Here’s a factoid that, if you’re about my age, will make you feel nice and old: It was 20 years ago today that Boyz n the Hood , John Singleton’s iconic coming-of-age-in-South-Central tale, first hit theaters. It was one of the 19 films released that year helmed by African-American directors in the wake of the critical and financial success of Spike Lee’s early efforts, which proved the existence of a passionate and underserved audience; that year also saw the release of New Jack City, The Five Heartbeats, A Rage in Harlem, Daughters of the Dust, and Lee’s own Jungle Fever. Never before had one calendar year seen so many films from black voices; sadly, it hasn’t happened since.
The most influential — and most financially successful — of those “Black New Wave” films was Boyz, which begins as a kind of black Stand By Me set in 1984, before leaping into the (then) present as teenage Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his best friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut) try to stay out the trouble so prevalent in their South Central neighborhood, and often caused by Ricky’s hardcore half-brother Doughboy (Ice Cube). Though the oft-imitated picture suffers somewhat from its melodramatic tendencies (spoofed so mercilessly in the Wayans Brothers’ Don’t Be A Menace…) and the flashes of casual misogyny that would become so troublesome in Singleton’s later work, Boyz n the Hood remains a powerful, important film that captures a key moment in popular culture with both style and intensity. It was also an early milestone for not only Singleton but several performers involved in the film; in celebration of its twentieth anniversary, we’ll take a look at what became of them after the jump.
Cuba Gooding Jr. (“Tre Styles”)
No one involved in Boyz has had an odder career trajectory than Gooding, the relative film newcomer (one of his few earlier roles found him sitting in a barber’s chair in Coming to America) who played the leading role of Tre. Boyz got Gooding into some A-list films, including Outbreak and A Few Good Men, but usually in small, ensemble roles; he didn’t really break out until five years later, when he took the show-stopping role of Rod Tidwell in Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire and played it to the full hilt, winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. But with occasional exceptions (like his understated supporting turn in As Good as It Gets), his post-Oscar career choices were downright befuddling — though there is certainly a dearth of quality leading man work for black actors, there’s still no explaining vehicles like the 1999 Speed-on-an-ice-cream-truck-with-Skeet-Ulirch picture Chill Factor, or the second-fiddle-to-Disney-dogs movie Snow Dogs, or (worst of all) the notorious gay-panic “comedy” Boat Trip. He made occasional attempts at “serious acting,” co-starring with master thespians like Robert DeNiro (Men of Honor), Anthony Hopkins (Instinct), and Ed Harris (the execrable Radio), but these went over no better. His films of the last decade have ranged from wretched theatrical releases like Daddy Day Camp and Norbit to straight-to-DVD efforts like Hero Wanted, Hardwired, and The Hit List (what? Exactly.) His last high-profile turn was a small but effective role in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, where he proved he’s still got some juice, if only (alas) when he gets a script that doesn’t stink.
Morris Chestnut (“Ricky Baker”)
Gooding’s co-star hasn’t quite achieved his highs — but has also studiously avoided his lows. After doing some TV work in the wake of Boyz, Chestnut did an uncredited turn in Singleton’s 1995 film Higher Learning before co-starring in the surprisingly entertaining Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, the first of several supporting appearances in Hollywood action films (he also pops up in GI Jane, Half Past Dead, and Ladder 49). The rest of his filmography is dominated by leading man turns in ensemble romantic comedies geared towards black audiences; he’s seen in The Best Man (with Boyz co-star Nia Long), The Brothers, Two Can Play That Game, The Perfect Holiday, and Breakin’ All The Rules. He was most recently seen in the Tyler Perry-style drama Not Easily Broken and on the TV series V.
Ice Cube (“Doughboy”)
Both Singleton and New Jack City director Mario Van Peebles sought to increase their films’ street cred (and add fans to their audiences) by casting well-known West Coast rappers to their casts; this soon became a necessary skill for any rap artist, whether they could actually act (2Pac, Diddy) or not (Nas, 50 Cent). Cube also provided the filmmaker with a link to the song the picture was named after; he wrote the track, though it was performed not by Cube but by his NWA comrade Eazy-E. Cube proved a natural onscreen—though he had no formal acting training, his work as “Doughboy” was tough, believable, and sensitive. He had split from NWA and released his first solo album the year before (and provided the end credit song, “How to Survive in South Central,” for Boyz), and would continue to put out albums, but his music career slowly took a backseat to his film (and later, television) efforts. Over the next several years, he did action (Trespass, Torque, xXx: State of the Union), drama (Three Kings, The Longshots), comedy (the Friday and Barbershop films), and — most improbably, considering his early recordings — family efforts (Are We There Yet? and Are We Done Yet?, both opposite Nia Long). He frequently wrote, occasionally directed, and often produced, creating something of a multi-media mini-empire.
