Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1115
SOURCE: Brunette, Peter. “Singleton's Street Noises.” Sight and Sound 1, no. 4 (August 1991): 13.
[In the following essay, Brunette discusses Singleton's response to the positive and negative critical reaction to Boyz N the Hood.]
Present at this year's Cannes festival for the world premiere of his first film, Boyz N the Hood, a sophisticated if somewhat preachy account of three young boys' violent coming of age in the black ghetto of South Central Los Angeles, twenty-three-year-old John Singleton is clearly enjoying the attention.
When I arrive for our scheduled interview, he is on his way back to his room. He suggests that we talk as we walk along the Croisette, Cannes' jam-packed main thoroughfare. We try this for about ninety seconds, and it's clearly not going to work. I propose instead that we reschedule with the publicist and he is instantly, genuinely grateful. Despite what the folks back home think, Cannes is hard on everyone.
Boyz N the Hood is a tough, raw film. The sense of frustration and urgency expressed is so great that at times Singleton's characters seem to mount invisible soapboxes to address the audience directly and shake some sense into them. Judged from a strictly aesthetic viewpoint, these moments are flaws; in this film, paradoxically, they add to the overwhelming feeling of real life and direct witness. Singleton quietly observes that “films serve different purposes, some are meant just to entertain, but there's also room for other films that inform as well.”
Unsurprisingly, the film is being heavily promoted as ‘authentic,’ which for Singleton means “that people are seeing some stuff they've never seen before.” But what matters to him, in the end, is that Boyz N the Hood is authentic “to the brothers and sisters I made the film for. The people on the street. I got the supreme compliments from brothers in Inglewood and Compton and South Central” (black ghettos in Los Angeles). Singleton says that Boyz allows them to “see themselves on film and they can reflect upon it. Think about their situation and the situation of their friends and their family.”
Does he think that because of the unflattering way black characters within the film are portrayed, he will be criticised for producing negative images or for blaming the victim? “Maybe I'll be criticised by older black people, but the younger black people will know what I'm talking about. The older generation won't like the language in my film, anyway, but actually I'm just saying the same thing that the hard-core rappers are saying. They say it on wax, and I'm saying it on film.”
After the press screening, some North American male critics objected to the treatment of women—perhaps with more than a little of a ‘more-feminist-than-thou’ tone. Singleton's response is that “the men in the film treat women differently according to what their backgrounds are. Tre [the chief protagonist, played by Cuba Gooding Jr.] doesn't treat women the same way that Dough Boy [a violence-prone teenager played by rap musician Ice Cube] does, you see. I was trying to show real life, in the streets. The women don't just stand there and take it. They talk shit back.
“I was trying to show that there's a certain schism between black men and black women right now,” he continues. “Things have been made easier for black women but not for black men, so what I'm trying to say is that we need to stick together instead of fighting each other.”
The young men in the film regularly call each other “bitch” and “cunt,” as though women were the lowest form of life. Singleton, however, says that “that's too much of an analytical observation. It's just an attack on one's manhood, like if you would call someone a faggot, they'd say bitch. They have their manhood attacked so often they attack each other's manhood in various ways, verbally and physically.”
The film's greatest weakness is, in fact, Singleton's uncritical worship of manhood and maleness, which at times approaches an obsessive level. But first films, like first novels, perhaps need to be autobiographically obsessive on some level in order to get made. Singleton says he closely modelled Tre's father, Furious Styles (played by Larry Fishburne of The Color Purple and School Daze), the film's strongest character, on his own father, whom he describes as “awesome”
I mention the recent controversial news story about a black educator in Los Angeles who, because he felt that the necessary discipline could not be instilled in a co-educational setting, decided to set up an ‘academy’ that would only admit boys. “I think he's right. I had a couple of black male teachers, in addition to my father and my mother, who set me straight on the right path. It's like a woman can't teach a young boy how to be a man, only a man can teach a young boy that. That's what was most on my mind in the film. That's the whole thing.”
One of the points the film effectively makes is that violence of all varieties is the everyday reality for these young men simply trying to survive long enough to grow up. Besides the gang violence and the verbal violence, there is a constant psychological violence expressed most effectively in the subconsciously annoying whumpa-whumpa of unseen police helicopters that runs throughout the film. “Yeah, you get it, you're smart, man, you're smart,” Singleton responds. “But there are a lot of stupid people in the world, and they're not going to get that. They'll say, why is it so noisy. They won't know that that's there to add to the atmosphere, and that's just how the atmosphere is.”
Singleton himself is both smart and a survivor. On the basis of having received several prestigious writing awards while in film school, he signed with Creative Artists Agency while still a student. A young executive at Columbia got hold of his screenplay, passed it along to studio head Frank Price, and a meeting was set up for the next weekend. “I just pitched myself to direct my own film. I figured that if you could tell your story to anybody on the street, orally, you could tell any studio executive.”
When I ask if he has any recommendations for other young black filmmakers trying to break into the industry. Singleton emphasises that it was his writing ability that got the studio interested. “I never did a film at USC. All they teach you in school is theory. This film was my chance to put it into practice. And know your history, know where you're from. It gives you a firm foundation and you don't feel you're on shaky ground with anybody or anything.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341
SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. Review of Boyz N the Hood, by John Singleton. New Republic (2 September 1991): 26–27.
[In the following review, Kauffman offers a mixed assessment of Boyz N the Hood, criticizing the “patently fabricated” structure of the film.]
Boyz N the Hood (Columbia) is the latest in the New Black Wave, written and directed by the 23-year-old John Singleton. Hood means neighborhood. The picture centers on the part of Los Angeles where Singleton and some of his cast grew up—not ghetto-slummy but nonetheless a war zone.
Singleton tells the story of a black youth growing to late adolescence amid drugs and drug-related crime, trying to keep straight under the tutelage of a father who is strong on discipline. (His divorced mother agrees early on that it would be better for her son to be raised by a male.) Around the growing boy are his friends, male and female. Most of them get mired in difficult circumstances. For the central character, all finally works out well.
The ending's attempt at cheer is not one of the picture's faults: many black youths certainly do come through troubles to lead good lives. Where this film seems to me patently fabricated, unlike Hangin' with the Homeboys and Straight Out of Brooklyn, is in its form. The earlier films, especially Hangin' with the Homeboys, tried to move away from a mere chronicle of woes into forms that, without mitigating truth, gave truth added impact through the vitality of its telling. Formally, Boyz is just one more old-time bad-neighborhood picture. Instead of, say, Manhattan's Lower East Side in Prohibition days, it's an LA lower-middle-class black neighborhood afflicted with drugs. And Singleton's control of his picture's flow is much less firm than was the other directors.’
Larry Fishburne, the vigorous black actor familiar from King of New York and Class Action, is irresistible as the hero's father, a devotee of discipline and of the belief that the white man is the enemy. A rap singer who calls himself Ice Cube is sullenly, scowlingly appealing as the hero's friend.
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SOURCE: Kermode, Mark. Review of Boyz N the Hood, by John Singleton. Sight and Sound 1, no. 7 (November 1991): 37–38.
[In the following review, Kermode offers a positive assessment of Boyz N the Hood.]
South Central Los Angeles, 1984. Unable to control her increasingly wild son Tre, Reva Styles sends him to live with his father Furious, who can teach him to “be a man.” Tre develops a close friendship with neighbouring youths Ricky and Doughboy Baker, two half-brothers—living with their single mother—whose natures are diametrically opposed: Ricky is a tall but unaggressive football devotee; Doughboy a heavy-set tearaway whose headstrong bullishness soon leads to his arrest.
Seven years later, Tre is reunited with his childhood friends at a barbecue celebrating Doughboy's release from jail. Tre has developed a seemingly sturdy relationship with Furious, and proudly discusses his adolescent sexual exploits with his father; in reality, Tre's Catholic girlfriend Brandi will not permit intercourse before marriage and the boy remains a virgin. Furious, a financial adviser who arranges mortgages for local people, speaks out against violence between rival black gangs as merely serving white oppression.
Eager to enter college on a football scholarship, Ricky (who has now fathered a son) takes his SAT exams with Tre. That night, at a local streetside teenage hangout, a gang member harasses Ricky and is repelled by a revolver-brandishing Doughboy. Later, Ricky and Tre are hassled by two policemen (one white, one black). At Brandi's house, Tre collapses in tears before declaring his love for Brandi, to whom he makes love for the first time.
Some days later, Ricky and Tre visit a local store, and are pursued by armed gang members; Tre escapes but Ricky is shot dead. Doughboy carries his body home, while Tre rushes to collect a gun from his father's house. Despite Furious' impassioned plea, Tre briefly joins Doughboy in a search for Ricky's killers before relenting and returning home alone. Doughboy locates the gang at a nearby car park and executes the three culprits. Next morning, a doleful and weary Doughboy tells Tre that he regrets what he has done. A letter arrives informing Mrs Baker that Ricky's SAT grades would have earned him a place at college. A postscript recounts Doughboy's death at the hands of gunmen two weeks later. Tre and Brandi move to neighbouring colleges.
John Singleton describes his impressive directorial début as a film about “boys becoming men,” which pleads for “African-American men to take more responsibility for raising their children, especially the boys.” Certainly, the theme of paternal strength is a key element in Singleton's polemical narrative, in which each character's chances of survival are defined by the presence or absence of a sturdy father figure. “I can't teach him how to be a man,” declares Reva Styles as she hands her unruly child over to the character-building custody of his father, Furious. “That's your job.”
This same obsession with an absence of guiding paternal power also underwrites Singleton's analysis of the inter-black rivalry which renders the 'hood dwellers impotent in their struggle for better living conditions. Just as Doughboy and Ricky are separated by the ghosts of their divided fathers, so the 'hood dwellers turn upon each other because they have no common cultural leadership. Similarly, despite his brash pronouncements to the contrary, the adolescent Tre is revealed midway through the film to harbour a deep-seated fear of intercourse stemming from his terror of becoming a father—which he views as the ultimate burden.
Within this framework, Furious Styles serves not only as a father to Tre, but also as a prototype leader who will conduct his people out of the wilderness. His apparently unprovoked and prosaic address to the local citizens, wherein he lectures on the evils of white ‘gentrification,’ may seem to jar with the harsh naturalism adopted elsewhere. But thematically it is entirely consistent; Furious is the voice of salvation, the absent father returning to restore order to the cultural chaos.
Directed with bold certainty by Singleton, Boyz N the Hood thus emerges less as a portrayal of the rigours of urban life than a romantic elegy to the stable, patriarchal family unit. The film clearly addresses itself to young audiences, or more specifically young male audiences, for there is little here of relevance to women. Singleton (it seems) is preaching not only to the fathers who currently fail their offspring, but to the children themselves, urging them to become the better fathers of the future.
In this endeavour he is amply aided by the fine cast who more than do justice to an intelligent script. Larry Fishburne continues to be a matchless screen presence in the central role of Furious, but the real surprise is rapper Ice Cube, whose portrayal of the downcast Doughboy is as graceful and understated as it is unexpected. Bold, boisterous and unashamedly boyish, Boyz N the Hood paints a limited canvas with a lively palette.
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SOURCE: Dyson, Michael Eric. “Between Apocalypse and Redemption: John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood.” Cultural Critique 21 (spring 1992): 121–41.
[In the following essay, Dyson commends Singleton for accurately portraying the psyche of inner-city youths in Boyz N the Hood.]
By now the dramatic decline in black male life has become an unmistakable feature of our cultural landscape—though of course the causes behind the desperate condition of black men date much further back than its recent popular discovery. Every few months, new reports and conferences attempt to explain the poverty, disease, despair, and death that shove black men toward social apocalypse.
If these words appear too severe or hyperbolic, the statistics testify to the trauma. For black men between 18 and 29, suicide is the leading cause of death. Between 1950 and 1984, the life expectancy for white males increased from 63 to 74.6 years, but only from 59 to 65 years for black males. Between 1973 and 1986, the real earnings of black males between the ages of 18 and 29 fell 31 percent as the percentage of young black males in the work force plummeted 20 percent. The number of black men who dropped out of the work force altogether doubled from 13 to 25 percent.
By 1989, almost 32 percent of black men between 16 and 19 were unemployed, compared to 16 percent of white men. And while blacks compose only 12 percent of the nation's population, they make up 48 percent of the prison population, with men accounting for 89 percent of the black prison population. Only 14 percent of the white males who live in large metropolitan areas have been arrested, but the percentage for black males is 51 percent. And while 3 percent of white men have served time in prison, 18 percent of black men have been behind bars.1
Most chillingly, black-on-black homicide is the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 34. Or to put it another way: “One out of every 21 black American males will be murdered in their lifetime. Most will die at the hands of another black male.” These words appear in stark white print on the dark screen that opens John Singleton's masterful film, Boyz N the Hood. These words are both summary and opening salvo in Singleton's battle to reinterpret and redeem the black male experience. With Boyz N the Hood we have the most brilliantly executed and fully realized portrait of the coming-of-age odyssey that black boys must undertake in the suffocating conditions of urban decay and civic chaos.
Singleton adds color and depth to Michael Schultz's groundbreaking Cooley High, extends the narrative scope of the Hudlin brothers' important and humorous House Party, and creates a stunning complement to Gordon Parks's pioneering Learning Tree, which traced the painful pilgrimage to maturity of a rural black male. Singleton's treatment of the various elements of contemporary black urban experience—gang violence, drug addiction, black male—female relationships, domestic joys and pains, and friendships—is subtle and complex. He layers narrative textures over gritty and compelling visual slices of black culture that show us what it means to come to maturity, or to die trying, as a black male.
We have only begun to understand the pitfalls that attend the path of the black male. Social theory has only recently fixed its gaze on the specific predicament of black men in relation to the crisis of American capital, positing how their lives are shaped by structural changes in the political economy, for instance, rather than viewing them as the latest examples of black cultural pathology.2 And social psychology has barely explored the deeply ingrained and culturally reinforced self-loathing and chronic lack of self-esteem that characterize black males across age group income bracket, and social location.
Even less have we understood the crisis of black males as rooted in childhood and adolescent obstacles to socioeconomic stability, and in moral, psychological, and emotional development. We have just begun to pay attention to specific rites of passage, stages of personality growth, and milestones of psycho-emotional evolution that measure personal response to racial injustice, social disintegration, and class oppression.
James P. Comer and Alvin F. Poussaint's Black Child Care, Marian Wright Edelman's Families in Peril, and Darlene and Derek Hopson's foundational Different and Wonderful and are among the exceptions which address the specific needs of black childhood and adolescence. Young, Black and Male in America: An Endangered Species, edited by Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, has recently begun to fill a gaping void in social-scientific research on the crisis of the black male.
In the last decade, however, alternative presses have vigorously probed the crisis of the black male. Like their black independent film peer, authors of volumes published by black independent presses often rely on lower budgets for advertising, marketing and distribution. Nevertheless, word-of-mouth discussion of several books has sparked intense debated. Nathan and Julia Hare's Bringing the Black Boy to Manhood: The Passage, Jawanza Kunjufu's trilogy The Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys, Amos N. Wilson's The Developmental Psychology of the Black Child, Baba Zak A. Kondo's For Homeboys Only: Arming and Strengthening Young Brothers for Black Manhood, and Haki Madhubuti's Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? have had an important impact on significant subsections of literate black culture, most of whom share an Afrocentric perspective.
Such works remind us that we have too infrequently understood the black male crisis through coming-of-age narratives, and a set of shares social values that ritualize the process of the black adolescent's passage into adulthood. Such narratives and rites serve a dual function: they lend meaning to childhood experience, and they preserve and transmit black cultural values across the generations. Yet such narratives evoke a state of maturity—rooted in a vital community—that young black men are finding elusive or, all too often, impossible to reach. The conditions of extreme social neglect that besiege urban black communities—in every realm from health care education to poverty and joblessness—make the black male's passage into adulthood treacherous at best.
One of the most tragic symptoms of the young black man's troubled path to maturity is the skewed and strained state of gender relations within the black community. With alarming frequency, black men turn to black men turn to black women as scapegoats for their oppression, lashing out—often with physical violence—at those closest to them. It is the singular achievement of Singleton's film to redeem the power many of the very tensions that evade the foundations of the coming-of-age experience in the black community.
While mainstream American culture has only barely begun to register awareness of the true proportions of the crisis, young black males have responded in the last decade primarily in a rapidly flourishing independent popular culture, dominated by two genres: rap music and black film. The rap music Run D.M.C., Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Kool Moe Dee, N.W.A., Ice Cube, and Ice T., and the films of Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, and now Matty Rich and Mario Van Peebles, have afforded young black males a medium to visualize and verbalize their perspectives on a range of social, personal, and cultural issues, to tell their stories about themselves and each other while the rest of America consumes and eavesdrops.
John Singleton's film makes a powerful contribution to this enterprise. Singleton filters his brilliant insights, critical comments, and compelling portraits of young black male culture through a film that reflects the sensibilities, styles, and attitudes of rap culture.3 Singleton's shrewd casting of rapper Ice Cube as a central character allows him to seize symbolic capital from a real-life rap icon, while tailoring the violent excesses of Ice Cube's rap persona into a jarring visual reminder of the cost paid by black males for survival in American society. Singleton skillfully integrates the suggestive fragments of critical reflections on the black male predicament in several media and presents a stunning vision of black male pain and possibility in a catastrophic environment; South Central Los Angeles.
Of course, South Central Los Angeles is an already storied geography in the American social imagination. It has been given cursory—though melodramatic—treatment by news anchor Tom Brokaw's glimpse of gangs in a highly publicized 1988 TV special, and was mythologized in Dennis Hopper's film about gang warfare, Colors. Hopper, who perceptively and provocatively helped probe the rough edges of anomie and rebellion for a whole generation of outsiders in 1969's Easy Rider, less successfully traces the genealogy of social despair, postmodern urban absurdity, and longing for belonging that provides the context for understanding gang violence. Singleton's task in part, therefore, is a filmic demythologization of the reigning tropes, images, and metaphors that have expressed the experience of life in South Central Los Angeles. While gangs are a central part of the urban landscape, they are not its exclusive reality. And though gang warfare occupies a looming periphery in Singleton's film, it is not its defining center.
Boyz N the Hood is a painful and powerful look at the lives of black people, mostly male, who live in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. It is a story of relationships—of kin, friendship, community—of love, rejection, contempt, and fear. At the story's heart are three important relationships: a triangular relationship between three boys, whose lives we track to mature adolescence; the relationship between one of the boys and his father; and the relationship between the other two boys and their mother.
Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) is a young boy whose mother Reva Devereaux (Angela Bassett), in an effort to impose discipline upon him, sends him to live with his father across town. Tre has run afoul of his elementary school teacher for challenging both her authority and her Eurocentric curriculum. And Tre's life in his mother's neighborhood makes it clear why he is not accommodating well to school discipline. By the age of ten, he has already witnessed the yellow police tags that mark the scenes of crimes and viewed the blood of a murder victim. Fortunately for Tre, his mother and father love him more than they couldn't love each other.
