Talking 'Boyz N the Hood' with Its Director John Singleton
Twenty-five years after it was first released, the film is coming back to UK cinemas.
Twenty-five years after it was first released, Boyz N the Hood is coming back to UK cinemas as part of the British Film Institute's Black Star season, which celebrates black actors in film and TV. And it deserves its spot on the schedule; the film's influence can still be felt everywhere, from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D City.
Director John Singleton was just 23 when he made Boyz N the Hood. Part of the early 1990s wave of African-American cinema that started with Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and included the likes of Juice, Menace II Society, Friday and New Jack City, it was based directly on Singleton's own life and shot on the streets he grew up on.
The film represented a major breakthrough moment for all three of its main leads – Cuba Gooding Jr as the hardworking, conflicted Tre; Morris Chestnut as teenage father Ricky, college-bound on a football scholarship; and Ice Cube in his first acting role as Ricky's brother, small-time dealer Doughboy. Despite being a quarter of a century old, it's still a powerful, affecting tale of lost youth, and sadly the issues of police brutality and gentrification it covers remain relevant today. After its release, Singleton became both the youngest person ever and the first African-American to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar.
I met with Singleton while he was in London for a Q&A session at the BFI, and he wolfed down jam scones throughout the entirety of our interview. He's gone on to direct films like Baby Boy, 2Fast 2Furious and the remake of Shaft, but Boyz N the Hood remains his most famous work, and we went deep into the making of it.
VICE: So let's start at the beginning. Prior to even writing the script or anything, when did you first have the idea of making Boyz N the Hood?
John Singleton: I think I was living this film before I ever thought about making it. Growing up in my early teens, I batted around with three friends, Jimmy and Michael, and our other friend who was also named Michael; his nickname was Fatback – he was heavy-set – and in the movie we called him Doughboy. As I started to think about what I wanted to do with my life, and cinema became an option, it was just natural that this was probably gonna be my first film. In fact, when I applied to USC Film School they had a thing that asked you to write three ideas for films. And one of them was called Summer of '84, which was about growing up in South Central LA.
So obviously your experience influenced the film's setting, but how much of it is closely based on your life?
A lot of it. At 11 years old I went to live with my father. There are things that happened to me and my family, like the guy breaking in and my father getting the drop on him, and the black policeman, saying "You should have got him – that would have been one less nigger." Then there's other events in the picture that happened, but not necessarily to me.
Was your dad like Furious?
Yeah, he was very politically-minded, very black conscious. He was the only single dad on the block, so a lot of the kids looked up to him. I have to thank my father; I never had to grow up with a lot of the insecurities a lot of young black men have. He gave me a foundation that I needed.
Both Cuba Gooding Jr and Morris Chestnut were basically unknowns at the time – how did you find them?
It's funny, because when we were making it I knew nothing about the process of casting. So the first two people who came in to read for Tre were Morris Chestnut and then Cuba Gooding Jr. And then after those two came in, I said I was going to lunch. We had seven more people to see! But I just said, "This guy's gonna be Tre, and the chocolate guy's gonna be Ricky. I'm gonna go eat. Goodbye!"
How did Ice Cube come on board?
He came on board because I wrote the part for him. I couldn't see anyone else playing that part but Ice Cube. I knew him while I was in college and working on The Arsenio Hall Show, where I was a directing intern. He was trying to get backstage to the green room and they wouldn't let him back. I said, "Hey man, this is Ice Cube from NWA! Come on, man, I'll take care of you." I took him back there and I told him I had a script I'd been writing for him, and he gave me his phone number. I'd see him around town. He gave me a ride home one night when I was stranded in Hollywood. It was January of 1990. He plays the beats to this record, and he says it's his new solo record, going to be called AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. And then I said: "Remember that script I told you about? I wrote it." Seven months after that we were working on the movie. And we always tell that story, because we were just two dudes with dreams and a small jeep riding on the freeway in South Central, talking about what we wanted to do.
Did it help having a recording star like him in the cast?
