Boyz N the Hood; Menace 2 Society; Juice: In the 90s, the most popular film depictions of Black men were almost always associated with drugs, gangs, violence or a combination of all three. While the protagonists in these cult classics are forced to grapple with escaping the effects of violence in their communities, Rick Famuyiwa's 1999 film The Wood, which turns 20 this week, did something a bit different; it portrayed a bond between Black men that wasn't solely based on the crime happening around them—a nuanced relationship study that Hollywood still seems to find trouble pinning down two decades after the film's release.
With an ensemble cast featuring Taye Diggs, Omar Epps, and Richard T. Jones, The Wood follows the lives of three lifelong friends from adolescence to adulthood as they recount various moments they've shared while living in Inglewood, California ("The Wood").
The film's opening scene is Roland's (Taye Diggs) wedding day— a day that Roland, Mike (Omar Epps) and Slim (Richard T. Jones) didn't think would happen after making a promise in high school to commit to a life of "macking and hanging." And, consequently, Roland is nowhere to be found three hours before his wedding, leaving Mike (Omar Epps) and Slim (Richard T. Jones) on a quest to find their best friend without worrying wedding guests and his bride.
As they reflect on how their brotherhood might change because of Roland's marriage, the friends travel down memory lane to explore their various misadventures as teens growing up in the 80s. It starts with Mike's first day at school where he meets Roland and Slim. It's clear that Mike, who moved from North Carolina to California, is a bit socially awkward as he tries to fit in, but Mike's shyness is expected considering he's moved around a lot due to his mom's job. Little did he know that he was in the process of making best friends who would change his life for the better.
The budding friendship swiftly develops into something deeper as the three share a variety of experiences—which include school dances; an unfortunate yet funny encounter with a gang; and, of course, girls. Their chase for girls and sex becomes a main struggle for the friends as transitioning from boys to young adults as each of them try to remain committed to the player attitude.
The Wood's representation of genuine friendship between Black men is one that still resonates with viewers two decades after its release. "[The film] was a clear depiction of what life is like for me, as a Black man, and things that we have to struggle with, [but] from a fun perspective,” recalls Asa Mack, a 38-year-old higher education professional from North Carolina who still has the film on DVD. “It really showed the various things that Black men do from adolescence and how you often keep those same friends."
Devanté Green, a 26-year-old account manager from New Jersey, agrees that the film represented a highly relatable coming-of-age story for Black men "I think, as I get older, I can relate to [the film] more. I'm a military brat, so I moved around a lot, and my final move was to Kansas,” Green said. “[I was] that new kid on the block and just kind of picking up lifelong friends along the way, and having those experiences that help you transition from a young boy to a young man to an adult."
However, it's Mike's (Omar Epps) crush on Alicia (Malinda Williams) that takes center stage, as the two friends discover their love for each other throughout the years, making the coming-of-age film a highly celebrated Black love story along with being one of the most vivid depictions of Black brotherhood on-screen.
Although the film is not solely focused on violence, it hilariously inserts Stacey (De'Aundre Bonds), a Crips gang member and Alicia's brother, into its story to give the film some of its best comedic moments. Stacey's character displayed a more lighthearted version of gang members, which was different from the mean demeanor shown in typical gang depictions. Sure, Stacey was a Crip, but he had a lot of heart.
The film isn't without its flaws, though. A game wherein the three boys get money every time they grabbed a girl's butt would likely make a 2019 audience cringe, and reinforces the idea of how men are taught at a young age to claim ownership of and objectify the bodies of women. Additionally, the friends making a high school bet to see who could get laid first was also very telling. The bet involved putting money in a "pussy pot" for every time they failed at having sex with another girl and the winner, the one who finally had sex, would receive all the money in the pot. While it's easy to gloss over the scene as something typical of straight young boys, it doesn't mean that the bet wasn't inundated with the sexist idea of men reducing women's bodies to territorial conquests.
Those scenes ultimately forces one to reimagine what a modern-day version of the classic film would look like if it were slightly less problematic. However, it doesn't erase The Wood's impact for younger generations of Black men, which is something that attracted Derrick Morris, a 24-year-old graduate student, to the film when he saw it for the first time during his senior year in high school.
"It's a cool coming-of-age story for young Black dudes transitioning from high school to being a man and having a strong group of friends," Morris said. "I think it's just really relatable with the whole 'macking and hanging' thing as a moniker for their brotherhood because that's really what young dudes are taught at that age: playing basketball, hanging with your friends, and being with girls. It's really like a worry-free Black childhood movie."
Toward the end of the film, Roland, Mike and Slim realize the error in their childhood ways as they start new chapters in their lives. Parting ways with their player tendencies and choosing love is an aspect of those growing pains. However, it works out for the three friends in the end as they learn to be better friends to each other while finding love, which makes The Wood a thoughtful, accurate portrayal of Black love and brotherhood that resonates with audiences twenty years later.
"I think [the film] should be remembered as not only a love story between a man and a woman or a significant other, but a love story of friendship and what that could look like over the course of a lifetime," Green said.