Doughboy (former N.W.A. rapper Ice Cube, in a brilliant cinematic debut) and Ricky (Morris Chestnut) are half-brothers who live with their mother Brenda (Tyra Ferrell) across the street from Tre and his father. Brenda is a single black mother—a member of a much-maligned group that, depending on the amateurish social theory of the day, is vilified with charges of promiscuity, judged to be the source of all that is evil in the lives of black children, or, at best, is stereotyped as the helpless beneficiaries of the state. Singleton artfully avoids these caricatures by giving a complex portrait of Brenda, a woman plagued by her own set of demons, but who tries to provide the best living she can for her sons.
Even so, Brenda clearly favors Ricky over Doughboy—and this favoritism will bear fatal consequences for both boys. Indeed in Singleton's cinematic worldview both Ricky and Doughboy seem doomed to violent deaths because—unlike Tre—they have no male role models to guide them. This premise embodies one of the film's central tensions—and one of its central limitations. For even as he assigns black men a pivotal role of responsibility for the fate of black boys, Singleton also gives rather uncritical “precedence” to the impact of black men, even in their absence, over the efforts of present and loyal black women who more often prove to be at the head of strong black families.
While this foreshortened view of gender relations within the black community arguably distorts Singleton's cinematic vision, he is nonetheless remarkably perceptive in examining the subtle dynamics of the black family and neighborhood, tracking the differing effects that the boys' siblings, friends, and environment have on them. There is no bland nature-versus-nurture dichotomy here: Singleton is too smart to render life in terms of a Kierkegaardian either/or. His is an Afrocentric world of both/and.
This complex set of interactions—between mother and sons, between father and son, between boys who benefit from paternal wisdom or maternal ambitions, between brothers whose relationship is riven by primordial passions of envy and contempt, between environment and autonomy, between the larger social structure and the smaller but more immediate tensions of domestic life—defines the central shape of Hood. We see a vision of black life that transcends insular preoccupations with “positive” or “negative” images and instead presents at once the limitations and virtues of black culture.
As a result, Singleton's film offers a plausible perspective on how people make the choices they do—and on how choice itself is not a property of autonomous moral agents acting in an existential vacuum, but rather something that is created and exercised within the interaction of social, psychic, political, and economic forces of everyday experience. Personal temperament, domestic discipline, parental guidance (or its absence), all help shape our understanding of our past and future, help define how we respond to challenge and crisis, and help mold how we embrace success or seem destined for failure.
Tre's developing relationship with his father, Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne), is by turns troubled and disciplined, sympathetic and compassionate—finely displaying Singleton's open-ended evocation of the meaning of social choice as well as his strong sensitivity to cultural detail. Furious Styles's moniker vibrates with double meaning, a semiotic pairing that allows Singleton to signify in speech what Furious accomplishes in action: a wonderful amalgam of old-school black consciousness, elegance, style, and wit, linked to the hip-hop fetish of “dropping science” (spreading knowledge) and staying well informed about social issues.
Only seventeen years Tre's senior, Furious understands Tre's painful boyhood growth and identifies with his teen aspirations. But more than that, he possesses a sincere desire to shape Tre's life according to his own best lights. Furious is the strong presence and wise counselor who will guide Tre through the pitfalls of reaching personal maturity in the chaos of urban childhood—the very sort of presence denied to so many in Hood, and in countless black communities throughout the country.
Furious, in other words, embodies the promise of a different conception of black manhood. As a father he is disciplining but loving, firm but humorous, demanding but sympathetic. In him, the black male voice speaks with an authority so confidently possessed and equitably wielded that one might think it is strongly supported and valued in American culture, but of course that is not so. The black male voice is rarely heard without the inflections of race and class domination that distort its power in the home and community, mute its call for basic respect and common dignity, or amplify its ironic denial of the very principles of democracy and equality that it has publicly championed in pulpits and political organizations.
Among the most impressive achievements of Singleton's film is its portrayal of the neighborhood as a “community.” In this vein Singleton implicitly sides with the communitarian critique of liberal moral autonomy and atomistic individualism.4 In Hood people love and worry over one another, even if they express such sentiments roughly. For instance, when the older Tre crosses the street and sees a baby in the path of an oncoming car, he swoops her up, and takes her to her crack-addicted mother. Tre gruffly reproves her for neglecting her child and insists that she change the baby's diapers before the baby smells as bad as her mother. And when Tre goes to a barbecue for Doughboy, who is fresh from a jail sentence, Brenda beseeches him to talk to Doughboy, hoping that Tre's intangible magic will “rub off on him.”
But Singleton understands that communities, besides embodying resistance to the anonymity of liberal society as conceived in Aristotle via MacIntyre, also reflect the despotic will of their fringe citizens who threaten the civic pieties by which communities are sustained. Hood's community is fraught with mortal danger, its cords of love and friendship under the siege of gang violence, and by what sociologists Mike Davis and Sue Riddick call the political economy of crack.5 Many inner-city communities live under what may be called a “juvenocracy”: the economic rule and illegal tyranny exercised by young black men over significant territory in the black urban center. In the social geography of South Central L.A., neighborhoods are reconceived as spheres of expansion where urban space is carved up according to implicit agreements, explicit arrangements, or lethal conflicts between warring factions.
Thus, in addition to being isolated from the recognition and rewards of the dominant culture, inner-city communities are cut off from sources of moral authority and legitimate work, as underground political economies reward consenting children and teens with quick cash, faster cars, and, sometimes, still more rapid death.6 Along with the reterritorialization of black communal space through gentrification, the hegemony of the suburban mall over the inner-city and downtown shopping complex, and white flight and black track to the suburbs and exurbs, the inner city is continually devastated.
Such conditions rob the neighborhood of one of its basic social functions and defining characteristics: the cultivation of a self-determined privacy in which residents can establish and preserve their identities. Police helicopters constantly zoom overhead in Hood's community, a mobile metaphor of the ominous surveillance and scrutiny to which so much of poor black life is increasingly subjected. The helicopter also signals another tragedy that Hood alludes to throughout its narrative: ghetto residents must often flip a coin to distinguish Los Angeles's police from its criminals. After all, this is Daryl Gates's L.A.P.D., and the Rodney King incident only underscores a long tradition of extreme measures that police have used to control crime and patrol neighborhoods.7
This insight is poignantly featured in a scene just after Tre comes to live with his father. One night, Furious hears a strange noise. As an unsuspecting young Tre rises to use the toilet, Furious eases his gun from the side of his bed, spies an intruder in the living room and blasts away, leaving two holes in the front door. After they investigate the holes and call the police, Furious and Tre sit on the front porch, waiting an hour for the police to arrive. Furious remarks that “somebody musta been prayin' for that fool 'cause I swear I aimed right for his head.” When Tre says that Furious “shoulda blew it off,” Furious censors his sentiment, saying that it would have simply been the senseless death of another black man.
After the interracial police team arrive, the black policeman expresses Tre's censored sentiment with considerably more venom. “[It would be] one less nigger out here in the streets we'd have to worry about.” As they part, the policeman views Furious's scornful facial expression, and asks if something is wrong. “Yeah,” Furious disdainfully responds, “but it's just too bad you don't know what it is—brother.” The black policeman has internalized the myth of the black male animal, and has indiscriminately demonized young black males as thugs and dirt. As fate would have it, this same police team accosts seventeen-year-old Tre and Ricky after they have departed from a local hangout that was dispersed by a spray of bullets. The policeman puts a gun to Tre's neck, uttering vicious epithets and spewing words which mark his hatred of black males and, by reflection, a piteous self-hatred. It recalls the lyrics from an Ice Cube rap, F— tha Police: “And don't let it be a black and a white one / Cause they'll slam ya down to the street top / Black police showin' out for the white cop.”
Furious's efforts to raise his son in these conditions of closely surveilled social anarchy reveal the galaxy of ambivalence that surrounds a conscientious, community-minded brother who wants the best for his family, but who also understands the social realities that shape the lives of black men. Furious's urban cosmology is three-tiered: at the immediate level, the brute problems of survival are refracted through the lens of black manhood; at the abstract level, large social forces such as gentrification and the military's recruitment of black male talent undermine the black man's role in the community; at the intermediate level, police brutality contends with the ongoing terror of gang violence.
Amid these hostile conditions, Furious is still able to instruct Tre in the rules of personal conduct and to teach him respect for his community, even as he schools him in how to survive. Furious says to Tre, “I know you think I'm hard on you. I'm trying to teach you how to be responsible. Your friends across the street don't have anybody to show them how to do that. You gon' see how they end up, too.” His comment, despite its implicit self-satisfaction and sexism (Ricky and Doughboy, after all, do have their mother Brenda), is meant to reveal the privilege of a young boy learning to face life under the shadow of fatherly love and discipline.
While Tre is being instructed by Furious, Ricky and Doughboy receive varying degrees of support and affirmation from Brenda. Ricky and Doughboy have different fathers, both of whom are conspicuously absent. In Doughboy's case, however, his father is symbolically present in that peculiar way that damns the offspring for their resemblance in spirit or body to the despised, departed father. The child becomes the vicarious sacrifice for the absent father, though he can never atone for the father's sins. Doughboy learns to see himself through his mother's eyes, her words ironically recreating Doughboy in the image of his invisible father. “You ain't shit,” she says. “You just like yo' Daddy. You don't do shit, and you never gonna amount to shit.”
Brenda is caught in a paradox of parenthood, made dizzy and stunned by a vicious cycle of parental love reinforcing attractive qualities in the “good” and obedient child, while the frustration with the “bad” child reinforces his behavior. Brenda chooses to save one child by sacrificing the other—lending her action a Styronian tenor, Sophie's choice in the ghetto. She fusses over Ricky; she fusses at Doughboy. When a scout for USC's football team visits Ricky, Brenda can barely conceal her pride. When the scout leaves, she tells Ricky, “I always knew you would amount to something.”
In light of Doughboy's later disposition toward women, we see the developing deformations of misogyny. Here Singleton is on tough and touchy ground, linking the origins of Doughboy's misogyny to maternal mistreatment and neglect. Doughboy's misogyny is clearly the elaboration of a brooding and extended resentment, a deeply festering wound to his pride that infects his relationships with every woman he encounters.
For instance, at the party to celebrate his homecoming from his recent incarceration, Brenda announces that the food is ready. All of the males rush to the table, but immediately before they begin to eat, Tre, sensing that it will be to his advantage, reproves the guys for not acting gentlemanly and allowing the women first place in line. Doughboy chimes in, saying, “Let the ladies eat; 'ho's gotta eat too,” which draws laughter, both from the audience with which I viewed the film, and the backyard male crowd. The last line is a sly sample of Robert Townsend's classic comedic send up of fast-food establishments in Hollywood Shuffle. When his girlfriend (Meta King) protests, saying she isn't a “‘ho,’” Doughboy responds, “Oops, I'm sorry, bitch,” which draws even more laughter. In another revealing exchange with his girlfriend, Doughboy is challenged to explain why he refers to women exclusively as “bitch, or ‘ho,’ or hootchie.” In trying to reply, Doughboy is reduced to the inarticulate hostility (feebly masquerading as humor) that characterizes misogyny in general: “'cause that's what you are.”
“Bitch” and “‘ho’,” along with “skeezer” and “slut,” have by now become the standard linguistic currency that young black males often use to demonstrate their authentic machismo. “Bitch” and equally offensive epithets compress womanhood into one indistinguishable whole, so that all women are the negative female, the seductress, temptress, and femme fatale all rolled into one. Hawthorne's scarlet A is demoted one letter and darkened; now an imaginary black B is emblazoned on the forehead of every female. Though Singleton's female characters do not have center stage, by no means do they suffer male effrontery in silent complicity. When Furious and Reva meet at a trendy restaurant to discuss the possibility of Tre returning to live with his mother, Furious says, “I know you wanna play the mommy and all that, but it's time to let go.” He reminds her that Tre is old enough to make his own decisions, that he is no longer a little boy because “that time has passed, sweetheart, you missed it.” Furious then gets up to fetch a pack of cigarettes as if to punctuate his self-satisfied and triumphant speech, but Tre's mother demands that he sit down.
As the camera draws close to her face, she subtly choreographs a black woman's grab-you-by-the-collar-and-set-you-straight demeanor with just the right facial gestures, and completes one of the most honest, mature, and poignant exchanges between black men and women in film history.
It's my turn to talk. Of course you took in your son, my son, our son and you taught him what he needed to be a man, I'll give you that, because most men ain't man enough to do what you did. But that gives you no reason, do you hear me, no reason to tell me that I can't be a mother to my son. What you did is no different from what mothers have been doing from the beginning of time. It's just too bad more brothers won't do the same. But don't think you're special. Maybe cute, but not special. Drink your cafe au lait. It's on me.
Singleton says that his next film will be about black women coming of age, a subject left virtually unexplored in film. In the meantime, within its self-limited scope, Hood displays a diverse array of black women, taking care not to render them as either mawkish or cartoonish: a crack addict who sacrifices home, dignity, and children for her habit; a single mother struggling to raise her sons; black girlfriends hanging with the homeboys but demanding as much respect as they can get; Brandi (Nia Long), Tre's girlfriend, a Catholic who wants to hold on to her virginity until she's sure it's the right time; Tre's mother, who strikes a Solomonic compromise and gives her son up rather than see him sacrificed to the brutal conditions of his surroundings.
But while Singleton ably avoids flat stereotypical portraits of his female characters, he is less successful in challenging the logic that at least implicitly blames single black women for the plight of black children.8 In Singleton's film vision, it is not institutions like the church that save Tre, but a heroic individual—his father Furious. But this leaves out far too much of the picture.
What about the high rates of black female joblessness, the sexist job market which continues to pay women at a rate that is seventy percent of the male wage for comparable work, the further devaluation of the “pink collar” by lower rates of medical insurance and other work-related benefits, all of which severely compromise the ability of single black mothers to effectively rear their children?9 It is the absence of much more than a male role model and the strength he symbolizes that makes the life of a growing boy difficult and treacherous in communities such as South Central L.A.
The film's focus on Furious's heroic individualism fails, moreover, to fully account for the social and cultural forces that prevent more black men from being present in the home in the first place. Singleton's powerful message, that more black men must be responsible and present in the home to teach their sons how to become men, must not be reduced to the notion that those families devoid of black men are necessarily deficient and ineffective. Neither should Singleton's critical insights into the way that many black men are denied the privilege to rear their sons be collapsed into the idea that all black men who are present in their families will necessarily produce healthy, well-adjusted black males. So many clarifications and conditions must be added to the premise that only black men can rear healthy black males that it dies the death of a thousand qualifications.
In reality, Singleton's film works off the propulsive energies that fuel deep, and often insufficiently understood, tensions between black men and black women. A good deal of pain infuses relations between black men and women, recently dramatized with the publication of Shahrazad Ali's infamous and controversial underground best-seller, The Blackman's Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman. The book, which counseled black women to be submissive to black men, and which endorsed black male violence toward women under specific circumstances, touched off a furious debate that drew forth the many unresolved personal, social, and domestic tensions between black men and women.10
This pain follows a weary pattern of gender relations that has privileged concerns defined by black men over feminist or womanist issues. Thus, during the civil rights movement, feminist and womanist questions were perennially deferred, so that precious attention would not be diverted from racial oppression and the achievement of liberation.11 But this deference to issues of racial freedom is a permanent pattern in black male-female relations; womanist and feminist movements continue to exist on the fringe of black communities.12 And even in the Afrocentric worldview that Singleton advocates, the role of black women is often subordinate to the black patriarch.
Equally as unfortunate, many contemporary approaches to the black male crisis have established a rank hierarchy that suggests that the plight of black men is infinitely more lethal, and hence more important, than the conditions of black women. The necessary and urgent focus on the plight of black men, however, must not come at the expense of understanding its relationship to the circumstances of black women.
At times, Singleton is able to subtly embody a healthy and redemptive vision of black male-female relations. For instance, after Tre has been verbally abused and physically threatened by police brutality, he seeks sanctuary at Brandi's house, choreographing his rage at life in South Central by angrily swinging at empty space. As Tre breaks down in tears, he and Brandi finally achieve an authentic moment of spiritual and physical consummation previously denied them by the complications of peer pressure and religious restraint. After Tre is assured that Brandi is really ready, they make love, achieving a fugitive moment of true erotic and spiritual union.
Brandi is able to express an unfettered and spontaneous affection that is not a simplistic “sex-as-proof-of-love” that reigns in the thinking of many teen worldviews. Brandi's mature intimacy is both the expression of her evolving womanhood and a vindication of the wisdom of her previous restraint. Tre is able at once to act out his male rage and demonstrate his vulnerability to Brandi, thereby arguably achieving a synthesis of male and female responses, and humanizing the crisis of the black male in a way that none of his other relationships—even his relationship with his father—are able to do. It is a pivotal moment in the development of a politics of alternative black masculinity that prizes the strength of surrender and cherishes the embrace of a healing tenderness.
As the boys mature into young men, their respective strengths are enhanced, and their weaknesses are exposed. The deepening tensions between Ricky and Doughboy break out into violence when a petty argument over who will run an errand for Ricky's girlfriend provokes a fistfight. After Tre tries unsuccessfully to stop the fight, Brenda runs out of the house, divides the two boys, slaps Doughboy in the face, and checks Ricky's condition. “What you slap me for?” Doughboy repeatedly asks her after Ricky and Tre go off to the store. She doesn't answer, but her choice, again, is clear. Its effect on Doughboy is clearer still.
Such everyday variations on the question of choice are, again, central to the world Singleton depicts in Hood. Singleton obviously understands that people are lodged between social structure and personal fortune, between luck and ambition. He brings a nuanced understanding of choice to each character's large and small acts of valor, courage, and integrity that reveal what contemporary moral philosophers call virtue.13 But they often miss what Singleton understands: character is not only structured by the choices we make, but by the range of choices we have to choose from—choices for which individuals alone are not responsible.
Singleton focuses his lens on the devastating results of the choices made by Hood's characters, for themselves and for others. Hood presents a chain of choices, a community defined in part by the labyrinthine array of choices made and the consequences borne, to which others must then choose to respond. But Singleton does not portray a blind fatalism or a mechanistic determinism; instead he displays a sturdy realism that shows how communities affect their own lives, and how their lives are shaped by personal and impersonal forces.
Brenda's choice to favor Ricky may not have been completely her own—all the messages of society say that the good, obedient child, especially in the ghetto, is the one to nurture and help—but it resulted in Doughboy's envy of Ricky, and contributed to Doughboy's anger, alienation, and gradual drift into gang violence. Ironically and tragically, this constellation of choices may have contributed to Ricky's violent death when he is shot by members of a rival gang as he and Tre return from the neighborhood store.