Larry Fishburne (“Furious Styles”)
Fishburne was still using the less-formal “Larry” when he appeared in the pivotal role of Tre’s father, “Furious,” in Boyz. He was the closest thing Singleton had to an established star, having fronted Spike Lee’s School Daze, all but stolen Abel Ferrera’s King of New York, and immortalized the role of Cowboy Curtis on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Boyz proved a huge lift for the actor, who quickly graduated to starring roles in the terrific Deep Cover and the Ike and Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It (on which he first used the first name “Laurence), which re-teamed Fishburne with his Boyz co-star Angela Bassett and garnered Oscar nominations for both. He’s been the highest-profile actor in the cast in the years since, with roles in The Matrix films, Mystic River, Mission: Impossible III, and on TV’s CSI.
Angela Bassett (“Reva Styles”)
Bassett’s role as Tre’s mom, who all but gives up on the boy in the film’s prologue and takes him to live with his father, was brief (she’s only in about three scenes) but memorable; it was also one of her first film roles, after half a decade of television work. But it immediately put her on the hot list, in the years to follow, she would work with John Sayles (City of Hope, Passion Fish), Spike Lee (Malcolm X), Forest Whitaker (Waiting to Exhale), Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days) and Robert Zemekis (Contact), in addition to that unforgettable performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It. She hasn’t been working as much as we’d like lately, though she did make supporting appearances in this year’s Jumping the Broom and Green Lantern.
Nia Long (“Brandy”)
Tre’s girlfriend Brandy is not exactly Boyz n the Hood’s most nuanced role, but Nia Long imbued it with a sweet, supportive innocence, and became a go-to African-American leading lady in the subsequent years, appearing opposite Will Smith in Made in America (and on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Ice Cube in Friday, Omar Epps in In Too Deep, Martin Lawrence in Big Momma’s House, Jamie Foxx in Held Up, and Jude Law in Alfie. Most importantly, she co-starred in Love Jones, the black bohemian romance that is one of the most criminally underrated movies of the 1990s. These days, she’s best known for voicing the role of Roberta Tubbs on The Cleveland Show.
Regina King (“Shalika”)
Like Bassett, King doesn’t appear for long in Boyz, but she makes an impression — hanging out in Doughboy’s ride, talking shit as forcefully and fervently as her male counterparts. King (making her film debut after a long run on the series 227) gives the film a shot of energy, and was one of the few actors in Boyz that Singleton kept around for his follow-up picture, the flawed but interesting Poetic Justice. Like Gooding, King’s next big break would come with Jerry Maguire, where she was terrific as Gooding’s loving, hilarious wife; other memorable turns include Enemy of the State, Down to Earth, Miss Congeniality 2, and Ray, where her powerful performance as Margie Hendricks should’ve at least netted an Oscar nomination. King also did voice work on The Boondocks, a season of 24, and is currently appearing on Southland.
John Singleton (Writer/Director)
Singleton was all of 23 years old when Boyz n the Hood was released; the comparisons to Orson Welles were inevitable and, in light of his subsequent output, sadly appropriate. Though he’s had some financial successes, Singleton has never again approached the raw emotional power or intelligence of his debut film. His initial follow-ups (Poetic Justice, Higher Learning) mostly fell under the realm of “interesting failures”; his high-profile Shaft remake had its moments, though strangely most of them were provided by supporting players Jeffrey Wright and Christian Bale rather than leading man Samuel L. Jackson. After that, it was all downhill: Baby Boy, his 2001 attempt to return to Boyz territory, was embarrassingly heavy-handed, but that film was a masterpiece compared to its follow-up, 2 Fast 2 Furious. 2005’s Four Brothers, also a pretty witless piece of bullshit male macho posturing, was his last theatrical feature, though he’s got a new film out this fall: the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Tevin Campbell (Soundtrack Artist)
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the legacy of the film that we forget how popular Boyz n the Hood’s soundtrack, an inventive mix of hardcore hip-hop (Cube, his protégé Yo-Yo, Too $hort, the notorious 2 Live Crew) and pop-friendly, New Jack-influenced R&B (Hi-Five, Tony! Toni! Tone!), was; it hit #1 on the R&B album charts, and #12 on the pop counterpart. The record’s hit single (#9 on Hot R&B) was “Just Ask Me To,” written and produced by Kyle West and New Jack mainstay Al B. Sure, and performed by Tevin Campbell, with a rap break by Chubb Rock. Campbell, only 14 when the film was released, was a remarkable child singer discovered by Quincy Jones and employed by Prince, who put him in his flop film Graffiti Bridge but also produced his first solo hit single, “Round and Round.” “Just Ask Me To” was also heard on his debut album T.E.V.I.N., which yielded the hits “Tell Me What You Want Me To Do” and “Goodbye.” Alas, Campbell’s career cooled by the mid-1990s, and in 1999, he was arrested in a police sting and pleaded no contest to soliciting a lewd act from an undercover policeman. He was also in possession of marijuana at the time of the arrest; he was ordered to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings and an AIDS awareness class. More recently, he appeared in the Broadway cast of Hairspray and has made occasional appearances on BET, and is said to be contemplating a comeback.