The studio didn't have a clue who NWA were. If anything, it was the success of Do the Right Thing two years previous that helped more. Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle had also come out. Those were small measures of success – new black voices coming through. So the studio thought they had to make their own star. So I was sort of made as a filmmaker as a counterpoint to what Spike Lee was doing.
Is it true you wanted the rest of NWA to be in the film as well?
They were supposed to be in it – that was my plan. The first time I met Eazy-E I said that I had this movie, but he wasn't concerned about it.
Is that why you had the guy wearing the "We Want Eazy" shirt getting beat up in the film?
Yeah. That was Ice Cube's first day of production. I called him up and told him to bring all his NWA paraphernalia to the set. And then all of a sudden the crackhead walks out and his shirt says says, "We Want Eazy." Cube laughs, and I say, "Y'all gonna whoop his ass!" I did that – that was me!
Producer Steve Nicolaides said that you got some Bloods coming up to you during the shoot and you had to change some locations?
They didn't come up to me. Steve had a meeting with a dude who called himself the leader of all the Bloods in LA. First of all, there's no leader of all the Bloods in LA – it's not West Side Story! We were intending to end a shoot-out scene in a certain area that was a known Blood hood. So he has a meeting out of courtesy. And they said we can't do it. I'm like, "Fuck them! They don't own that shit!" In the end we just did it somewhere else that was actually more spacious, with more room to do the stunts, but it was still their hood.
Was this "Blood leader" just a bit of a chancer then?
In LA there's always these dudes who present themselves as being very street to Hollywood. Whenever he shows up to a meeting he has all these young acolytes with him. Like anything in Los Angeles it's a facade. And I'm from the streets, so it's like, "Fuck you – we don't have to do what you want to do." So then he's there like, "Okay, just slide me something." That's their thing. Plus, this dude was in that movie Colors, so I definitely wasn't going to listen to him!
The costumes in the film are so great, especially looking back from 2016.
My costume designer was Darryle Johnson. He's still working today. He actually sold T-shirts at the local summer fair. The "Crenshaw" shirt in the film, he used to sell those shirts.
Were any of the cast wearing their own clothes?
No. Well, the shirt that Cuba wears when he comes into the barbecue, that's what he wore to the audition. Plus, Cube could pick out what he wanted to wear in a scene – he was specific about what he wanted to wear.
Where did Dooky's pacifier come from?
That kid walked in looking just like that! He had it in his mouth when he was talking, and I was like, "This guy's gotta be in the movie!"
I also wanted to ask you about Little Chris, who's in a wheelchair, but you never explain why.
It's never mentioned, but it's there. It's like you don't have to [explain]. The guy who played was from Oakland. He got the role because he came up to the production office and said, "You got a role for a guy who was shot and is now in a wheelchair? I was really shot and I'm in a wheelchair! I gotta be in your movie!" I told him to audition, he was good, and he's in the movie.
You also have several reference's to Rob Reiner's Stand By Me in the film.
It was the last film I saw before I started college, and I loved everything Stephen King wrote. It's a very emotional coming of age, young male story. And I love it on the merits of that.
By referencing it, were you comparing that idyllic 50s white childhood you see in the movies to your own experiences?
No, it wasn't that at all. I just like that film, and it was something that affected me emotionally. The other films that affected me like that were Hector Babenco's Pixote and François Truffaut's The 400 Blows – films about young men going through different things in various cultures.
Finally, there have been several 90s directors returning to their iconic early works in recent years, like Richard Linklater's Before Sunset and Before Midnight, and Kevin Smith's Clerks 2. Have you ever though about going back to see what Tre is doing now?
No. I'd rather make films that were in the same milieu, but with different characters. Like Baby Boy, which is a counterpoint to Boyz N the Hood. Baby Boy is one of my favourite films that I've made, because it's the same world. I am planning another urban film. I won't say what it is, but I'm interested in doing a film about post-Obama America. The psychological implications of the aftermath of that. And to deal with race and class in a different way.
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