Ricky's death, in turn, sets in motion a chain of choices and consequences. Doughboy feels he has no choice but to pursue his brother's killers, becoming a more vigilant keeper to his brother in Ricky's death than he could be while Ricky lived. Tre, too, chooses to join Doughboy, thereby repudiating everything his father has taught, and forswearing every virtue he has been trained to observe. When he grabs his father's gun, but is met at the door by Furious, the collision between training and instinct is dramatized on Tre's face, wrenched in anguish and tears.
Though Furious convinces him to relinquish the gun, Furious's victory is only temporary. The meaning of Tre's manhood is at stake; it is the most severe test he has faced, and he chooses to sneak out of the house to join Doughboy. All Furious can do is tensely exercise his hands with two silver ben-wa balls, which in this context are an unavoidable metaphor for how black men view their fate through their testicles—they are constantly up for grabs, attack, or destruction. Then sometime during the night, Tre's impassioned choice finally rings false, a product of the logic of vengeance he has desperately avoided all these years; he insists that he be let out of Doughboy's car before they find Ricky's killers.
Following the code of male honor, Doughboy kills his brother's killers. But the next morning, in a conversation with Tre, he is not so sure of violence's mastering logic anymore, and says that he understands Tre's choice to forsake Doughboy's vigilante mission, even as he silently understands that he is in too deep to be able to learn any other language of survival.
Across this chasm of violence and anguish, the two surviving friends are able to extend a final gesture of understanding. As Doughboy laments the loss of his brother, Tre offers him the bittersweet consolation that “you got one more brother left.” Their final embrace in the film's closing moment is a sign of a deep love that binds brothers, a love that, however, too often will not save brothers.
The film's epilogue tells us that Doughboy is murdered two weeks later, presumably to avenge the deaths of Ricky's killers. The epilogue also tells us that Tre and Brandi manage to escape South Central as Tre pursues an education at Morehouse College, with Brandi at neighboring Spelman College. It is testimony to the power of Singleton's vision that Tre's escape is no callow Hollywood paean to the triumph of the human spirit (or, as some reviewers have somewhat perversely described the film, “life-affirming”). The viewer is not permitted to forget for a moment the absurd and vicious predictability of the loss of life in South Central Los Angeles, a hurt so colossal that even Doughboy must ask: “If there was a God, why he let motherfuckers get smoked every night?” Theodicy in gangface.
Singleton is not about to provide a slick or easy answer. But he does powerfully juxtapose such questions alongside the sources of hope, sustained in the heroic sacrifice of everyday people who want their children's lives to be better. The work of John Singleton embodies such hope by reminding us that South Central Los Angeles, by the sheer power of discipline and love, sends children to college, even as its self-destructive rage sends them to the grave.
These statistics, as well as an examination of the social, economic, political, medical, and educational conditions of young black men, and public policy recommendations for the social amelioration of their desperate circumstances, are found in a collection of essays edited by Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, Young, Black, and Male in America.
In The Truly Disadvantaged, William Julius Wilson has detailed the shift in the American political economy from manufacturing to service employment, and its impact upon the inner city and the ghetto poor, particularly upon black males who suffer high rates of joblessness (which he sees as the source of many problems in the black family). For an analysis of the specific problems of black males in relation to labor force participation, see Gerald David Jaynes and Robin M. Williams, Jr., eds., A Common Destiny, 301, 308–12.
I have explored the cultural expressions, material conditions, creative limits, and social problems associated with rap in “Rap, Race and Reality,” “The Culture of Hip-Hop,” “2 Live Crew's Rap: Sex, Race and Class,” “As Complex as They Wanna Be: 2 Live Crew,” “Tapping Into Rap,” “Performance, Protest and Prophecy in the Culture of Hip-Hop,” and “Taking Rap Seriously.”
I have in mind here the criticism of liberal society, and the forms of moral agency it both affords and prevents, that has been gathered under the rubric of communitarianism, ranging from MacIntyre's After Virtue to Bellah et al.'s Habits of the Heart.
See Mike Davis and Sue Riddick's brilliant analysis of the drug culture in “Los Angeles: Civil Liberties between the Hammer and the Rock.”
For an insightful discussion of the relationship between the underground or illegitimate economy and people exercising agency in resisting the worse injustices and effects of the legitimate economy, see Don Nonini, “Everyday Forms of Popular Resistance.”
For a recent exploration of the dynamics of social interaction between police as agents and symbols of mainstream communal efforts to regulate the behavior and social place of black men, and black men in a local community, see Elijah Anderson, Streetwise.
According to this logic, as expressed in a familiar saying in many black communities, black women “love their sons and raise their daughters.” For a valiant, though flawed, attempt to get beyond a theoretical framework that implicitly blames black women for the condition of black men, see Clement Cottingham, “Gender Shift in Black Communities.” Cottingham attempts to distance himself from arguments about a black matriarchy that stifles black male social initiative and moral responsibility. Instead he examines the gender shifts in black communities fueled by black female educational mobility and the marginalization of lower-class black males. But his attempt is weakened, ironically, by a prominently placed quotation by James Baldwin, which serves as a backdrop to his subsequent discussions of mother/son relationships, black male/female relationships, and black female assertiveness. Cottingham writes:
Drawing on Southern black folk culture, James Baldwin, in his last published work, alluded to black lower-class social patterns which, when set against the urban upheaval among the black poor from the 1960s onward, seem to encourage this gender shift. He characterizes these lower-class social patterns as “a disease peculiar to the Black community called ‘sorriness.’ It is,” Baldwin observes, “a disease that attacks black males. It is transmitted by Mama, whose instinct is to protect the Black male from the devastation that threatens him from the moment he declares himself a man.”
Apart from its protectiveness toward male children, Baldwin notes another dimension of “sorriness.” “Mama,” he writes, “lays this burden on Sister from whom she expects (or indicates she expects) far more than she expects from Brother; but one of the results of this all too comprehensible dynamic is that Brother may never grow up—in which case the community has become an accomplice to the Republic.” Perceptively, Baldwin concludes that the differences in the socialization of boys and girls eventually erode the father's commitment to family life.
When such allusive but isolated ethnographic comments are not placed in an analytical framework that tracks the social, political, economic, religious, and historical forces that shape black (female) rearing practices and circumscribe black male female relations, they are more often than not employed to blame black women for the social failure of black children, especially boys. The point here is not to suggest that black women have no responsibility for the plight of black families. But most social theory has failed to grapple with the complex set of forces that define and delimit black female existence by too easily relying upon anecdotal tales of black female behavior that prevents black males from flourishing, and by not examining the shifts in the political economy, the demise of low-skilled, high-waged work, the deterioration of the general moral infrastructure of many poor black communities, the ravaging of black communities by legal forces of gentrification and illegal forces associated with crime and drugs, etc. These forces, and not black women, are the real villains.
For a perceptive analysis of the economic conditions which shape the lives of black women, see Julianne Malveaux, “The Political Economy of Black Women.”
The peculiar pain that plagues the relationships between black men and black women across age, income, and communal strata was on bold and menacing display in the confrontation between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill during Senate hearings to explore claims by Hill that Thomas sexually harassed her while she worked for him at two governmental agencies. Their confrontation was facilitated and constructed by the televisual medium, a ready metaphor for the technological intervention into contemporary relations between significant segments of the citizenry. Television also serves as the major mediator between various bodies of public officials and the increasingly narrow publics at whose behest they perform, thus blurring the distinctions between public good and private interest. The Hill/Thomas hearings also helped expose the wide degree to which the relations between black men and black women are shaped by a powerful white male gaze. In this case, the relevant criteria for assessing the truth of claims about sexual harassment and gender oppression were determined by white senatorial surveillance.
Thus, it was unexceptional during the civil rights movement for strong, articulate black women to be marginalized, or excluded altogether, from the intellectual work of the struggle. Furthermore, concerns about feminist liberation were generally overlooked, and many talented, courageous women were often denied a strong or distinct institutional voice about women's liberation in the racial liberation movement. For a typical instance of such sexism within civil rights organizations, see Clayborne Carson's discussion of black female dissent within SNCC, (In Struggle 147–48).
For insightful claims and descriptions of the marginal status of black feminist and womanist concerns in black communities, and for helpful explorations of the complex problems faced by black feminists and womanists, see bell hooks's Ain't I a Woman, Michele Wallace's Invisibility Blues, Audre Lorde's Sister/Outsider, and Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mother's Garden.
Of course, many traditional conceptions of virtue display a theoretical blindness to structural factors that circumscribe and influence the acquisition of traditional moral skills, habits, and dispositions, and the development of alternative and non-mainstream moral skills. What I mean here is that the development of virtues, and the attendant skills that must be deployed in order to practice them effectively, are contingent upon several factors: where and when one is born, the conditions under which one must live, the social and communal forces that limit and define one's life, etc. These factors color the character of moral skills that will be acquired, shape the way in which these skills will be appropriated, and even determine the list of skills required to live the good life in different communities. Furthermore, these virtues reflect the radically different norms, obligations, commitments, and socioethical visions of particular communities. For a compelling critique of MacIntyre's contextualist universalist claim for the prevalence of the virtues of justice, truthfulness, and courage in all cultures, and the implications of such a critique for moral theory, see Alessandro Ferrara's essay “Universalisms.” For an eloquent argument that calls for the authors of the communitarian social vision articulated in Habits of the Heart to pay attention to the life, thought, and contributions of people of color, see Vincent Harding, “Toward a Darkly Radiant Vision of America's Truth: A Letter of Concern, an Invitation to Re-Creation.”
Ali, Shahrazad. The Blackman's Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman. Philadelphia: Civilized Pubns., 1990.
Anderson, Elijah. Streetwise. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.
Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William N. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.
Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.
Comer James P. and Alvin F. Poussaint. Black Child Care: How to Bring up a Healthy Black Child in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.
Cottingham, Clement. “Gender Shift in Black Communities.” Dissent (Fall 1989): 521–25.
Davis, Mike, and Sue Riddick. “Los Angeles: Civil Liberties between the Hammer and the Rock.” New Left Review (July–Aug. 1988): 37–60.
Dyson, Michael Eric. “As Complex as They Wanna Be: 2 Live Crew.” Z Magazine (Jan. 1991): 76–78.
———. “The Culture of Hip-Hop.” Zeta Magazine (June 1989): 44–50.
———. “Performance, Protest and Prophecy in the Culture of Hip-Hop.” The Emergency of Black and the Emergence of Rap. Ed. Jon Michael Spencer. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. 12–24.
———. “Rap, Race and Reality.” Christianity and Crisis 16 Mar. 1987: 98–100.
———. “Taking Rap Seriously: Theomusicologist Michael Eric Dyson on the New Urban Griots and Peripathetic Preachers (An Interview).” By Jim Gardner. Artvu (Spring 1991): 20–23
———. “Tapping Into Rap.” New World Outlook (May–June 1991): 32–35.
———. “2 Live Crew's Rap: Sex, Race and Class.” Christian Century 2–9 Jan. 1991: 7–8.
Edelman, Marian Wright. Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.
Ferrara, Alessandro. “Universalisms: Procedural, Contextual and Prudential.” Universalism vs. Communitarianism: Contemporary Debates in Ethics. Ed. David Rasmussen. Cambridge: MIT P, 1990. 11–38.
Gibbs, Jewelle Taylor, ed. Young, Black, Male in America: An Endangered Species. Dover: Auburn, 1988.
Harding, Vincent. “Toward a Darkly Radiant Vision of America's Truth: A Letter of Concern, an Invitation to Re-Creation.” Community in America: The Challenge of Habits of the Heart. Ed. Charles H. Reynolds and Ralph V. Norman. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988. 67–83.
Hare, Nathan and Julia Hare, Bringing the Black Boy to Manhood: The Passage. San Francisco: Black Think Tank, 1987.
hooks, bell. Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End, 1981.
Hopson, Darlene Powell and Derek S. Hopson. Different and Wonderful: Raising Black Children in a Race-Conscious Society. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990.
Jaynes, Gerald David, and Robin M. Williams, Jr., eds. A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society. Washington: Nat. Acad., 1989.
Kondo, Baba Zak A. For Homeboys Only: Arming and Strengthening Young Brothers for Black Manhood. Washington, DC: Nubia Press, 1991.
Kunjufu, Jawanza. Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys. 3 vols. Chicago: African American Images, 1985–90.
Lorde, Audre. Sister/Outsider. Freedom: Crossing, 1984.
MacIntyre, Alisdair. After Virtue Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P. 1981.
Madhubuti, Haki R. Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?: Afrikan American Families in Transition: Essays in Discovery, Solution, and Hope. Chicago: Third World P, 1990.
Malveaux, Julianne. “The Political Economy of Black Women.” The Year Left 2—Toward a Rainbow Socialism: Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Class and Gender. Ed. Mike Davis, Manning Marable, Fred Pfeil, and Michael Sprinker London: Verso, 1987. 52–72.
Nonini, Don. “Everyday Forms of Popular Resistance.” Monthly Review (Nov. 1988): 25–36.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother's Garden. New York: Harcourt, 1983.
Wallace, Michele. Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory. London: Verso, 1990.
Wilson, Amos N. The Developmental Psychology of the Black Boy. New York: Africana Research Publications, 1978.
Wilson, William Julius. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Old Times, New Times.” New Republic (23–30 August 1993): 30–31.
[In the following negative review, Kauffmann criticizes both Poetic Justice and Rob Weiss's Amongst Friends.]
Two new films raise questions that they don't directly address. Poetic Justice (Columbia) is the second picture by John Singleton, the young black writer-director who did Boyz N the Hood. Amongst Friends (Fine Line) is the first film by the young white writer-director Rob Weiss. Both pictures deal with young people—blacks in South Central L.A., whites in the well-to-do Five Towns of Long Island. Both are trite stories as such; both have gun play; both have ceaseless profanity. Few adults who have been going to films at all in the last ten years can be surprised by anything that happens in them. Few can be entertained by them, let alone enlightened. Few, I think, will escape some tinge of despair.
Poetic Justice begins with the gross murder of a young man that has absolutely no effect, past initial shock, on the young woman who is embracing him in a car when a gun is put to his head. (This woman is played by Janet Jackson, the hit singer.) Most of the story is about a trip from L.A. to Oakland in a U.S. Mail van, driven by a postal employee who takes his girlfriend (Jackson) and another couple along. Their quarrels and reconciliations are front and center, though they are interwoven with episodes in the beauty salon where Jackson works. Much of the salon chat is about sex.
The supposed “quality” of the film comes from Jackson, whose film name is Justice (her mother was in law school when she was pregnant) and who writes poetry. This poetry was in fact supplied by Maya Angelou—written at (deliberately, I suppose) the high school level. Angelou also appears in the film briefly as a fount of sagacity. But the poetry is only froth on a steady boil of pointless bickering between run-of-the-mill young people, laced with groin talk from the beauty salon.
Amongst Friends deals with people of about the same age, all white, mostly male, from fairly well-heeled families. The film corroborates, if that's its point, the well-known fact that environment and race have little to do with the drug-dealing and violence of young people. The centerpiece of this grim banquet is a romance between a young fellow who spends two years in the pen after he's busted for dealing, and a neighborhood girl who has waited for him. Two murders occur, more or less under the aegis of an aged Jewish capo. The film ends with a moment of overblown juvenile nostalgia before one of the friends, a murderer, sets out on a motorcycle for a new life in California.
Both of these young filmmakers, Singleton and Weiss, are much better as directors than as writers. Singleton's screenplay is disjointed and pedestrian, his directing is close to professional competence. He has nothing like a style, and he's not immune to cliché. (A sexy woman is introduced with a shot of her leg as she steps out of her car.) But he's at home in the medium.
Weiss's screenplay is basically sentimental, another one of those pictures that claims realism while being unbelievable. (Don't the Long Island police investigate murders? And detain suspects?) However, his directing shows some flair. His casting could be more visually acute: too many of his people resemble one another. But he has absorbed ideas from the directors he has watched. From Spike Lee, the device of two people addressing the camera in rapid alternation; from Scorsese, a traveling shot focused on an object—in this case, a joint passed along a line of people in lawn chairs; from dozens, the camera that completely circles an encounter. Certain kinds of borrowing show talent; and Weiss is a likely candidate for growth.
What's depressing about both films is that they got made. It's as if Singleton knew from experience, and Weiss from observation, that the financing for young directors is easier when the material is f-studded, gory and morally unencumbered.
We can't complain of inaccuracy in the texture of these pictures: the press substantiates them daily. Then, if we complain about the films' material, aren't we really complaining about society? Certainly, but not solely. There are more troubles in our society than drugging, etc.—as Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch and Philip Haas and Julie Dash have shown. And there's the strong suspicion that the Singletons and Weisses and the like are using the credentials of authenticity with a touch of cynicism. That's the ultimate complaint.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4333
SOURCE: Rensin, David. “John Singleton Talks Tough.” Playboy 40, no. 9 (September 1993): 98–103.
[In the following interview, Singleton discusses his career, political correctness, and racism in both America and the film industry.]
If John Singleton didn't make movies, he'd be the perfect subject for one. Perhaps too perfect. Who would believe a movie about a kid who grows up in South Central Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a filmmaker? Who lands a slot in USC's prestigious film school, where, as an undergraduate, he twice wins the Jack Nicholson Screenwriting Award? Who, disgusted by Hollywood's cliched portrayal of the gang experience, writes his own script and refuses to sell it unless he's allowed to direct it—and pulls it off?
Of course, Singleton's real-life story is no fantasy. A studio executive gave him the chance to direct his script, and shortly thereafter, Boyz N the Hood was released to praise from the critics as well as to a spurt of opening-night violence at the theaters. Singleton—a mere 23 years old at the time—was nominated for two Oscars, one for original screenplay and one for directing.
Now, two years later, the precocious Singleton is back with his second film, Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson. If it does well, Singleton will join Spike Lee as one of the most influential African-American filmmakers around. If it bombs, he may become just another one-hit wonder. No matter what happens to his new movie—or to Burnout, the action thriller he plans to make next—Singleton is already one of Hollywood's most outspoken directors, as we discovered when we met with him several times shortly after Poetic Justice finished filming. Singleton held forth on a variety of subjects. Here are some highlights:
WHERE THE BOYZ ARE
Boyz N the Hood was my American Graffiti, my coming-of-age story. I wrote about what I knew: the streets, friends who fell off from gangbanging and from being in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting shot. I knew about having to worry about the police. That's all I knew about. Not to pull my own dick, but I pushed aside all the shit “gang” movies that had come before—like Colors. I did something different. I made a life-affirming movie, about family, about being strong, about trying to raise your children to be mentally strong.
