to spread to a mass (i.e., white) audience almost solely by word of mouth. It turned out to be not only the highest-grossing black-themed film ever released but the single most profitable new movie of 1991. And now John Singleton has been nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Newcomers have been nominated throughout the history of the Academy — but all of the previous debuting directors had had extensive experience in other film positions, in television, in theater, or (as in the cases of Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, and Kevin Costner) as Hollywood stars. Singleton’s fresh out of film school, and at 24 he’s the youngest of the bunch.

Yet when I went on a radio talk show the day after the nominations were announced, the first question the host asked was why the Academy had made such a ”politically correct” move, nominating Singleton in order ”to give something to the blacks” — as if Boyz‘ profitability and Oscar recognition couldn’t be due to the simple fact that this is a good movie. All it takes to dispel such a mind-set, however, is to watch Boyz N the Hood, and the movie’s timely video release this week should ensure that it reaches an even larger audience. Luckily, too, this is the rare film that seems to play better on the TV screen; while a big-budget circus like Robin Hood may feel cramped without its wide-screen Dolby impact, the modest, straightforward Boyz — much of it filmed in living rooms and on sidewalks — perfectly suits the home-viewing experience.

Though it’s glib to look at black filmmakers only in the context of other black filmmakers, Boyz‘ success does illuminate the relative failure of Spike Lee’s movies to reach a similarly broad audience. Such films as Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever are fierce, confrontational chunks of stylistic genius: Loaded with whizzing camera moves and erupting bursts of music, they’re passionately cerebral. That’s one reason Lee has never fully broken free of the art-house straitjacket. Singleton, on the other hand, tells Boyz in a low-key style that goes for the heart without once turning sentimental. In a way, each of these directors is reflecting the ethos of his respective film-school background: At New York University, Lee’s alma mater, they teach you to be an artist. At sunny USC, where Singleton went, they make you a craftsman.

For all his unshowy technique, though, Singleton definitely has an agenda. It permeates Boyz and bursts into articulation in a two-minute pitch for the United Negro College Fund that starts off this cassette. Directed by and featuring Singleton, the spot travels down jail corridors and through college libraries while the filmmaker addresses his newfound audience with blunt eloquence: ”Do you know what it’s like to feel trapped?…I don’t think you do.” It’s the only time the message turns explicit: The movie itself simply depicts, with little fuss and a lot of quiet anger, growing up as it is in the South Central L.A. war zone. That means finding moments of normality — a backyard picnic, taking the SATs, going fishing — against a backdrop of crushing violence and frustration.

In the main character of Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the movie offers a real novelty — a teenager who’s good without being a simp. In fact, Tre’s goodness (his friends appreciate it even as they tease him) is something he has to work at continually, because as Singleton makes clear, it’s much easier to slip into being bad in a neighborhood where you can’t concentrate on your homework for the machine-gun fire outside. So we understand why Tre’s father, Furious (Larry Fishburne), feels compelled to be a rock of righteousness for his son; we understand why Tre’s friend Doughboy (rapper Ice Cube) progresses from acting tough to carrying a piece to becoming a killer — and in his devastating final monologue, Doughboy finally understands it too. Boyz may have made headlines when rival gangs found themselves sitting next to each other in theaters, but it goes over in suburbia because Singleton delivers something Hollywood has shied away from: realistic urban black characters who deserve our attention simply for getting through the day alive.

That’s a worthy triumph, but it’s probable that Singleton won’t win the Best Director Oscar — The Silence of the Lambs‘ Jonathan Demme and Bugsy‘s Barry Levinson seem to be the heavily favored horses this year. A cynic might note that each of those films glamorizes a psychotic killer into an audience-pleasing antihero — the opposite effect of what Boyz intends. An optimist would say that John Singleton has already won the respect of Hollywood — and of everyone who sees his movie. A-