Before Jake brought us the first legit gang movie of Cinema 1544 history (we’ve had martial arts films that I don’t really think quite qualify) I led off with a legit gang short: Hell’s Grannies from the first season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Watch out for the vicious gang of “keep left” signs.
The film basically starts with the booksmart but undisciplined ten-year-old Tre Styles getting into a fight and consequently being sent to live with his father (Furious) in South Central L.A. under the hopes that Furious can straighten him out. One might think that South Central L.A. might not be the best destination for such a move, and one would probably be right. Tre quickly picks up with neighborhood kids Doughboy, his athletic brother Ricky, and Chris, and they have various troubles with the gang scene in Crenshaw.
There’s even a break-in at Furious’ house shortly after Tre moves in, and in the aftermath Tre is treated to some pretty distinct racism from the L.A.P.D. – in the form of a black police officer. It’s a bad vibe. But after establishing Furious’ no-nonsense approach to raising his son, we jump seven years into the future.
Doughboy, already a drop out, is just getting back from a stint in jail. Ricky is chasing after an athletic scholarship to play running back at USC while trying to raise a young son. Chris is already in a wheelchair, turned paraplegic from a gunshot wound. Some dude goes around with a pacifier. And Tre is still a virgin because he he decided to take up the challenge of having a strict Catholic girlfriend, Brandi.
Things actually move pretty slow for most of the film. All the kids are pretty much subsumed into the gang culture to some extent. Tre hopes to get out through education, and Ricky hopes to get out through athletics. (This leads to the most gratuitous SAT montage in film history.) Doughboy is a lifer, though, and while it’s not mentioned in the film, apparently the clues must be present that he is a member of the Crips – either that or Wikipedia is overstating the case. At any rate, Doughboy supports Tre’s efforts to break free of the cycle of violence, which is an interesting contrast to the with-us-or-against-us mentality you might expect gang members to take. The idea that people on the outside are ignorant of, indifferent to – or worse, putting forth an effort to maintain – the struggles in the hood is a constant theme of the film. But when things begin to move, they move quickly.
At a late night hydraulic suspension parade, Ricky gets jostled by a passing “Blood” (again, outside of red clothing, this is never really established, though perhaps that’s good enough in South Central) and instead of letting it go, he begins to have words. It’s that moment in the film, before anything has even happened, that you know the downhill slide has begun, the mistake which sets the tragedy in motion. Doughboy flashes a piece and the Bloods head off, only to pull out a submachine gun and start firing into the air, clearing the street.
If you thought the above picture indicated that the Bloods caught up to Tre, you’d be wrong. In flight from the scene (because, like, some dude was shooting a submachine gun into the air) at some point Tre and Ricky are pulled over by the L.A.P.D. Despite not having done anything wrong, Tre gets the business end of a revolver stuck into his neck – by the very same black officer who been a problem with he and Furious seven years earlier. But the the cops are radioed off to cover a 187 and a shaken Tre makes his way over to Brandi’s house.
He learns that the quickest way into a Catholic girl’s pajamas is to break down crying in front of her. Works like a charm. But Tre isn’t allowed to dwell on his newfound manhood long, because the next day Ricky’s girlfriend sends them out to the store for some cornmeal. And that’s when the Bloods from last night spot them.
They chase down, shoot, and kill Ricky on the street. Doughboy and the others soon show up, and they drag Ricky’s corpse back to the house and put him on the sofa, because, I guess, what else do you do when your brother is gunned down in the street? Mom was a little upset, but at least they did put him down on the plastic cover, so there is that. Tre exits the scene, telling Doughboy to meet him at Furious’ house in five, and he goes under his bed to grab and load his weapon. Furious confronts him, and tells him that he has to stop the cycle of killing, and Tre appears to relent – only to jump out of the bedroom window and join Doughboy ridin’ dirty.
But finally, it’s too much, and his inner Furious defeats his inner Doughboy – he is let out of the car and makes his way home. Meanwhile Doughboy and the crew, despairing of finding the Bloods, decide to grab a burger – and find the Bloods there at the fast food joint having a post-murder meal. Doughboy guns all three of them down in cold blood. The next morning, Doughboy and Tre say a farewell of sorts as Doughboy wishes Tre well in his flight from the hood.
Well, there was that textover epilogue, but it really kind of made me angry so I’ll ignore it. Seriously – you can do a textover epilogue in a documentary, but you don’t do it in a fictional story. You end the story where it is supposed to end, you don’t keep on telling it. We can imagine what happens perfectly well, actually. We don’t need it. Grr.
All in all it was a good movie, if honestly not as gritty as I expected it to be. And the beginning of the movie, while certainly establishing the scene, drags on for far too long. The final maybe 20 minutes of the movie cover basically all of the action, from the tragic misstep to the denouement. And those last 20 minutes are fundamentally gripping in a way few films are. But it just takes so long to get there. It’s likely that if the scene wasn’t set that way it wouldn’t work, but maybe more than that, it might be a good metaphor for the gang life – long periods of poverty, boredom, and small-time crime interspersed with brief interludes of extreme violence. The Bloods and the Crips, they aren’t shooting each other 24/7 whatever the evening news wants to depict. Perhaps living in the hood is more of a long uneasy truce, broken here and there as incidental accidents flare up. But if Boyz N The Hood attempts to answer the question of “why perpetuate gang culture?”, it does it with two answers. One of them – the one coming from the political thinkers of the film – is that “the Man wants it this way”, which I think is a cop-out. If you really believed that White America, or Rich America, or whoever was truly interested in seeing Black America kill itself off, wouldn’t you come to your senses and stop? Furious makes this argument, more or less, but it never rings true. The second answer – the one tacitly coming from the gang members themselves – is “what else is there?” Ricky had a chance to get out because of athletics, Tre because of intelligence. Doughboy? I don’t think he saw another path. For him, iacta alea est came at birth, at least as far as he can see, and he just never found the initiative to pick up those dice and roll them again. And if that really is the answer it’s the saddest part of the whole situation.