MY BRILLIANT CAREER
One reason I got to direct Boyz N the Hood is because I said “I'm not gonna let anybody else do it, I don't give a fuck whether or not you want to do the movie or not. I'll walk out of here right now and go back to my life. Either I direct or I step. I could be a schoolteacher. I don't give a fuck.” They'd never met anybody like that. My agent told me, “If you mess up, there will be no way I can save you,” and I said, “No sweat, man.”
What else was I going to do? I had never had a job for longer than nine months. I couldn't drive an airport shuttle or give museum tours anymore. I didn't know if I could direct, either, but what the fuck. Other guys were doing it and they weren't as smart as me. What did they know that I didn't? I figured, “Just let me try this out.” And boom, I get the film done, it's a hit, I get nominated for two Academy Awards, and I have a career for myself
ADVICE FROM ON HIGH
The first thing I did when Boyz N the Hood came out was to go around and talk to my idols: Francis Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas. Steven, of all people, told me to make sure that my stuff looks as rough as possible for as long as possible. And he gets criticized for being too smooth and pretty, like in The Color Purple. I listened to everything these guys had to tell me about their own experiences. I took their advice. They said that nobody is perfect and that nobody knows everything. And they do nothing that I can't attain. They know nothing I can't know.
WHEN EVERYBODY LOVES YOU
I've seen other blacks wanting to be accepted. Then they get what they think is acceptance. It lasts for a moment, then it's pulled away. Then they get ridiculed. So just accept yourself
DEVELOPING AN ATTITUDE
When I did Boyz N the Hood there were white students who said, “Oh, he got it just because he was black.” If anything, I used the hype of being a black filmmaker to get Boyz N the Hood done. I'm a black man before I'm a filmmaker. I had to learn how to make movies. I didn't have to learn how to be black.
I have a cushy job. My greatest fear is getting all caught up in the bullshit over “Do people love me or want me to continue what I'm doing?” I wouldn't let those people kiss my black ass if they asked. I didn't give two fucks about them when I went to USC, so I don't give two fucks about them now. It's that same attitude that says affirmative action is really reverse racism. They talked like that among themselves, but they didn't confront me face-to-face. They were cowards. I was one of the few blacks in the film school, but not like the blacks they were used to being around, who said, “Oh, I want to be your friend,” kissing all their asses. My attitude was “I have a higher mission. I'm trying to become a filmmaker. I don't have time for your bullshit. I'm going to push over as many people as possible to get what I want. I want to come out of school just like a first-round draft pick, but in a filmic sense. I'm not going to let nobody get in my way. All you people from these well-to-do families, you ain't shit to me. Ain't shit. You all ain't never going to make movies anyway. I got true heart. I got true passion. As long as I can put that in my work, I'll always be around.”
When I was a kid, not knowing where life would lead and having forces around me fuck with my self-esteem, I had to find my own light at the end of the tunnel. I found it in movies and comic books. There were heroes. I learned to appreciate myth. I learned that you carve your own destiny. Later, I applied that to my work.
The thing I don't like is people who ask me how I survived. I hate anybody condescending to me, no matter who the fuck they are. I don't care if they own the fucking studio. I expect the same respect as I give anyone else.
Oliver Stone fucking pissed me off once. I admire his work, but the day I got nominated for an Academy Award, after I told him I liked his movie, he just says to me, “Yeah. Too bad about Barbra.” As if it's my fault that Barbra Streisand didn't get nominated. If a great honor comes someone's way, one of the first things you say—if you have a good heart—is “Congratulations.” A lot of black folks have a tendency to read into things. Jewish people, too. It's like Woody Allen said in Annie Hall, when he was walking up the street with Tony Roberts. I remember he said, “Did you hear what he said? Did Jew eat? Did Jew eat?” We look for any little tinge of covert, subtle racism. But that wasn't the case this time. I'm just angry when somebody I admire disses me. Then it's war. If I like you and you treat me like shit, then you deserve to get beat down.
RACISM IN HOLLYWOOD
In a way it scares me that I haven't experienced it. I have two sides. The positive side realizes that I'm in America, I can do anything I want, I couldn't have done it anywhere else. My cynical side says, “I can direct movies, I can win an Oscar, I can affect so many people with a movie. But I can go down the street right now and a cop can stop me and shoot me in the back of the head, and no fuss will be made of it because that person is an authority figure. That person may be white. And the court system in America says that, by law, because that person has a badge and because of the color of his skin, he has more rights than I do.” It doesn't matter how legitimate I've been. So I'm always looking over my shoulder, always expecting someone to try to get the drop on me. I look for stuff before it happens. But it hasn't happened, probably because I look for it.
RACISM IN AMERICA
Maybe it's backdoor now. It's covert. It's in the eyes. All these neo-Nazi fuckers living in fucking Colorado or Texas talking about how much they hate niggers and hate Jews. Do you think they would bring their monkey asses out to Los Angeles or New York? You think they would do that in the midst of a whole bunch of black people who weren't singing in church and who were listening to Public Enemy and Ice Cube? You think they would do that shit? No, they wouldn't. You put me and Tom Metzger in one room, who do you think's going to come out of there alive? If I sat this close to Metzger or Daryl Gates or Ronald Reagan, I would be in jail.
DON'T CALL ME BRO
I've never been called a nigger to my face. In school I wouldn't even let anyone call me bro. I've only suffered peripherally at the hands of white America. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, being a young kid fascinated by the helicopter lights going down the street, going in and out of a big gigantic oak tree, taunting the light to follow me and my eight-year-old friend in and out of a tree. And then all of a sudden, six police cars converge on us. They tell us, “Watch out. Next time you might get shot.”
I'm not the kind of man who's going to blame all my problems on white people. That's what sets me apart. I'm going to take mine. I'm going to go for mine. I know that there are a lot of white people out there suffering. There are people I went to college with who come from well-to-do families who are defaulting on their student loans right now. They're living from hand to mouth and they don't look nothing like me.
PC OR NOT PC
Political correctness has made things worse. You have to look under the surface. Racism is not culturally correct, so people put up a front. I'd like to fucking choke the person who coined the term. Most people who use it are actually closet right-wingers. The same people who talk about political correctness are the people who would just as soon stereotype black people. I don't give a fuck what's politically correct or what's in good taste. Everyone has their own choices about what they want to watch or what type of people they want to interact with. As long as people have those choices, that's fine. People are going to do what they want to do anyway.
IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
I still live close to where I grew up. I can't see myself moving out. I have a nice, modest, four-bedroom house in a black neighborhood that overlooks the city. Which is cool. At least I know when I walk down the street that nobody will call the cops on me. I'm trying to hold on to that as long as possible. A friend of mine—he's a primary rapper—had to move to another neighborhood because people were coming to his house and harassing him and stuff. Ain't nobody fucking with me. I don't get anything but love. It would take a hell of a lot, a hell of a lot, for me to move. Gangsters, politicians, gangbangers, junkies—that shit don't frighten me.
When you grow up in the ghetto, you're not afraid of it. You're there. I never want to be so far removed that I'm afraid of it. I remember my apartment with my mom. We'd hear everything in the night. She'd look out the window, being nosy and stuff. I'd tell her, “Stop being so nosy. Keep your mind on your own business.” My father lived nearby. I didn't have to tell him nothing. Everybody in his neighborhood respected him, and they knew he had a big gun. That's how you build up a rep. You beat somebody's ass or you shoot somebody in the neighborhood. They know not to fuck with you.
ARMED AND DANGEROUS
I own a gun. My father owned one, too. And his father before him. I've grown up around guns and drugs and all that stuff.
The difference between you and me is that the brother in jail or the welfare mother or the lady on crack, those are my relatives. Those are people I've grown up with, who share my last name or are part of my family that I see at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Anyway, I'll be damned if I'm going to have somebody get the drop on me in my own house, and all I have is my Akita.
That scene in Boyz N the Hood where the father shot at the burglar actually happened. A guy broke into my father's house. My father had these mirrors up in the living room. He plastered them on the wall just so he could see, from the bedroom, a reflection of anyone who walked in the living room, who jumped through a window. He saw the guy and he got his magnum out—this is in the late Seventies. He had it halfway loaded and stuff. He got up to the hallway and just as he clicked it, the guy ran. My father fired on him, but my father didn't hit him.
He told me later, “Hey, this ain't like Starsky and Hutch.” The cops came and one—black or white, I don't remember—said, “You should've got him—that would've been one less nigger we would've had to worry about.” That's real life. That's the truth. That shit is real fucking life.
OPENING NIGHT MASSACRE
That first weekend Boyz N the Hood opened, lots of what happened was really overblown. Shootings around the corner and miles away were attributed to the movie. The media needed something to talk about on their six o'clock news. This stuff goes on every weekend in any major city in America. Only the media won't focus on it unless it's tied to a film opening. It happens with regular films, too. But that doesn't get reported.
I understand why some people are afraid to see a picture of a black man with a gun rather than a white man with a gun. In an American context, the former image is more threatening. [Actor/rapper] Tupac Shakur on a Juice poster, with a gun in his hand, is more threatening than Arnold Schwarzenegger with a gun in his hand on a Terminator 2 poster.
When you see a crime show on TV, you see all these brothers getting shaken down. Or the Willie Horton thing. It's a debilitating image for a lot of black youth. Some of it is self-perpetuating. But these shows act like white people don't do any crime. They don't talk about the guy in Seattle who raped little boys and hanged them in their closets. But there's a lot more of that going on.
It's not concerts or the movies that get the people excited. It's the conditions they're living in. And one person doing something crazy can mess it up for 10,000. But the 10,000 can't be accountable for that one person.
KETCHUP AS A VEGETABLE
Reagan getting elected was the only thing I can point to that actually changed my life. I was 12 years old. Children in junior high school thought he was going to drop the bomb. During the 1981 assassination attempt, the news came over the school intercom. Here in the ghetto everybody clapped. I clapped. I thought they put a guy in there who didn't care about anybody. At 12 years old I already had a contempt for fascist politics.
He was more of a monster than I could imagine at 12 years old. When Reagan got in office, my neighborhood went straight down. And I didn't know things were bad. I didn't know that we were the underclass. The drug trade was more prolific. Just think if the president attacked education the same way they attacked Saddam Hussein. But no, teachers get treated like shit. I used to eat free lunches in school. Reagan deemed ketchup a vegetable. Ketchup was my vegetable! Truth is, he didn't want us to eat free meals. When I got to college, the motherfucker made it hard to get loans. However, I think things are like the-early Sixties again. We're on the brink of another big revolution in terms of the way we all look at life.
WHY AMERICA LOVES BLACK CULTURE
America has always been fascinated. Look at Elvis. He made his fortune off the blood, sweat and tears of black music artists. The attitude with Elvis was that if they could get a white to do what was already being done by Chuck Berry or Fats Domino, it would elevate it. Any art form that black Americans start becomes distorted by others.
It's a natural thing, not a diabolical plan. Men in sheets aren't thinking, Hey, let's create Vanilla Ice and cash in on rap. It's about democracy and capitalism. But what sets then apart from now is this: Then, whites co-opted the culture and we weren't reaping any reward. Now, we're reaping the rewards. We're not expending all our creative energy and giving up our heart and artistic expression to make somebody else rich. Even white kids are buying hard-core rap now. [Laughs] I'm still trying to get my profit, though.
RAP: THE REAL INFORMATION HIGHWAY
In the Sixties different voices spoke out against repression. That's done now by rap music. Black men in this country, regardless of where they're from, just because of the conditioning that America puts down on them, are built to be soldiers. We're built to fight for our lives. Not only from the police and all the other forces in America that are against us but from our own. It's a constant battle. But some of that is beginning to subside because we are, in fact, getting our message out. For instance, there's no way that the Bloods and Crips could have formed a unity in Los Angeles if it hadn't been for the ascension of rap music as a communication base. It's our primary way of speaking out against the repression that we have to live with as black males in America. Even more so than black film, rap music has allowed black people to have a voice they didn't have before.
What gets some people mad is that rap also speaks to white kids. It scares the parents. It upsets the powers that be. They can sell it and they can pay us to make it, but it's not something they can control. If something comes out that they deem to be offensive, then they try to squash it. But I think it's great that young black men in my generation have a voice and can express it on any street corner in the country. If they get lucky, they can make a record and everyone else can hear what they have to say.
Everybody has creative energy. It doesn't matter if you make a record or make a movie, or jack somebody for their car, it's just energy. And it can be expressed in different ways.
If I couldn't be doing what I'm doing now, do you think I would just be passive and not be angry about my situation, not want to do something to strike out? If I were so far into cars and into money that they were my priorities, and if the system prevented me from attaining them the so-called right way, don't you think I would take another way out? Anybody whose creative expression is squashed is a dangerous person.
SPIKE AND ME
I first met him just two weeks before I started film school. He was cool. Every so often, when he would come into town with a picture, I would see him. I'd be, “Hey, what's up, man?” We got to be on a first-name basis. Here I am in film school and Spike Lee knows me basically as John. That's cool for me because when my friends see me talking to him, they're like, “Man, some of that stuff's going to rub off.”
Now, it's pretty cool because I've gone from Spike being my idol through film school to him being my peer. We know each other. There's things that he's experienced that I haven't experienced, and sometimes I'll talk to him about the things that are going on. If there were no Spike Lee, there would probably be no John Singleton. Spike has worked as a buffer for me. All the shit he had to climb through made a clear path for me. I've had it easy because he's had it so hard. That kind of angers me because it's like, here I am, poised to wade through it all and I haven't had to wade through it all. Spike took it to the next level. His very existence advanced black people in this country. He's shown that you can be African-American and carve a niche for yourself as a filmmaker. Before 1986, how many blacks had done that to his level? With the jackets and the T-shirts and the movies and the Levi's commercials and the Nike commercials, he's like a black P. T. Barnum.
POETRY IN MOTION
The first time I saw Janet Jackson was in Portola Junior High in the San Fernando Valley. In the eighth grade I got bused out there. My grades went all the way down. It was so bad—culture shock—but that's another story. I was a prepubescent kid and she was a year older, looked like a woman. It's interesting that our paths would cross years later.
What black man, what male in America, has not looked at Janet in the videos? So I wrote this script with her in mind. actually have my plan totally come through is cool.
But I wouldn't work with her if she were plastic and could play only herself. People will see Janet born as a renaissance woman. They'll expect one thing and get another. They'll see an actress, which she was before she started singing. She's not playing herself. She's not singing. She's not hopping around in tight jeans and bustiers. It's beautiful, man. She's really like the girl next door.
THE GIRLS IN THE HOOD
Some critics called Boyz N the Hood misogynistic. Oh, please. The mother was a college graduate. She didn't dump the kid off with his dad. He told her it was his responsibility to make sure the boy became a man. She saw him on weekends. I cut out a scene where he's visiting her on a weekend because I wanted to get the pace up.
Those motherfuckers who say Boyz N the Hood is misogynistic are the same people who give good reviews to films that have black women who are maids and prostitutes. This movie was about guy—boys—who eventually survive to become men. It was in the title, you know. But at the same time, I can say that an the women in the movie were well-rounded and like real people. They weren't like the black women you see in all these other movies. Put my characters up against the others. You'll feel a different vibe.
Sex in the Nineties? Got to be careful. You can't go around fucking 2000 women. Nothing wrong with safe sex, either. Ever since high school I've practiced it. I was always the dude to bring the protection. Like a Boy Scout, I'm always prepared. That just carried on into my adulthood. So it's cool with me. Of course, two years ago I didn't have to worry about bitches trying to get pregnant by me and shit, but that's the kind of shit I worry about now. And AIDS. That's greater incentive to put that hat on. My grandmother says: “Keep a sock on your worm.”
She has another great saying: “A bitch will dig a nigger a ditch.” Which means the wrong woman can lead to any man's downfall.
THE NEW JOHN SINGLETON
I'm already hearing young black filmmakers referred to as the new John Singleton. It makes me feel old. I'm still trying to be the next John Singleton. It makes a lot of young black filmmakers mad to be compared to me. I'd be mad, too. People were always comparing me to Spike Lee. My attitude is: “Hey, I had to carve my own niche.”
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO JOHN
You want a philosophical thing? Life is a bitch. So fuck hard, eat good and die. I know my life hasn't been that hard. Although at any point I could have gone in the wrong direction growing up. I could be in jail, I could be dead, depending on the decisions that I made. Otherwise, I'm just your average 20-something American. It just happens I have a good job.
My primary interests are video games, fast cars and comic books. I look at movies. I like to get laid. It's cool. I'm a modern man. It's cool.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9005
SOURCE: Wiegman, Robyn. “Feminism, ‘The Boyz,’ and Other Matters Regarding the Male.” In Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, edited by Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, pp. 173–193. London: Routledge, 1993.
[In the following essay, Wiegman explores how Boyz N the Hood deals with issues of masculinity and feminism within the African-American community.]
When Newsweek featured the street smart hero of blaxploitation films, John Shaft, on its cover in October, 1972, it was marking a new era for Hollywood cinema: ‘All over the country,’ the cover story exclaimed, ‘“bad-ass niggers” are collecting dues with a vengeance—and if you don't believe it, just head downtown for a movie’ (October 23, 1972: 74). By the end of the decade, however, African American male stars were increasingly finding themselves the twilight figures in interracial male bonding films, and the high hopes of black cinema in the 1970s seemed at an end.1 But now, Newsweek is heralding another revolution. ‘With 19 films this year,’ it asserts. ‘Hollywood fades to black’ (June 10, 1991: 50).2 And as anyone knows who has gone screening, the primary images issuing from these new films concern the historical complexity and contemporary conditions affecting the African American male, whose high rates of poverty, incarceration, and early death have coalesced in the startling appellation: ‘an endangered species’ (Gibbs 1988). At risk for extinction are several generations, and although cinema can certainly not be collapsed into a naive ‘real,’ these new films take quite seriously and self-consciously their representational role as modeling a future for today's young black men.
How do we understand the historical emergence of this ‘New Jack Cinema,’ as Newsweek (June 10, 1991: 51) calls it, and what kinds of critical discourse can negotiate the political demands implicit in their narrative production? I ask these questions from an avowedly feminist position, foregrounding my political interests not in order to supplant the radical racial content and context of this cinematic production, but to approach, once again, the compelling critical issue of representation and what has been called, reductively and problematically, multicultural difference. It is perhaps no accident that the critical language in cinema studies surrounding issues of gender, race, class, and/or sexuality so clearly and easily betrays the asymmetry of cultural relations—reiterating ‘difference’ without the positivity of a critical analysis into its logical underpinnings, most often white, heterosexual, bourgeois, and male. But already, right here, we confront the political and theoretical difficulty of the whole difference dilemma, where the paradigms available for our articulation of the multiplicity of social subjectivity and (dis)empowerment too often fail to comprehend their inherent complexity. Simply positing the primary terms of each binary configuration does not make possible the many instances in which social positioning straddles the strict duality of oppressor/oppressed, where rights and privileges may be accorded along one particular axis but are circumvented and violently denied along others. Most importantly, the binary description of social positioning betrays the compounded production of identity and difference, their mutual and contradictory inscription not only across the social body, but at the specific corporeal sites where the meanings of categories of identity are literally and metaphorically imposed.
