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Boyz N The Hood: Life and Death in the City

The film Boys N The Hood offers a story about several young men growing up in Los Angeles, and tackles a number of issues related to urban planning and other aspects of life in urban environments. The title is revealing, in the sense that the bulk of the story addresses concerns related to boys and men in these environments, with the majority of the female roles being defined by their relationships to men (sisters, mothers, girlfriends, and so on). By examining the relationships between the different men in the story, the film sheds light on many of the internal and external forces that influence what life is like in this setting.

One of the most significant components of life as depicted for the young men in this film is the presence of, and lack of, role models. There is only one notable father in the film, played by actor Laurence Fishburne. He serves as a positive role model for his son, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. Most of the other characters in the film are seen being raised by single mothers, or are not seen with parental figures at all. The ultimate authority figures in the film are police officers, and these officers are largely portrayed as the enemy. The interactions the main characters have with these police officers are not positive ones, and the threat posed by the police are as serious as the threats posed by drive-by shootings and other potentially violent circumstances. The presence of the police in the film is constant; even when police officers are not seen on screen, the sound and lights from overhead police helicopters can be heard and seen throughout the film.

For most of the characters in the film, their neighborhood is their entire world. There are some characters that have the possibility of college to look forward to, but most of the characters are limited in their options after high school. Life in the neighborhood consists of sitting around on porches and drinking, or gathering with rival groups of high schoolers on the weekend. Life in these neighborhoods is not painted as completely bleak, but it is seen as a world with very limited possibilities for the future. Within the confines of this neighborhood, gun violence is a constant threat. There are numerous scenes of gun violence seen in the film, including a scene at the very beginning of the film where several of the characters, who are still elementary-school aged at the time, come upon the body of a gunshot victim. The body has clearly been there for some time, as it has begun to smell; the message seems to be that gun violence, and its aftermath, are a constant presence in the neighborhood. The film attempts to depict the seriousness of gun violence and its effect on those growing up in such an environment. It has even been acknowledged by researchers and psychologists for the way it brought widespread public attention to the problem (Hammond & Young, 1993; n.p.).

Gentrification is often a fact of life in poor, urban neighborhoods, and the film discusses this issue directly and indirectly. The actual effects of gentrification are not seen, at least in the sense that none of the main characters are displaced from their homes by the process. The character played by Laurence Fishburne, however, does lead a scene in the film that tackles gentrification. In an effort to educate his son and his son’s friend about the subject, he insists that they drive to Compton, a low-income section of Los Angeles. Once they arrive, Fishburne’s character stops and gets out of the car, directing their attention to a billboard on the corner of a residential neighborhood. The billboard reads, in part, “Cash for Your Home.” Fishburne’s character explains to the boys that this billboard is a part of the gentrification process, and that buyers are offering low purchase prices for homes in the neighborhood, ultimately driving out low-income owners so the properties can be re-sold at higher prices.

Fishburne’s character does not offer any real solutions to the problem of gentrification, at least on the macro level. He does, however, seem to be doing his part to stop, or at least slow, the process. Not only does he take the time to explain the idea of gentrification to his son and his son’s friends, he also works as a loan officer who helps local homeowners buy or keep their homes. He explains to the boys that they should keep their neighborhoods “black,” just as “the Italians, the Jews, and the Koreans” do. It is not clear in the film whether his message has had any larger impact on the neighborhood, but the film does manage to address the reality of gentrification in a simple, direct manner.

The lack of adult role models in the film (other than Fishburne’s character) means that there is an emphasis in the relationships between the young people in the film. Life in this neighborhood is portrayed as largely a youth environment, where the young people have few interactions with adults. There are several reasons for this, aside from the aforementioned fact that many of the characters are being raised in households without the presence of a father. One thing the film makes clear is that life in this neighborhood is potentially violent, and that it is not just possible, but even likely, that many of the people who live in such an environment will die from violence at a young age. The film even opens with text on the screen asserting that “one in twenty-one black males will be murdered in their lifetime.” The phrase “in their lifetime” may be redundant, or at least unnecessary, but the point about violence and murder in the streets of many neighborhoods across the country is still an important one. For many young people, and especially young black men, the reality of violence and murder is simply a fact of day to day life. With the constant threat of violence and death hanging over their shoulders, it is easy to see why such violence becomes part of a self-perpetuating and never-ending cycle.

It is, perhaps, because of this cycle of violence that many of the characters are seen as growing up very quickly. One way this is shown is that some of the main characters are seen discussing marriage, despite the fact that they are still in high school. Laurence Fishburne’s character, who is one of the few positive adult role models in the film, explains to his son that he became a father at the age of seventeen (Fishburne also warns his son to use condoms to avoid pregnancy and disease, not realizing that his son is actually still a virgin).  One of the most responsible of the young people in the film is the high schooler who is being scouted for college on a possible football scholarship. He is a fairly good student, and seems to be a good prospect for a scholarship, and he is also already a father. When life expectancy is so short, as it often is for young black men in America, the need to reproduce may seem more pressing at a young age than it does for those with statistically better possible futures.

The young man who is awaiting news of his test scores and his scholarship, and the one who seems to have the best possibility for getting out of the neighborhood and accomplishing something in life, is also one of the only main characters to meet his demise at the end of a gun. His murder, like so many shootings in such neighborhoods, is completely senseless, and is set off by the perceived slight to a group of gang members driving around the neighborhood. This young man was not engaged in many of the typical activities seen in the neighborhood, such as drinking and playing cards, yet he could not escape the reality of life in the neighborhood. He seemed to be on the verge of getting out, but in the end, he was a victim of the random, senseless violence that threatens all of those who live in this environment.

Near the conclusion of the film, the character played by Ice Cube, who is the older brother of the slain football player, is seen having a conversation with Cuba Gooding Jr. In this conversation, he recounts how he watched television news that morning, and how the news showed scenes of violence from “foreign places.” He wondered why the violence in his own neighborhood was seemingly invisible, noting that “either they don’t know…don’t show…or don’t care about what’s goin’ on in the ‘hood. They had all this foreign shit, but didn’t have shit on my brother.” In the end, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character does manage to get out of the ‘hood and off to college, but the message of the film is clear: for everyone who manages to get out, there are hundreds or thousands more who will remain caught up in the cycle of poverty, violence, drug addiction, and early death.

Works Cited

 

Boyz N the Hood. Dir. John Singleton. 1991. Film.

 

Hammond, W., and B. Yung. “Psychology’s Role in the Public Health Response to Assaultive Violence Among Young African-American Men.” American Psychologist 48.2 (1993): n. pag. Web. 1 Feb. 2013.