It is this situation, in which social positioning is often at odds within itself, that attends the cultural location of and tensions surrounding the category of identity defined as the African American male. For in his relation of sameness to the masculine and in his threatening difference to the primacy of white racial supremacy, the African American male is stranded between the competing—and at times overdetermining—logics of race and gender. Denied full admittance to the patriarchal province of the masculine through the social scripting of blackness as innate depravity, and occupying a position of enhanced status through masculine privilege in relation to black women, the African American male challenges our understanding of cultural identity and (dis)empowerment based on singular notions of inclusion and exclusion. The simultaneity of his position—to be at once inside and outside the definitional domains of hierarchical empowerment—demonstrates the difficulty of maintaining unified and disengaged readings of the structure and function of race, class, sexuality, and/or gender. Instead, we are impelled toward thinking of new ways to approach not simply relations of identity and difference but, most crucially, their embodied asymmetries as well. In doing so, various complexities within the race/gender nexus, in particular, can be revealed.
My critique of binary understandings of power relations takes its lead from recent developments in contemporary feminist theory, where questions about differences of race, class, and sexuality among women have increasingly dismantled the historical status of the category of Woman as a unified, homogeneous, and internally consistent whole.3 But while the question of differences among women initiates a crucial rethinking of feminism's own paradigmatic assumptions, it is significant that in its quest for an all-encompassing framework devoid of exclusions, feminist theory has also contributed to the diffusion of distinct categories of difference, producing its own, now clichéd, polysyllabic referent ‘gender-race-class.’ Such a referent offers the pretense toward grappling with the difficult issue of multiple differences without providing critical models for understanding their various and historically shifting deployments. In the process, the attention to multiplicity (differences among women) plays a secondary role to homogeneity (the difference of woman as compared to man), thereby establishing women's differences from one another as a sub-category within an expanded, but still overarching sign of gender: ‘women.’4 In this way, multiple differences continue to be understood not as the compounded identity formation of all social subjects, but as the discrete categorical markings for those positioned as eccentric to feminism's historical rendition of woman as white, middle-class, and heterosexual.
By exploring differences in this way, feminism can maintain its historical commitment to the primacy of sexual difference as the epistemological ground for understanding women's varied social positioning—even as such a theoretical formulation risks the specificity of cultural organization that the turn toward multiple differences was to have revealed. For in positing women as multiple and heterogeneous—while still framing their positioning, as my language here indicates, through the category of gender—feminist theory discounts the way in which specific cultural determinants (such as race) may at times not only outweigh the significance of gender, but thoroughly shift the very productive grounds on which gender constitutes itself. Gender, as Hortense Spillers and others demonstrate, is itself multiply formed.5 And its multiplicity does not reside, as feminism too often seems to assume, within the binarized realm of the feminine, but attends to those figurations of bodies that comprise the masculine as well.6
Because of this problem of paradigms in feminist thought, I want to approach in this paper the possibility of an antiracist feminist cinematic reading by shifting our frame of reference away from the scene of woman/women and towards the issue of racial differences among men, articulating such a reading within the historical nexus of race and gender through which black masculinity has been given meaning. Most importantly, I am interested in how the discourse of sexual difference has served to delineate the contours of African American male representation in the United States, providing the primary terms through which the contradictions inherent in a masculine ‘raced’ position have been—and continue to be—culturally mediated. A cursory glance at this historical terrain, even for the uninitiated, reveals a discursive production reliant on sexual difference: from nineteenth-century images of the bumbling, ineffectual minstrel ‘coon’ (and their twentieth-century servile and metaphorically castrated heirs) to the mythologized black male rapist of both centuries, whose hypermasculinization begets and nourishes the many cinematic trajectories of Shaft and Superspade.7 But before turning to the historical fashioning of black male representation, it is necessary to begin with a more systematic exploration of feminist film theory, where the homogenizing tendencies of patriarchal discourses have been strangely reinscribed by feminist theory's own attraction to the monolithic logic provided by sexual difference. This logic renders secondary various hierarchical differences among men, reproducing within feminism's own political agenda the ahistorical account of cultural production that patriarchal discourses are themselves at pains to preserve.
Because the question of cultural difference in feminist film theory has routinely emerged as a question of gender, the paradigmatic reading of the cinematic regime posits it as a visual territory in which the masculine affirms its dominance through the specular colonization of its opposition, the feminine. In her ground-breaking article, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ Laura Mulvey explains, ‘[t]he paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world … it is her lack that produces the phallus as symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies’ (1975: 57). In granting subjectivity through the power of the ‘look,’ the politics of visibility reiterate patriarchal organization, equating the male's position as activator of the gaze with the transcendent subjectivity of universalized meaning. In the process, as most readers of this volume well know, the female body is cast as spectacle, reaffirming the primacy of the visible by emphasizing the sighting of difference while producing her as signifier of the masculine. For Luce Irigaray, whose re-readings of Lacan have been influential to feminist film theory, the spectacle of woman, the scene of her body as the site of castration, acts to wed the masculine subject with himself. Captured in this closed circuit of masculine relations, woman is condemned to theoretical absence, reduced, as Irigaray says, ‘to the economy of the Same’ (Irigaray 1977: 74).
Through this articulation of the feminine within the logic of the Same, patriarchal discourses—dominant cinema among them—render women indecipherable by denying them access to female subjectivity. Early feminist film theorists such as Pam Cook and Claire Johnston (1974) sought a way out of this dilemma, arguing that it is precisely through this incoherence that the female can subvert (albeit incompletely) the patriarchal logos of film. But such a prescription for a feminist counter-cinema, as Constance Penley has pointed out, encodes its own problematical assumption of the feminine not only as naturally disruptive but as natural in itself. ‘There is no feminist advantage,’ she writes, ‘in positing either a historically unchanging feminine essence or a monolithic patriarchal repression of that essence. The very idea of an essence is ahistorical and asocial …’ (Penley 1988: 5). In her work in the 1980s, Teresa de Lauretis would refashion these issues into the question, ‘[h]ow do we envision women as subjects in a culture that objectifies, imprisons and excludes, woman?’ (de Lauretis 1984: 10), finding that the theoretical traditions of semiology and psychoanalysis from which feminist film theory had emerged seemed to negate the very possibility of female subjectivity. ‘Like cinema,’ she writes, ‘they posit woman as at once the object and the foundation of representation, at once telos and origin of man's desire and of his drive to represent it, at once object and sign of (his) culture and creativity’ (de Lauretis 1984: 8). Through its claim that processes of cinematic representation depend on the mappings of sexual difference, early feminist work in film would offer a critical paradigm that seemed to exclude women from the very subjectivity that feminist theorists sought to claim.
Quite ironically, then, the models developed in early feminist film theory carry with them a burdensome potential to recontain women in the patriarchal logic of binary exclusions. Whether demonstrating the denial of female subjectivity in cinema's specular relations or insisting on resistance by asserting her potential for disruption from the space of the margin, feminist theory found itself torn between strategies of interpretation bounded by an ahistorical repression of woman on one hand and the naturalization of a feminine specificity on the other.8 Either way, as de Lauretis would later describe in Technologies of Gender, feminist thought was constrained ‘within the conceptual frame of a universal sex opposition … mak[ing] it very difficult, if not impossible, to articulate … differences among women’ (de Lauretis 1987: 2). This movement from a theoretical paradigm that unwittingly reinscribed patriarchal logic to an increasing concern with differences among women enabled feminist theory not only to begin to question its own complicity with cultural hierarchies but to make possible a subjectivity no longer reduced to the monolithic dimensions of negativity. For many, this has meant a shift away from or problematizing of the psychoanalytic paradigm because of its often-cited conflation of material social relations with abstracted and universalized discursive constructions.9
For Jane Gaines, the emphasis on psychoanalysis in feminist film theory becomes especially inadequate for analyses that turn to the figuration of the African American subject. In ‘White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory,’ she criticizes the way in which the psychoanalytic paradigm, ‘based on the male/female distinction … works to keep women from seeing other structures of oppression … lock[ing] us into modes of analysis which will continually misunderstand the position of many women’ (Gaines 1986: 61, 65). Gaines bases this assessment on the apparent incongruity between feminist-psychoanalytic readings of looking relations and the US cultural context in which ‘some groups have historically had the license to “look” openly while other groups have “looked” illicitly’ (1986: 76). Because the binary opposition between masculine and feminine cannot account for ways in which racial difference constructs a ‘hierarchy of access to the female image’ (1986: 75)—both in terms of who looks and whose image is circulated as the object of that look—Gaines suggests that feminist film theory reframe ‘the question of male privilege and viewing pleasure as the “right to look”’ (1986: 76). Such a reframing would make it possible to differentiate relations within the masculine, delineating the materiality of castration as not simply a metaphorical inscription but as a literal practice that has accompanied the historical deployment of the black male gaze.10
Placing the question of the male gaze within a historical context and subsequently differentiating the possibilities of spectatorship along lines other than gender begins to suggest a necessary paradigm shift for feminist film theory. But while Gaines's discussion locates a particularly powerful tension within the production of a masculine cinematic and cultural gaze, she tends to reduce the complexity of the cinematic apparatus by eliding it too quickly and thoroughly with the cultural gaze. In the process, materiality takes on the historicity of the literal, and the voyeuristic pleasures of cinema, however wrought through a system of identification based on white modes of masculinity, are seemingly denied almost wholly to African American men. But rather than a simple reimposition of the racially-coded caveat against looking, cinema actually may offer in however limited, distanced, and disembodied ways, black male access to the white female image denied elsewhere.11 In this regard, cinematic narrative and the apparatus of spectatorial looking are not the same, and while the white female remains taboo to a sexualized black male gaze in most film narratives, this denial is not coterminous with the spectatorial apparatus.12 Gaines's notion of the right-to-look that frames the historical relation governing the sexualized nexus of black men and white women needs to be explored further, so that the implications of masculine differences can be understood both in terms of filmic narrative and the cinematic apparatus of spectatorial looking.
This entails, as the essays in this volume indicate, an increasing concern for the articulation of the masculine that approaches it in less monolithic and historically homogeneous ways. Most importantly, the often exclusive attention in feminist film theory to the figure of woman as the grounds for instantiating and articulating the production and effect of the discourse of sexual difference must continue to give way. As we see in Gaines's analysis, the ultimate reliance on the spectacle of woman as the significatory precondition for the construction of masculine hierarchies means that the scene of gender continues to be inscribed on the female body. Gender, in other words, circulates as the figure of woman, and while that figure may be read in terms of her racial positioning—and while we can subsequently articulate the racial binarity that underscores the trajectory of masculine looking—this is a formulation inattentive to the significance of sexual difference at work in representational contexts largely devoid of women. Because feminist theory's frequent return to the figure of woman and/or women has only recently yielded to interrogations aimed at revealing the deployment of the discourse of sexual difference in multifarious cultural configurations, the scene of differences among men has remained a rather static and unexplored location. What this means for feminist political theory has yet to be adequately charted, but one thing seems quite certain: as we continue to pressure the limits of feminism's own theoretical gaze, sexual difference will increasingly be unhinged from its purported grounding in the female body and traced instead in its many layered production.
In the process, the scene of differences among men may prove a particularly compelling location for an analysis of the cinematic production of sexual difference, especially as gender has proven to be a powerful means through which racial difference has historically been defined and coded. Perhaps the most crucial issue that will emerge here is precisely how feminist theory can negotiate the imbrication of race and gender without reducing or exchanging one for the other. This negotiation is particularly tricky because of feminist theory's investment in the binarity of sexual difference, an investment that may enable an articulation of both the representational and political affinities that tie African American men to both black and white women by reiterating the contours of the very production we seek to critique.13 In this sense, it becomes immensely important that feminist theory not reinscribe the feminization of Uncle Tom that characterizes early feminist-abolitionist work as the means for approaching the problems of white supremacy.14 For the African American male is not a symbolic woman, no matter how intense the process through which a chain of social and specular being is inscribed along the lines provided by sexual difference. If lack must be consigned, if the black male must be physically, psychologically, and/or symbolically castrated, then his construction in the guise of the feminine evinces not simply an aversion to racial difference but a profound attempt to negate masculine sameness, a sameness so terrifying to the cultural position of the white masculine that only castration can provide the necessary disavowal.15
To understand the terrain of masculine differences in the context of masculine sameness necessitates a rethinking of feminism's commitment to patriarchal organization as, in Irigaray's words, an economy of the same. For such sameness does not necessarily produce a homogeneous cultural order, regardless of the extent to which certain social arrangements (such as the military) operate by and through the mythos of an undifferentiated masculine structure. Instead, we need to explore the processes and practices through which masculine sameness provides the very terms that construct and defend hierarchies of oppression and exploitation among men, serving as a historically shifting discursive apparatus for the negotiation of multiple social relations. In this sense, the discourse of sexual difference has a significance that exceeds the boundaries of gender's binary oppositions, even as it deploys those oppositions as the means for confirming and perpetuating the cultural dimensions of white racial supremacy. Most importantly perhaps, the logic of the gaze as the primary articulatory mechanism around which sexual difference is understood as encoded in filmic production needs to be suspended, so that other formations of gender (and other deployments of the discourse of sexual difference) can be more fully explored. It is only in this way, by refusing to reduce gender to the specular embodiment of woman, that we can begin not only to chart the multiplicity of gender's production, but its imbrication and shifting relation to race as well.
READING THE MALE
It is within this context that I want to read the emergence of the new black cinema of the 1990s, where we can approach some of the complexities of the race/gender nexus by understanding how the deployment of the discourse of sexual difference has functioned historically as the governing framework for representational productions of the African American male. For it is in the oscillation between feminization (buffoonish Uncle Tom) and hypermasculinization (well-endowed rapist) that the contradictory social positioning of the black male has been negotiated, providing the means for disavowing his sameness to the masculine on one hand, while marking his masculinity as racially produced excess on the other. Importantly, where the logic of white supremacy and the white masculine's pre-eminent cultural positionality are overtly secured in each of these scenarios, the relationship between the feminine and the black masculine is just as thoroughly opposed. In casting the feminine as either an internalized, effete consciousness or the externalized emblem of the black male's sexual threat, the discourse of sexual difference inscribes the relationship between the black masculine and the feminine (of any racial designation) as coterminous, in metaphor or material practice, with psychic dissolution and death. Not surprisingly, such an inscription engenders a political context of distrust, alienation, and paralysis, making affiliations across categories of identity and difference difficult to envision, let alone to articulate and sustain.
While the oscillation between feminization and hypermasculinization varies according to the specific economic, social, and political contexts defining the cultural terrain, it is possible nonetheless to mark the historical arrival of the mythology of the phallicized black rapist as engendered by African American emancipation in the late nineteenth century. Here, the minstrel figuration of the African American male as Sambo, Tambo, Bones, Uncle Remus, and Jim Crow is joined by a new, highly stylized disciplinary representation: the myth of the black male rapist, defiler of white womanhood. Through the guise of an aggressive, hyper-phallic masculinity, the symbolic feminization of the black male that characterizes the popular consumptive sphere is exchanged for a discursive scenario that begets literal castration. As Trudier Harris discusses, reconstruction signals a transition in the cultural meaning of lynch law, marking not only its articulation as a racially coded formulation, but defining that formulation as the symbolic linkage between lynching, castration, and an assumed black male sexual predilection for white women.16 In casting the white male as defender of white female sexuality, the economic crisis wrought by the transformation from slavery to freedom is translated into gendered terms, offering the dominant culture a powerful means through which not only black men but the entire black population could be recontained as innately, if no longer legally, inferior. As Richard Wright would later depict in Native Son, even the accusation of rape serves as ‘that death before death came’ (1966: 214), a death whose frequent culmination in lynchings and castrations literalized the equation between the black male and the feminine.
Given this relationship between the male body and cultural power, and the historical features of black male representation as sexual and gendered, it is no coincidence that Black Power discourses would turn to the figuration of sexual difference as the means for making claims to black male empowerment in the 1960s. In ‘Initial Reactions on the Assassination of Malcolm X,’ Eldridge Cleaver epitomizes the rhetorical method of depicting the struggle for Black Power: ‘We shall have our manhood. We shall have it or the earth will be leveled by our attempts to gain it’ (Cleaver 1968: 66). Such attempts to ‘heal the would of my Castration,’ as Cleaver writes, are necessary to right the deep wrong inflicted on black men through slavery and cultural dispossession, where ‘[a]cross the naked abyss of negated masculinity … I feel a deep, terrifying hurt, the pain of humiliation … and a compelling challenge to redeem my conquered manhood’ (Cleaver 1968: 188–9). By defining the politics of race within a metaphorics of phallic power as a counter to cultural articulations of black male inferiority, Black Power rhetoric reiterates the parameters of black male representation provided by the discourse of sexual difference, simultaneously marking the political and economic as part of a naturalized realm of gender. Such a formulation significantly participates in the broader cultural articulation of racial exploitation and oppression as a problem within the structure of masculine relations themselves.
It is perhaps obvious that such images of an aggressively violent black male who poses a physical threat to ‘white civilization’ nourishes the cultural fascination with and fantasy of black male castration in the nineteenth century and our own. But while the scenario of seemingly unprovoked black violence is certainly not new, its proliferation since the dawning of Civil Rights and Black Power provides a context in which African American political activity can be defined and contained within the parameters of a socially delinquent, if not pre-eminently dangerous, masculinity. That African American writers and political theorists in the 1960s and 1970s—not only Cleaver, but Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Malcolm X—each reiterated at one time the metaphorics of a threatening phallic power attests to the powerful deployment of sexual difference in US culture more generally, and provides the framework for understanding the emergence of Shaft, Superfly, Hammer, Willie Dynamite, Black Belt Jones, and other exceedingly masculine figures in the cinema of the 1970s.17 The oscillation between feminization and masculinization described here not only marks the oppositional logic of sexual difference that underlies African American male representation for the past two centuries, but specifies the discursive context in which any discussion of contemporary black male cinema must be made.
It is my contention, in fact, that many of the recent films by black male directors seek to subvert and deny in various ways the paradigmatic exchange of activity for objectification, on the one hand, while struggling for a more culturally productive black masculinity on the other. John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood (1991) is a case in point, not only because of the narrative's concern for the life-threatening contours of black masculinity, but also because of the attention it has received for purportedly instigating audience violence (see Newsweek, July 29, 1991: 48). By displacing the socio-political issues surrounding black masculinity—issues that Boyz N the Hood, for one, is at pains to reveal—on to the panic-image of irrational black violence, the logic of white supremacy exchanges the complexities of contemporary US culture for the alternatively terrorizing and appealing phantasm of massive violence and death. But in wrenching the scenario of black masculinity from the more easily consumable images of incipient feminization and one-dimensional criminality, Boyz N the Hood grapples quite seriously—if not always satisfactorily—with the contradictions embedded in the black male's social positioning, offering an interesting negotiation of the historical (con)text of black male representation in US cinema and culture.
For feminists schooled in conventional film theory, the kinds of issues I will be highlighting in Boyz N the Hood, particularly its political agenda toward a mediated masculinity, might seem to displace the film's overt signs of sexism: its reliance on objectifying language, as well as cinematography, for defining and characterizing women; its binary inscription of masculine and feminine as oppositional personal and cultural encodements; and its figuration of male separatism as part of, and at times precondition to, a black nationalist aesthetic. Clearly, the failure of motherhood and the championing of the black father characterize the oppositional and hierarchical logic of sexual difference that governs the film, providing the terms through which the contemporary crisis of black masculinity is being both challenged and defined. But to point to these representational effects without the historicizing gesture that seeks to place them in the broader context of US cultural production not only reifies their political deployment, but risks the inscription of a feminist analysis inattentive to the multiplicity and overdetermining construction of race and gender. For this reason, while I do not want to dismiss the film's use of certain conventional means for affirming the primacy of the masculine, I also do not want to understand that masculine as simply coterminous with patriarchy itself. For it is patriarchy as well as white supremacy that must be held accountable for the prevailing conditions of destruction and disenfranchisement attending African American men.
Boyz N the Hood specifically highlights this destruction in its opening sequence with two full screen statements: first, ‘One out of every 21 Black American males will be murdered … [and then] Most will die at the hands of another Black male,’ followed by the camera's rapid focus on a Stop sign. In this half minute, the film delivers its most immediate context and its most overt message, and in doing so establishes a significatory framework through which those who contribute to this cultural undoing are targeted as the primary audience. For a black male to kill another black male, the film posits, is tantamount to killing oneself. But more importantly, it is to act out, to its logical extreme, the desire of white supremacy. Where Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) made cross-racial violence its primary concern, Boyz draws its most daring critique of power and the internalized processes of annihilation by foregrounding the trajectories of racism within members of the black community itself. An especially powerful example of this is the presentation of a black male Los Angeles police officer, whose desire to rid the streets of ‘niggers’ reveals his own sadistic pleasure in the harassment, torture, and destruction of other black men. To counter this kind of black male abandonment of one another, the film offers the primary characters, Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne) and his son, Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), whose relationship forges a paradigm of inter-generational bonding that functions in the film's narrative as the means for translating the past and present into a different future for young black men. Locating the significance and impact of white supremacy in broad strokes, the film's primary focus is thus on the structures of discipline turned inward by the African American subject, whose defense against racism is often, paradoxically, a reiterative devaluation of black life.
Defined as a classic coming of age story, Boyz moves between the philosophical underpinnings of Furious's approach to teaching his son ‘how to be a man’ and the codes of masculinity ushered in on the streets. With a mix of neo-nationalist and safe sex rhetoric, Furious wants his son to know ‘any fool with a dick can make a baby but only a real man can raise his kids.’ His nationalism is highlighted at various, often didactic moments in the film where the link between responsibility and reproduction is set within the overarching context of violence, drugs, and alcohol abuse. In pointing out the significance of gun shops and liquor stores ‘on ever corner’ in African American neighborhoods, Furious explains to a group of onlookers (in a speech with scenic overtones of a sermon-on-the-mount): ‘They want us to kill ourselves … The best way to kill a people is to destroy their ability to reproduce themselves.’ The focus on the question of sex and reproduction throughout the film—and its relation to economic and cultural survival—provides an important rearticulation of what the narrative posits as the prevailing mythos of masculinity, where guns, women, and offspring circulate in a psychological and social nexus of increasingly ineffectual, indeed murderous, machismo. Here, the distance from the black cinema of the 1970s is at its most forceful, as the terrain of sexuality takes on a seriousness that implicitly critiques the iconography of masculine prowess epitomized by Shaft and his various characterological reincarnations. In Singleton's cinematic world, the super phallic imago of black masculinity is too often a self-fulfilling fantasy of a genocidal white supremacy.
The tension between phallicism and a mediated black masculinity is played out in the competing characterizations of young black men in the Styles's neighbourhood, from the troubled Doughboy (Ice Cube) who spends his youth in and out of reform school, to his brother Ricky (Morris Chestnut), a teenage father who is on course for a football scholarship to the University of Southern California, to the more peripheral figures, Monster, Dooky, and the wheel-chair-bound Chris, all participants in Doughboy's raucous circle. Doughboy is, of these players, most central to the narrative, for it is in his story that the primary failure of the masculine eventually emerges as the precondition not only for his own death, but for the revenge slayings he performs on three other young black men. On one level, the narrative too simplistically marks this failure as the absence of the black father (an issue I will return to), as in Furious's early explanation of his strictness to Tre: ‘I'm trying to teach you to be responsible. Your little friends across the street, they don't have nobody to show them how to do that. We'll see how they turn out.’ But at other discursive levels, the failure of the masculine is more complex, as the scene leading to Doughboy's first arrest for theft indicates. Here, the boys (Doughboy, Ricky, Tre, and Chris) are examining the corpse of a black male murdered and dumped behind an abandoned building when they become targets for harassment by a group of older males. In trying to defend his friends, Doughboy is knocked to the ground, kicked, and left muttering, ‘I wish I could kill that mother-fucker.’ It is at this point that he decides to go to a nearby store, though he is clearly equipped with no money. By the time we see him again, he is under arrest for shoplifting.
I read Doughboy's response to this scenario within the double context of his ineffectuality and humiliation at the hands of other black men, and as part of the seemingly reduced significatory value of black male life in general. That this humiliation and physical assault is accompanied by the defunct gaze of the culturally abject dead body links Doughboy's transgressive performance to the tableau of racial expenditure that not only organizes but defines the subjective and social contours of contemporary African American culture in the film. His ‘criminality’ in this and subsequent scenes is part of a performative masculinity whose overdetermination can be envied only in so far as one can ignore its deeper psychological vacuity. This vacuity is evinced in Doughboy's final words of the film, when the deaths of those who killed his brother subtend his now even more intense alienation. In thinking about a local television discussion of increasing world violence, Doughboy notes the absence of any mention of his brother's murder; instead ‘They showed all these foreign places … Either they don't know … or don't care what's going on in the Hood,’ he says. ‘The shit just goes on and on. The next thing you know somebody'll try to smoke me. Don't matter though. We all have to go sometime.’ Doughboy's resignation is the final performative strategy, and its cyclical undoing becomes manifest in an ensuing frame when we are told that ‘two weeks later’ Doughboy, too, meets his end at the hands of another black male.
But rather than close the film on this moment, Singleton offers the trajectory of Tre's life—his exodus from the Hood to attend Morehouse College—as the future-sustaining alternative, an alternative made possible by the presence of Furious as guide and mentor to his son. This emphasis, as I have mentioned above, is at times disturbingly simple because of the way it posits African American fatherhood as a necessary compensation for the inadequacies of the mother. The very narrative ploy that sanctions Tre's removal from his mother's home in the early moments of the film pivots on her lack: ‘I can't teach him how to be a man,’ she says to Furious, ‘that's your job.’ And Ricky and Doughboy's mother is represented as so discriminatory in her love that even Doughboy admits at the end, ‘I ain't got no brother, got no mother neither. she loved that boy more than she loved me’ But Boys N the Hood does offer a contradictory reading to this overarching motif when Tre's mother, Riva, historicizes Furious's role: ‘Of course you took in your son … and you taught him what he needed to be a man … What you did is no different than what mothers have been doing since the beginning of time … Don't think you're special.’ While this speech does not have the authoritative weight of a developed characterization to carry off a more lasting narrative effect, it does provide a telling rupture of the filmic text, drawing in Furious's model masculinity from its often antiseptic and prophetic orbit, and figuring such masculinity as within and not opposed to the parameters of the maternal feminine. It is at such a moment that sexual difference and its historical relationship to race in US culture emerge as multi-layered, complex in their interconnections.
Perhaps the film's most sustained and successful tracing of the contradictions and difficulties within the masculine occurs in its depiction of Tre, a contemplative, still virginal young man whose negotiation of the pitfalls of black masculinity is significantly linked to his relationship with women. One of the few characters who does not routinely refer to women with the slang, ‘bitch,’ Tre not only evinces the tension I have discussed above between phallicism and a mediated masculinity, but embodies that tension in the contradiction between his sexual anxieties and his own falsified self-representation. This contradiction is made apparent in a scene between Furious and Tre where the possibilities for the traditional cinematic scene of masculine bonding across the body of woman are seemingly served up for the purpose of being subverted. When Furious asks his son if ‘you got some pussy yet?’ Tre concocts an elaborate story of affirmation, one that highlights his sexual performance and appeal. But Tre has misinterpreted the intent of Furious's question, presenting his prowess while Furious is far more concerned about the issue of birth control. The moment of disclosure, this manufactured image of woman as the sexualized object of masculine desire, is thus denied its ability to function as the pretext for closer masculine bonds. In response to Tre's assertion that she was on the pill, Furious reinforces his central lesson: ‘If a girl tells you she's on the pill, use something anyway. Pill ain't going to keep your dick from falling off.’ The issue of masculine responsibility for sexuality transforms the scene of male bonding into internal discord, and the significance of the body of woman disappears in its inability to fortify relations among men.
In addition, the cinematic construction of Tre's story of sexual bliss highlights the traditionality of this masculine scenario of union as a self-serving production. As Tre unravels his narrative, we are offered a seeming re-enactment of the encounter, from the moment the woman appears (with appropriate jeers and competition among Tre and his friends) to their subsequent sexual consummation at her house the next day. But as Tre tells the story and the woman begins to speak, it is his voice that issues from her mouth, marking in a rather interesting way the very denial of female subjectivity that Tre's narrative itself enacts. In this regard, Singleton's approach to the sexual conquest scenes feature both the significance of sexual confirmation within the mythos of masculine bonds while demonstrating their appropriate contours. In denying the woman the seeming authenticity of her own voice, these scenes reveal their own narrative reliance on a masculine point of view that constructs and defines the parameters of sexual desire. That such a construction is a wholesale fabrication—and that its effect leads to discord and not affirmation within masculine relations—demonstrates one of the particular power aspects of the negotiatory politics of Boyz N the Hood and its rearticulation of black masculinity.
For Tre, in fact, the narrative of sexual assertion emerges as a scene of betrayal, a guilt-inducing production that forces him to examine his own fears about sexuality more generally. When his teenage friend who is already a father, Ricky, inquires about his sexual inexperience, Tre admits, ‘I was afraid … of being a daddy.’ This fear is legitimized throughout the film, and the end of Tre's virginity is heralded not as a conquest of the masculine over the feminine but as the act of a self-conscious and responsible sexual subject. Indeed, the entire dimensions of masculinity as conquering imposition—whether in terms of sexuality or its metaphoric extension, life on the streets—are reconfigured in Boyz N the Hood, enabling an articulation of black masculinity that moves, albeit uneasily, in less than polarized ways within the discursive contours of race and sexual difference. Most importantly perhaps, the film challenges the binary figuration of the black masculine as feminization on one hand or hypermasculinization on the other, seeking a way beyond the representational impasse that oversees the political, economic, and sexual containment of black men. While the political agenda of Boyz N the Hood is often undermined, as I have discussed, by its representational effect, the questing gesture toward a different figuration doubles back on the earlier and much heralded black cinema of the 1970s, finding ‘manhood’ a more complicated and contradictory domain.
That the tenaciousness of such a masculine quest often lends itself rather quickly to feminist suspicion is beyond question. But the political imperative guiding this essay necessitates that we not dismiss, on that basis alone, the significance and implications of this cinema for excavations of the contextual history of race and sexual difference in US culture. I am rejecting, in other words, the notion that because they focus on issues of masculinity, contemporary films by black male directors are simply reinscriptions of the dominant patriarchal organization of US culture—as if attention to the field of masculine relations is in itself either inherently anti-feminist or transhistorically and essentially misogynist. Such a rejection is necessary, I believe, even as we may recognize and lament the startling absence of African American female filmmakers, as well as the paucity of scripts concerned with issues affecting most specifically black women.18 But to posit this absence or paucity as the result of the seeming success of black men in contemporary film is to forge a one-dimensional oppositionality whereby gender becomes the primary figuration of social relations, discounting once again the significance of differences among men in historical, political, and economic ways. These differences provide the broad cultural context through which the narrative of Boyz N the Hood in particular is made, establishing the racial dimensions of a competitive masculine order that routinely invests in the destruction of African American men.
While the film's desire to forge a different masculinity, to recognize the framework of masculine relations that underlie race in the US without eschewing the masculine altogether, does not invoke a post-gender utopian feminist vision, its significance lies in foregrounding this specific configuration of race and gender. For it is here that the crisis of race within feminism will continue to visit itself, posing crucial questions about the relationship between the masculine and patriarchal organization that we are as yet unable to adequately understand or answer. What does become clear, within this kind of historicizing discussion of race and sexual difference, is that any simple collapse of issues of the masculine into patriarchal organization sacrifices the very materiality of race and gender in US culture today. It is in this light that I wish to end by reiterating my own political desire in crafting this paper, which is not to appropriate black male cinema for feminism but to place the dilemma of feminism squarely within the discursive field of black masculinity. This means that one does not simply produce a context in which African American male representations are measured in terms of the political standards of feminism, but that their representations provide an important (though not the only) public moment through which the entire domain of sexual difference can be rethought in the cultural context of white racial supremacy. In negotiating this increasingly public moment of black masculine critique, feminism confronts itself precisely where it has been convinced it did not or could not exist, making possible a universe of political alliance no longer reducible to the monolithic laws of gender.
For further discussion of the significance of the buddy configuration as the primary mode for cinematic images of African American males in the 1980s, see Bogle (1989: 271–6) and Wiegman (1989); for blaxploitation films of the 1970s, see Bogle (1989: 231–66).
Among the films, Mario Van Peebles, New Jack City (1991); John Singleton, Boyz N the Hood (1991); Spike Lee, Mo' Better Blues (1990) and Jungle Fever (1991); Matty Rich, Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991); Charles Burnett, To Sleep with Anger (1990); Robert Townsend, The Five Heartbeats (1991); Joseph Vasquez, Hangin' with the Homeboys (1991); Ernest Dickerson, Juice (1991); Bill Duke, A Rage in Harlem (1991); Kevin Hooks, Go Natalie (1991); and Charles Lane, True Identity (1991).
While it would be impossible to list the many contributions to this field of inquiry, I draw readers' attention to Alcoff (1988), Bulkin et al. (1984), Hooks (1981, 1984), Moraga and Anzaldúa (1981), Spelman (1988), and more recently to Barrett's (1988) introductory essay which quite coherently examines the impact of the question of differences among women for feminist theory.
For a more lengthy discussion of the transmutation of differences under the sign of woman, see my forthcoming article in Bucknell Review.
See Spillers (1987) and Berlant (1991).
In her 1985 study, Sedgwick transforms the kinds of questions feminist theory in that decade thought to ask by taking as its project the processes through which the discourse of sexual difference—and the economy of desire precipitated by the spectacle of woman—work to demarcate and perpetuate masculine hierarchies based on the intersecting dimensions of sexuality and class. Here, masculinity and our understanding of its relation to patriarchal values and dominant social arrangements were importantly unleashed from a monolithic rendering, and the possibilities for enjoining a feminist and antihomophobic reading of cultural relations pursued. Such a theoretical approach is suggestive in its refusal to surrender to the segregatory logic of US cultural production, and provides a political standard not only for the present discussion but for subsequent feminist work on masculinity and relations among men. For a less affirmative discussion of the turn toward issues of masculinity in contemporary feminism, see Modleski (1991).
While I will elaborate more fully on the historical terrain of black male representation in the discussion that follows, I direct readers as well to Bogle (1989), Boskin (1986), Davis (1981), and Leab (1975).
For further discussion on these dual consequences of early feminist figurations of woman in film, see the introduction to Mellencamp et al. (1984).
In her prescient 1978 article, Christine Gledhill observed that ‘although the Lacanian subject accounts for different sexual locations in the symbolic order, it … appears to displace the effectivity of the forces and relations of production in the social formation’ (Gledhill 1984: 33–4). While Gledhill's concerns are predominantly with questioning further ‘the relation of patriarchy to capitalism and bourgeois ideology’ (35), her critique of feminist film theory's dangerous universalization of sexual difference via the psychoanalytic paradigm argues for a more materialist feminist intervention into film, particularly as the feminist theorist considers how various cultural discourses situate female spectators differently not simply from men but from one another. For Gledhill, this does not mean a complete dismissal of psychoanalysis but greater attention to the interplay between the representational and material forms of cultural production.
Harris's work (1984) provides an important exploration of the centrality of castration and lynching in African American literature by tracing the ritual scenes of dismemberment to other kinds of cultural accounts. See also Davis (1981) and my forthcoming essay. ‘The Anatomy of Lynching.’
One thinks of the early scene in Richard Wright's Native Son where Bigger Thomas and his friends are at the theater watching a film about a young, rich white woman (Wright 1966: 33–5). Here, the narrative encodes the distance and difference between their ability to look at the cinematic scene and the denial of that looking as a material reality of their lives in the segregated South.
The differentation I am trying to forge here can also be found in film theory's discussion of the female spectator, whose position within the film and as its spectator are not, as much early feminist film theory seemed to assume, the same. The Camera Obscura special issue, ‘The Spectatrix’ (Bergstrom and Doane 1990), provides commentary on both the historical figuration of the spectator in feminist theory and contemporary rearticulations.
Hartsock (1990) evinces the problem of critical diffusion by constructing a paradigm of cultural power that establishes women, blacks, homosexuals, the poor, etc. in a massive deployment as the others against whom dominant power is imposed. While she clearly recognizes the differences between various cultural structures of hierarchy. I am unconvinced that feminist theory will be furthered by maintaining such a configuration of power. See Harding (1986: 163–96) for a slightly more deft discussion of the similarities and differences that mark the positionalities of white women and both African American women and men.
See Sanchez-Eppler (1988) and my forthcoming essay in Bucknell Review.
In an analysis of the career of actor and singer Paul Robeson, Richard Dyer describes the cultural logic and political effect of black male elisions with the feminine: ‘It is no accident that there are similarities between how black men are represented and how women are depicted … it is common for oppressed groups to be represented in dominant discourses as non-active … their passivity permits the fantasy of power over them to be exercised, all the more powerful for being a confirmation of actual power; their passivity justifies their subordination ideologically … [for] their activity would imply challenge … to the dominant it would imply change’ (Dyer 1986: 116). In aligning representations of African American men with the constructed position of women, cultural discourses are able to neutralize black male images, exchanging potential activity and aggression against white masculine power for the structurally passive realm of sexual objectification. For a suggestive discussion of the eroticization of the black male body in the context of the tradition of female sexualization in Western art, see Mercer (1987).
This is not to say that castration was unknown as ritualistic punishment for perceived black male sexual aggression prior to Emancipation (see Jordan 1968: 154–8), but that its use would become so intensified in the later nineteenth century that we must recognize it as a specific form of discipline in the context of slavery's economic demise.
All of these figures made their impact in the proliferating genre of black action film. See Bogle (1989) for a critical appraisal.
At the same time, however, any hierarchical ranking that would reinforce black female absence by arguing for the greater seriousness of the contemporary plight of black men has at its basis a faulty rendering of the political contexts of race and gender. For further discussion of the implications of such hierarchicalizing, see Lubiano (1970).
Alcoff, L. (1988) ‘Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism: the Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory,’ in M. R. Malson, J. F. O'Barr, S. Westphal-Wihl, and M. Wyer (eds) (1989) Feminist Theory in Practice and Process, Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.
Barrett, M. (1988) Women's Oppression Today: the Marxist–Feminist Encounter, rev. edn, London and New York: Verso Press.
Bergstrom, J., and Doane, M. A., eds (1990) Camera Obscura, Special Issue, ‘The Spectatrix’ 20–1, May–September, 1989.
Berlant, L. (1991) ‘National Brands/National Body: Imitation of Life,’ in H. Spillers (ed.) Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text, London and New York: Routledge.
Bogle, D. (1989) Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, rev. edn, New York: Continuum Publishing.
Boskin, J. (1986) Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester, New York: Oxford University Press.
Bulkin, E., Pratt, M. B., and Smith, B. (1984) Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism, Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.
Cleaver, E. (1968) Soul on Ice, New York: Dell.
Cook, P., and Johnston, C. (1974) ‘The Place of Woman in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh’ in Constance Penley (ed.) (1988) Feminism and Film Theory, London: Routledge.
Davis, A. (1981) Women, Race and Class, New York: Random House.
De Lauretis, T. (1984) Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
———. (1987) Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Dyer, R. (1986) Heavenly Bodies, New York, St Martin's Press.
Gaines, J. (1986) ‘White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory,’ Cultural Critique 4, fall: 59–79.
Gibbs, J. T. ed. (1988) Young, Black and Male in America: An Endangered Species. Dover, MA: Auburn House Publishing Company.
Gledhill, C. (1978) ‘Recent Developments in Feminist Film Criticism’ in P. Mellencamp et al. (eds) (1984) Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, Fredrick, MD: University Publications of America.
Harding, S. (1986) The Science Question in Feminism, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Harris, T. (1984) Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hartsock, N. (1990) ‘Foucault on Power: a Theory for Women?’ in L. Nicholson (ed.) Feminism/Postmodernism, London: Routledge.
hooks, b. (1981) Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, Boston, MA: Long Haul Press.
———. (1984) Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, Boston, MA: South End Press.
Irigaray, L. (1977) This Sex Which is Not One, trans. C. Porter (1985), Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Jordan, W. (1968) White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812, New York: Norton.
Leab, D. (1975) From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Lubiano, W. (1990) ‘When Boys Collide: Gender Negotiations in African-American Cultural Studies,’ paper presented at MLA Convention. Chicago, December.
Mellencamp, P., Doane M. A. and Williams, L., (eds) (1984) Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, Fredrick, MD: University Publications of America.
Mercer, K. (1987) ‘Imaging the Black Man's Sex’ in P. Holland et al. (eds) Photography/Politics Two, London: Comedia.
Modleski, T. (1991) Feminism without Women, London: Routledge.
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Mulvey, L. (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in C. Penley (ed.) (1988) Feminism and Film Theory, London: Routledge.
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Sanchez-Eppler, K. (1988) ‘Bodily Bonds: the Intersecting Rhetorics of Feminism and Abolition,’ Representations 24, fall: 28–59.
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Spillers, H. J. (1987) ‘Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: an American Grammar Book,’ Diacritics 17, summer: 65–81.
Wiegman, R. (1989) ‘Negotiating AMERICA: Gender, Race, and the Ideoliogy of the Interracial Male Bond,’ Cultural Critique 13, fall: 89–117.
———. (forthcoming) ‘Toward a Political Economy of Race and Gender,’ Bucknell Review.
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 764
SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. Review of Higher Learning, by John Singleton. Commonweal 122, no. 4 (24 February 1995): 55.
[In the following review, Alleva offers a negative assessment of Higher Learning.]
When I went to John Singleton's feature debut, Boyz N the Hood, I was expecting sociology, but what I got was a work of art. Higher Learning, his new movie about sexual and racial tensions on campus, is not only sociology, but the most naive, flat-footed sort imaginable. It's a work of good intentions, and these intentions seem to have leached every last ounce of originality out of Singleton and much of his intelligence of well. I can't think of any recent film that extolled so highly the benefits of knowledge and yet displayed such ignorance in every frame, every line of dialogue, and each turn of an utterly mechanical plot—ignorance of the academic scene, ignorance of what makes a drama compelling, ignorance of life itself. The only sign left of the Singleton who made Boyz is in this movie's propulsion: he's still enough of a filmmaker to keep our eyes on the screen, but that won't stop any viewer who's lived a little from wincing at the callowness he sees there.
Just consider the campus that Singleton presents us with: it's just a hunk of ground on which the director got permission to shoot. There's no there there. For all I know, the campus mall may be a real mall but, judging from what we see on screen, he could have used a stage set. The office of the professor played by Lawrence Fishburne doesn't look like a teacher's office but an admissions department. When one student, trying to study, is driven out of his dorm room by the blasting stereo of his roommate, he never thinks of going to the student union building. But how could he, since Singleton doesn't give this campus a student union, though such a building is usually the center of campus life? And that rally that opens this movie—what's going on there? A political protest? A pregame bacchanal? A welcome party for freshmen? I saw cheerleaders twirling, but Singleton shoots the scene as if it were Hitler's Nuremberg party congress as captured by Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will.
That brings up another problem. Singleton has been looking at too many movies lately. Directors often sharpen their visions of what their projects should look like by screening whatever classic has inspired them for their collaborators. Scorsese showed his colleagues Hitchcock's The Wrong Man before beginning Taxi Driver, and The Heiress was the model for The Age of Innocence. But Singleton hasn't absorbed the classics from which he's trying to draw sustenance. Not only is Riefenstahl an undigested influence but so are Coppola and David Lean. A skinhead making nefarious plans is given the crescent moon lighting that Brando received in Apocalypse Now. But Brando's Kurtz was meant to be as mysterious as the moon, while the skinhead is an obvious thug with no evil resonance whatsoever. He should have been blasted with harsh light, not bathed in artsy-fartsy shadows. When the heroine slowly weaves to a microphone at a feminist rally (lots of rallies in this movie) to declare herself a rape victim, the camera's slow track forward representing her point-of-view is a steal from Passage to India: Miss Quested's reeling progress to the witness stand to testify about her alleged rape. But note that Passage's director, David Lean, in a stroke of genius, put in a seemingly irrelevant detail: Miss Quested fastens her gaze for one moment on an onlooker's shoe. That numbly noticed, inconsequential shoe perfectly conveys the young woman's fearful state. Singleton's tracking shot, by contrast, is just a film-school tactic, mechanically executed and devoid of surprise.
And the acting! In the male lead, Omar Epps, though not particularly memorable, has vigor and snap, but all the other young players are just so many blobs. Worse, Lawrence Fishburne, one of the best American actors alive, has saddled himself with an accent meant to convey that his character is third-world born but Oxbridge-educated. So Fishburne gets to pronounce “peppermint” as “pepper mènt.” Pass the watercress and sandwiches.
And how do people convey intelligence in this movie titled Higher Learning?
Hero: Who do I have to prove myself to?
Hero: I want power!
Professor Fishburne: Information is power!
This movie is turning a profit at the box office, so John Singleton will work again. But he's in bad trouble anyway—the worst sort of trouble an artist can have. He doesn't know who he is.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5845
SOURCE: Nadell, James. “Boyz N the Hood: A Colonial Analysis.” Journal of Black Studies 25, no. 4 (March 1995): 447–64.
[In the following essay, Nadell praises Singleton for using his films to address such important and relevant social issues as drugs in African-American communities and the effects of “Euro-American racist capitalism.”]
Although several issues of consequence are addressed by John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood (1991), mainstream, capitalist media inquiry has emphasized the peripheral, sensational events surrounding the film, failing to provide the necessary structural and contextual analyses that Boyz merits. The raw human tragedy and triumph depicted by Singleton sears and energizes the consciousness of the viewer. In order that this energy not be squandered, it must be channeled into a holistic understanding of the psychological/political/economic/cultural matrix within which the phenomenology portrayed in the film is played out. This article will attempt to provide the structural and contextual analyses that have heretofore been lacking, further enhancing the didactic value of Boyz long after its run in the theaters has drawn to a close.
Three interwoven factors lay at the roots of the crises treated in the film:
1. The demoralizing effects of Euro-American racist capitalism on the material and psychosocial existence of the African American masses;
2. The low intensity warfare waged by the Euro-American state apparatus against the Black liberation struggle; and
3. Drugs in African American communities.
Let us consider these factors in isolation as well as examine the process linking them, thereby contextualizing the historical moment treated so powerfully by Singleton's film.
AFRICAN AMERICANS AND THE COLONIAL DIALECTIC
For every sand castle, there is the same size hole in the ground.
(Sedition Ensemble, 1981, Numbered Blues)
European and Euro-American capitalist expansion has in greatest part been fueled by the oppression and exploitation of African and Third World labor and resources (Asian, Latino, Native, and African colonies in the United States included). This dialectic has meant the enrichment of Euro-American and European elites and the corresponding underenrichment of Africans and other Third World peoples. To a lesser though still significant degree, White working people, many of whom live in equal material despair, have also served as a source of this capitalist expansion, paying a heavy price in the process. As this article examines the ramifications of this process for African Americans, the impact on other exploited populations will not be dealt with, though such a pursuit is no less valid.
Writing on the nature of the European attack on African and Third World people, Fanon captures the essence of this dialectical reality in The Wretched of the Earth (1963, p. 163): “The wealth of the Europeans is our wealth too … Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from underdeveloped peoples.”
Ample quantitative analysis is available to document this statement, notably Davidson (1961, 1969) and Williams (1944). Reviewing the relevant literature, Rodney concludes as follows: “From an African viewpoint, that [colonial dialectic] amounted to consistent expatriation of surplus produced by African labor out of African resources. It meant the development of Europe as part of the same dialectical process in which Africa was underdeveloped” (1981, p. 149). Rodney, throughout this same work, establishes further that the various industries, financial institutions, and mechanisms of European and American commerce were capitalized with the profits derived from the slave trade and colonialism.
Through the twin systems of slavery and internal colonialism, the Euro-American state apparatus, its casuists, and its many blind followers have created a similar (but distinct) material reality insofar as African Americans are concerned. Although individual differences, gender, and class must be factored into any analysis of African American people, the modal experience of Africans in America has been one of an oppressed, colonized population:
Like the people of the underdeveloped countries, the Negro suffers in varying degrees from hunger, illiteracy, diseases, ties to the land, urban and semi-urban slums, cultural starvation, and the psychological reactions of being ruled over by those not of his [her] kind. … From the beginning, the American Negro has existed as a colonial being. His [her] enslavement coincided with the colonial expansion of European powers and was nothing more or less than a condition of domestic colonialism. … The only factor which differentiates the Negro's status from that of a pure colonial status is that his [her] position is maintained in the home country in close proximity to the dominant racial group.
(Cruse, 1968, pp. 75–77)
The quantitative evidence supports Cruse's assertion. In areas such as life expectancy, infant mortality, median income, poverty levels, unemployment rates, and quality of education, the African American masses represent an internal Third World relative to Euro-Americans (Farley & Allen, 1987; Marable, 1983).
An African American infant is twice as likely to die as his or her White counterpart. African American adult death rates are 150٪ those of Whites (Farley & Allen, 1987, pp. 42–49). According to the Centers for Disease Control, in certain areas, Black males between the ages of 15 and 25 are more likely to die from homicide than a U.S. soldier was likely to be killed in Vietnam (Young Blacks, 1990). Whereas 20٪ of all American children live in poverty (an outrage in itself), 50٪ of African American children exist below the poverty level (One-Fifth, 1989). Blacks spend less than 7٪ of their consumer dollars within the race, the wealth being externalized in traditional colonial fashion (Marable, 1983, p. 165). It is estimated that 45٪ of Black men do not have jobs (Gresham & Wilkerson, 1989, p. 116).
Mere numbers can never capture the human suffering endured, but this limited glance at the material status of African Americans reveals the colonial nature of their existence: an “externalized cost” of Euro-American capitalist super-exploitation, or “collateral damage” in present day Gulfspeak. As the impulse for freedom is no less intense in African people than in any other people, the pacification of the population has required an attack on psychological and cognitive fronts, in addition to traditional Euro-American methods of violence. A self-perpetuating cultural dialectic was thus erected as a tactic in this pacification program, exalting European and Euro-American excellence to the degree that it degrades African and African American modes of existence. An insidious mechanism manipulated by ruling elites to psychologically colonize African American minds, so as to better control and prevent resistance, this cultural dialectic is best summed up by Fanon:
It is not enough for the settler to delimit physically, that is to say with the help of the army and the police force, the place of the native. As if to show the totalitarian character of colonial exploitation the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil. … The native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values. He is, let us dare to admit, the enemy of values, and in this sense he is the absolute evil. He is the corrosive element, destroying all that comes near him; he is the deforming element, destroying all that has to do with beauty or morality. …
(1963, p. 41)
Echoing Fanon's analysis with reference to the American setting, Akbar (1985) characterizes this cultural dialectic:
There are few, if any monuments, statues, or reminders of Black accomplishment. Even the walls of our own homes pay tribute to the accomplishments of European Americans and often prominently display even a Caucasian symbol of God. … Beauty is always the opposite of our most usual features. Power, in combination with “Black” is an obscene and militant declaration of war. This is the message of the culture from the parks of our major cities to the constant parade of European-American excellence on television.
Marable (1983) provides a similar analysis of the American racial cultural dialectic: “The aesthetics and popular culture of racist societies constantly reinforce the Anglo-Saxon ideal in the minds of Blacks, creating the tragic and destructive phenomenon of self-hatred and cultural genocide” (p. 9).
Even this malevolent device, in combination with the extreme violence of the colonizer, has not been able to eradicate African American self-love and the correlated quest for freedom. The empirical and phenomenological data reflect the fact that although many African Americans experience various levels of self-alienation around the issue of race, many more do not, as Poussaint (1972), Grier and Cobbs (1968), and Akbar (1984; 1987) theorize.
Fanon's observations (1963, pp. 138–39) that colonized Africans are inoculated against racial self-alienation to the degree that they are able to insulate themselves within a protective African national culture, lends itself well to the American scene. Through the creation of an African American national culture, African Americans become immersed in a social substance that filters the toxic elements from the racist American indoctrination system, preserving the basic human impulse toward self-love and self-creation, individually and collectively, as a review of the related literature indicates (Akbar, 1987; Cross, 1985, 1987; Semaj, 1985; Spencer, 1987).
Although it would run counter to the laws of human psychological development to suggest that slavery and internal colonialism have not had a profoundly damaging effect on the psychobehavioral states of African Americans, resistance was and remains strong, also consistent with human tendency. Far from being vanquished (in psychological or material terms), African Americans have fought and sacrificed for freedom since their enslavement in North America, as Aptheker's carefully documented study (1969) of slave guerrilla warfare and militant Black resistance details. This impulse toward freedom was no less evident as chattel slavery gave way to internal colonialism, evidenced by a rich and manifold history of struggle (Allen, 1969; Forsythe, 1977; Marable, 1983; Newton, 1972; White, 1984; Malcolm X, 1965).
This resistance has challenged the capacity of the American state apparatus and its competing elites to rob and exploit oppressed people, at home and abroad. As such, the state has responded to this challenge (the threat of democracy) with utmost hostility, attempting to neutralize it with extreme prejudice, by any means necessary. The rapid demise of the Garvey movement, the assassination of Malcolm X, the meteoric rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, and the destabilization of the Black liberation struggle in general are all directly and causally related to this state policy, as the very internal record of the national political police, the FBI, unequivocally documents (Vander Wall & Churchill, 1990). The reverberations of this low intensity warfare program and the American racist capitalist system that gave rise to it are felt to this very day and are inextricably linked to the very phenomenology dealt with by Boyz N the Hood.
THE REAL CRIMINAL
All of us agree that the gravest domestic threat facing our nation today is drugs. … Our most serious problem today is cocaine, and in particular, crack. Who's responsible?
(George Bush, September 5, 1989)
The real criminal is in the White House in Washington, D.C.
(Malcolm X, 1963)
The rollers only arrest us, the young niggahs, they don't f—k with the rich mugs that sell dope. My brother went to Vietnam and he said the government let Vietnam dudes bring big dope from Nam.
(Larry, age 15, Detroit gang member, in Taylor, 1989)
Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what's goin' on in the 'hood.
(Doughboy in Boyz N the Hood)
A driving force of the within-group violence depicted in Boyz N the Hood is the illicit narcotics trade. Laying it down to the folk, Furious recognizes a crucial point that remains willfully and scandalously ignored by mainstream capitalist media and the vast majority of its lawmakers: African Americans do not control the means of narcotics production, refinement, or international transshipment, and only marginally control the retail, low-end domestic distribution networks. Despite this fact, the American masses are fed a steady diet of a drug-crazed or drug-dealing Black Lumpenproletariat, taking the onus off the very structures of power most deeply involved in the flood of narcotics into African American communities.
Expanding on this point, the devastation of the Black Nationalist movement is directly tied to the low-intensity warfare waged against it, of which one feature was/is the inundation of Black communities with narcotics. Too vast to exhaustively review here, a body of quality scholarship amply documents the historic and ongoing complicity of the American state apparatus in this nefarious activity (Chomsky, 1989; Cockburn, 1987; Kruger, 1980; McCoy, 1972; Sheehan, 1990; Stockwell, 1988).
In synthesizing this data, it becomes abundantly clear that the American security state greased the wheels of the international narcotics trade to further the ends of elite interests, crushing resistance to their hegemony both at home and abroad:
The net result of wartime [WWII] and post-war anti-communist policy was a revival of organized crime operating initially under U.S. military government protection, ultimately under CIA protection. So that as the trafficking routes get reestablished through the Middle East and Europe to the United States, a revived, restored Mafia in Sicily and the Corsican syndicates in southern France are majority participants in this traffic. Half a world away, in Asia, you get a similar phenomenon.
(McCoy, 1991, p. 65)
Quoting a classified 1972 secret field report to U.S. customs, Cockburn and Cockburn (1988) confirm McCoy's hypothesis: “It was ironic that the CIA should be given the responsibility of narcotics, particularly since they were supporting the prime movers. Even though the CIA was in fact facilitating the movement of opiates to the U.S. they steadfastly hid behind a shield of national security.”
Domestically, the flood of this high-quality Asian heroin into African American communities in the late 1960s and 1970s dealt a most serious blow to the Black liberation struggle, as potential participants were narcoticized and put out of action. As Ward Churchill establishes (Churchill, 1990; Vander Wall & Churchill, 1990), this program dovetailed nicely with the FBI Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), a low-intensity warfare program that decimated the Black Panther Party through means including outright murder, the creation and exacerbation of factionalism within the party and with other Black nationalist groups, media disinformation campaigns, and Justice Department harassment. In crushing the Panthers specifically, and the nationalists generally, the state apparatus eliminated what may have been the most powerful antinarcotics forces in African American society.
In Chicago, the FBI moved to prevent the politicization of a huge criminally oriented street gang, the Blackstone Rangers, and eventually helped coordinate the police murders of Panther leaders Mark Clark and Fred Hampton. The Panthers soon after fell apart, whereas the Rangers evolved into a major retail drug distribution syndicate known as El Rukin, filling the vacuum left in the wake of the Panthers' demise (Churchill, 1990; Vander Wall & Churchill, 1990, p. 417).
This result was similarly duplicated in southern California through infiltration, state violence, judicial neutralization, and media disinformation. As the politicos were eradicated, the criminal drug syndicates were allowed to flourish, particularly the CRIPS and Bloods, whose turf battles are common knowledge to even casual observers, many of whom are often caught up in the crossfire of these self-perpetuating rivalries (Churchill, 1990; Vander Wall & Churchill, 1990). When both liberal and conservative opinion makers express indignation over crime in the Black communities of America, they should look at their own policies as a primary cause.
Far from ancient history, U.S. state facilitation of the international narcotics trade continues, most recently surfacing in relation to CIA and CIA-supported off-the-shelf operations in Afghanistan and Nicaragua. These operations were in the tradition of terrorist programs run out of Miami against Cuba in the early 1960s, whose participants resurfaced in Southeast Asia between 1965 and 1975, as documented by former CIA agent John Stockwell (1988), Daniel Sheehan (1987), Albert McCoy (1991), and, most exhaustively, Heinrik Kruger (1980). All substantiate that the highest levels of the American executive and security branches are and have been deeply involved in these activities, directly and indirectly, escaping scrutiny, thanks to the gutlessness and willful self-deception of powerful opinion makers and legislators.
Summarizing the nature of this long-standing criminality, Lifschultz (1988) cites McCoy's (1972) classic, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia:
Practicing a ruthless form of clandestine realpolitik. … [CIA] agents made alliances with any local group willing and able to stem the flow of “communist aggression.” … American diplomats and secret agents have been involved in the narcotics trade at three levels: coincidental complicity by allying with groups actively engaged in the drug traffic; abetting the traffic by covering up for known heroin traffickers and condoning their involvement; and active engagement in the transportation of opium and heroin. It is ironic, to say the least, that America's heroin plague is of its own making.
When connected to the parallel needs of supporting clandestine warfare and terror to maintain the right to rob and exploit Third World peoples and of quelling resistance by the domestic Third World (Chomsky, 1985, 1988, 1989), this historic and ongoing pattern described by McCoy is not ironic but rational, at least from the vantage point of ruling elites. A more recent entry in this sordid history is provided by the report of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations, released April 13, 1989, quoted by Christopher Hitchens in the May 8, 1989 Nation:
Payments to drug traffickers by the U.S. State Department of funds authorized by the Congress for humanitarian assistance to the contras, in some cases after the traffickers had been indicted by the federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges, in others while traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies. … In each case, prior to the time that the State Department entered into contracts with the company, federal law enforcement had received information that the individuals controlling those companies were involved in narcotics. … The State Department selected four companies owned and operated by narcotics traffickers to supply humanitarian assistance to the contras.
I have not yet seen any serious treatment of this report in mainstream national press or by electronic media. Were the elite intellectual class less indoctrinated and/or less servile to private power, these facts would be worthy of substantial attention. In more intellectually honest times, one would expect the facts raised above to receive at least a fraction of the play granted the low-end retail sector of the narcotics industry, invariably projected to be young African American Lumpen men and women. Rather than spend 48 Hours on Crack Street, maybe Dan Rather could better serve the public (who theoretically own the airwaves) by spending some of those hours digging into major financial institutions, CIA Headquarters, and … the White House.
Synthesizing the materials highlighted above, American racist capitalism, via the institutions of slavery and its offspring internal colonialism, created the psychological/political/economic/cultural oppression suffered by African Americans. As would any people faced with these conditions, African Americans have responded in a number of ways dependent on an interaction of variables. Relevant among these responses are valiant resistance made possible by collective self-love; narcoticization to escape this misery by means of substances (legal and illegal) pumped into their communities by ruling elites; and the vicious and suicidal pursuit of advancement as low-end retail distributors in the ranks of the dead-end, illegitimate opportunity structure of an illicit economy owned and operated by an alliance of gangster, security, finance, and political elites.
What has heretofore been developed are the interrelated structural features of the African American colonial reality that Furious merely alludes to when “schoolin' the brederin and sisteren.” This amalgam of forces must be fleshed out in order for Boyz N the Hood to fulfill its immense potential as a teaching tool, elevating the consciousness of all concerned people, race aside, interested in creating a world that best satisfies all human needs rather than the prerogatives of centralized power, regardless of the ism that serves as the rationale for this centralized control. An accurate, holistic analysis of the psychological/political/economic/cultural substance underlying the phenomenology sampled so powerfully by Boyz is inherent to furthering the solutions, just as an accurate diagnosis guides effective treatment. Perhaps this article has made a small contribution in this regard.
In addition to the contextual framework in which the film is immersed, many of the film's nuances merit attention. Let us briefly highlight a few of them, as they serve as vehicles by which the viewer is made to process the truths illuminated by Boyz.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Names and labels can have a profound effect on the cognitive appraisal of the entity so labeled. Consider the imagery and emotions that accompany the terms Negro, Black, and African American. Although Negro is merely an Anglo variant of the Latin term meaning Black, in American society it is a term used by the dominant culture to strip people of African descent of their cultural identity, their connection to the African motherland.
As such, Negro was eventually rejected when those so labeled recognized the racial bond that connected them in America and defined themselves as Black, rejecting the classification of the oppressor. Black soon gave way to African American, as the self and social awareness of the people blossomed to such a degree that the African cultural imperative had to be fulfilled, as the refusal to be defined by the colonizer naturally spiraled into self-definition.
African American speaks to a past, something as important to a people as memory is to the individual, particularly when the collective memory has been ruthlessly assaulted by the colonizer.
At the level of the individual, the power of naming is exemplified by two warrior spirits. Malcolm Little was a vice Lord; Malcolm X was a Black Nationalist freedom fighter, a follower of and chief spokesman for the Nation of Islam (NOI), abandoning his false consciousness and criminal vocation, enabling others to do likewise; El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was an independent thinker, elevating the struggle to another level, leaving the protective environs of the NOI to become a truly international pan-African revolutionary.
Cassius Clay was a championship boxer of rarely equaled grace and style; Muhammad Ali was/is a figure beloved all over the globe, a man who risked his class interest by refusing to give his seal of approval to a racist, genocidal neocolonial war in Southeast Asia. Clearly, thought and action influence and are influenced by the naming process. Boyz N the Hood is most instructive in this regard.
Throughout the film, two labels dominate the discourse. The young men refer to themselves as niggers and to the women as bitches or whores. Nicknames and jargon are often healthy expressions of humor, affection, and creativity, enabling a group or subculture to carve out a small domain of linguistic autonomy in defiance of authority. The terms nigger, bitch, and whore go far beyond this type of expression.
Nigger is a term that has been applied by the Euro-American colonizers to the inhabitants of the internal African colony. On one level of consciousness, when used among the oppressed in casual banter, the term nigger is more or less equivalent to such slang expressions of camaraderie as dude, homeboy, brother, cousin, and blood, lacking in any pejorative significance. At a deeper level of analysis, the frequent use of the word nigger in the discourse of Boyz speaks to an internalization of the colonizers' label on the part of the colonized. This internalization and subsequent verbalization is a reflection of racial self-alienation on the part of those who consciously or unconsciously make use of the word when referring to self or others.
The dynamic is similar with regard to the use of terms bitch and whore with reference to Black women. Again, there is a process of some Black men, particularly those represented in the film, internalizing the traditional Euro-American definitions and devaluations of African American women. As Black women are Black people, the use of these terms also reflects a degree of racial self-alienation that exists within some African Americans, specifically those who use these descriptive labels and those women who accept their use without objection.
As stated above, the idea that African Americans suffer self-alienation around the issue of race is a gross oversimplification, running counter to the diverse phenomenology and empirical findings concerning this matter. Nonetheless, the labels that circulate in the subculture portrayed by John Singleton call attention to the condition of racial self-alienation in some of this population, a dynamic initiated and perpetuated by Euro-American colonial structures.
BLACK ON BLACK VIOLENCE: INSTRUMENTAL AND AUTO-DESTRUCTION
Evil men make me kill you, evil men make you kill me, even though we're only families apart.
(Jimi Hendrix, 1969, “Machine Gun”)1
The cycle of violence and homicide is arguably the most dangerous by-product that internal colonialism has created for African Americans. As the graphic that opens the film indicates, 5٪ of young Black men will die by homicide, almost exclusively at the hands of other Black men. Two factors appear to lie at the heart of this cycle of violence: Instrumental demand and racial self-alienation.
Instrumental demand refers to the use of violence on the part of the perpetrator to secure material or strategic benefits. When the American state apparatus and its agents carry out genocide against the indigenous population to take control of their resources and territory for the purpose of capitalist expansion, the violence is instrumental. The same is true of the American state with reference to its aggression against African people in solidifying the chattel slave system, and its aggression or sponsorship of aggression by local elites against Third World peoples, such as in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Africa, Zaire, Iran, Cuba, the Philippines, Palestine, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti, to name but a few (Chomsky, 1985, 1988, 1989).
In such cases, the violence enhances the material gain of the aggressors. At a different level, as Fanon (1963) has pointed out, the within-group violence of the colonized African is in part the result of a scramble for the limited resources available to the suffering masses, and thus serves an instrumental function:
Exposed to the temptations to commit murder every day … the native comes to see his neighbor as his relentless enemy. … For during the colonial period in Algeria and elsewhere many things may be done for a couple of pounds of semolina. Several people may be killed over it. … Every colony tends to turn into a huge farmyard, where the only law is that of the knife.
In addition to this type of instrumental violence, and also rooted in the capitalist underdevelopment of Black America, the illegitimate opportunity structure of the narcotics trade creates intense competition for turf and market share and thus the resultant violence, as more legitimate means of economic advancement are lacking in post-industrial capitalist society. The role of the American security state in this illicit trade has been discussed earlier and need not be repeated. This type of instrumental criminal violence is similar in nature to that carried out by segments of other ethnic groups who for a time were locked out of the legitimate opportunity structure, including Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Cuban immigrants. This violence was largely abandoned when a wider range of opportunities for advancement became available.
Fanon (1963) observes another source of within-group violence in the colony, reflecting the racial self-alienation of some colonized Africans: “Here we discover the kernel of that hatred of self which is characteristic of [intrapsychic] racial conflicts in segregated societies … in reality each man committed suicide when he went for his neighbor” (p. 307).
In view of the extended sense of self that is characteristic of African culture (“I am because we are, because we are I am”), and not entirely destroyed by Euro-American oppression (Azibo, 1989; Meyers, 1988: Nobles, 1972), Fanon's analysis is that much more valid. In acting violently toward another Black person, the individual may be aggressing against a hated aspect of self, Blackness, as Poussaint (1983) confirms: “A homicide can, for some Blacks, be viewed as saving their own egos from disintegration by displacing their aggressive discharge on other Blacks, on whom they project their own racial self-hatred” (p. 164). Grier and Cobbs (1968) and Akbar (1984) mirror this assessment.
The film's most extreme example of this process is the brutal, racially self-hating Black police officer, a man whose hatred of and violence against the very Black people he is supposed to serve and protect is primarily an expression of his own internal conflict with his Blackness. Considering the role of P. J. “Gloves” Davis in the Hampton and Clark assassinations (Churchill, 1990, p. 358), the officer portrayed represents a slice (not the whole pie) of reality, as does the film in general.
In light of the evidence, Black on Black violence in the American colonial setting tends to result from a combination of variables:
1. Instrumental and strategic motives, mostly connected to the narcotics trade (not to mention the activities of those addicts who act violently in order to get funds to procure drugs);
2. Competition for limited resources; and
3. Racially based self-alienation, the source of which is the racist colonial cultural dialectic, highlighted above.
Additionally, the frustration and correlated anger produced by the material deprivation suffered by the colonized African American synergistically interacts with the aforementioned factors to create the spiral of violence to which Singleton calls attention.
DIAGNOSTIC ANALYSIS AND TREATMENT
Having outlined and analyzed the context within which the phenomenology under consideration unfolds, what is to be done? Space does not allow for an adequate delineation of solutions. There is, however, one overriding principle that must be adhered to: Although Euro-American colonialism is the genesis and perpetuation of the ailments depicted in the film and discussed here, the bulk of the responsibility to remedy these maladies lies with the African American people themselves.
An accurate reading of the history of African American people would reveal that Black Nationalism (the cultural, economic, and political self-determination of African Americans) is the most effective means for uplifting the material and metaphysical conditions of the masses. With the institutionalization of a healthy Black Nationalist movement, free of sexism, homophobia, and doctrinaire isms, will come a great reduction of the pathology and suffering endured by African Americans as a result of their status as subjects of a racist internal colony.
Progressive Whites, who recognize that African and African American people historically and currently make the greatest contributions to a universal humanity when they are self-defining and self-creating, must help the White masses understand this. Though this will be most difficult and perhaps even impossible given the highly indoctrinated and racist nature of most of this population, the stakes are too high to forsake the effort.
John Singleton is to be commended for tackling such a meaty issue in such a skillful way. Unlike the vast majority of films dealing with African Americans and related subject matter, Singleton is able to capture a diverse range of characters. Positive, healthy, and realistic role models of both sexes are presented, although the very real problems and unsavory elements that exist in Black society are not ignored. Singleton very subtly confronts issues such as AIDS and sexual responsibility, parenting, and gentrification, all of which greatly affect African Americans.
Obviously, no one film can or should exhaustively grapple with every relevant issue. However, seldom has one attempted to make us think and feel about them to the extent of Boyz N the Hood. Let us transform this thought and these feelings into a holistic analysis aimed at constructing an alternative mode of existence to the colonial reality presently facing African Americans. So let it be done!
“Machine Gun,” written by Jimi Hendrix. Copyright 1970, Bella Godiva Music, Inc. Administered worldwide by Don Williams Music Group, Inc.
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 827
SOURCE: Sinker, Mark. Review of Higher Learning, by John Singleton. Sight and Sound 5, no. 10 (October 1995): 10.
[In the following review, Sinker offers a negative assessment of Higher Learning, although he notes that Singleton is “brave” to take on such controversial subject matter.]
It's a new academic year at Columbus University, and the lives of Kristen and Remy (both white) and Malik (black) intertwine. Remy clashes with Fudge (black) over the latter's loud rap music, and is repeatedly rebuffed and mocked. Kristen meets Taryn (white) who invites her to a feminist meeting.
Professor Phipps (black) teaches Kristen and Malik politics. Malik realises he will have to train harder if he wants a full sports scholarship. Kristen gets drunk and has unpleasant sex with a student named Billy. He insults Kristen's black roommate Monet, and is nearly beaten up by Fudge's posse. Kristen, isolated and humiliated, goes to Taryn's meeting. Malik borrows the autobiography of Frederick Douglass from Fudge. Phipps lectures on democracy, property and liberty the assignment for the semester is to formulate your own personal ideology.
Malik meets Deja a smart black female athlete, and they start dating. Kristen is in love with Taryn, but meets Wayne, Malik's untidy white roommate, and likes him. Unable to choose, she has sex with both. Led by Scott, armed Nazi skinheads have recruited the friendless and resentful Remy; he clashes violently with Malik, who is thrown into doubt about continuing at Columbus. Later, the skinheads and Fudge's posse skirmish.
Kristen organises a Peace Fest but the skinheads attack it. Remy, on the roof with his rifle, kills Deja: Professor Phipps fails to save her. Malik chases Remy, and fights him. Security drag Malik off and beat him up, then chase Remy, who shoots himself.
At the memorial site for Deja, Malik meets Kristen, who feels responsible and desolate. Malik tells her she can't blame herself. They exchange names for the first time, and shake hands.
An accurate technician, John Singleton is no screen dialectician, no Spike Lee. You won't leave the theatre arguing loudly with your partner. There's nothing that surprising in this choices-tragedy [Higher Learning], but by refusing to decide quite what he believes, Singleton throws doubt on some of the Hollywood liberal clichés—of character, of solution—that threaten to shape it. He sets these doubts up architecturally rather than dramatically, through the cross-ply of affinities and contrasts between characters in not-quite-connected storylines: Kristen/Malik, Fudge/Scott, obviously, but also Fudge/Taryn, Remy/Malik, Remy/Kristen. It's a very symmetrical movie.
This works against the urgency it needs: the action (the fight scenes, Deja's bloody death) is episodic, and somewhat defanged. But the symmetry pushes to the front Phipps, the film's key character (and without formal counterweight he's in fact the only teacher we meet). Pipe-smoking, courteous, Caribbean, he's untypical territory for Laurence Fishburne. It's almost a John Houseman role: a curmudgeon because he wants his pupils to make the most of themselves, and therefore loveable (ultimately). He pushes Malik to do better, not to fall back on excuses or victimhood but to work the system to his advantage. Yet Singleton injects doubt here too. A refusal to guide those who don't guide themselves may be what turns them toward unthinking tribalism; crusty commitment to higher learning as a good in itself seems irrelevant in the wake of violent death. Is knowledge for the getting of power, or to challenge it? Hasn't education been undermined by the politicisation of information? Although Phipps is exasperated by Kristen's refusal to take a stand in her essays, her sexual confusion is as close to a symbol of civic decency as the film gets: as if not being able to choose is the way out. The heart of the film's central Douglass quote, “without struggle there is no progress,” may be the word “struggle”—but the skinheads are reading Hitler's Mein Kampf (trans: My struggle).
It was brave to take on multicultural intolerance: braver still to refuse the sentimental cop-outs (such as sporting achievement, or the objectivity of the learned). Singleton is mordant about officialdom's institutionalised unfairness, financial, cultural and practical: Security guards always intervene against blacks first, and other things don't come out right, either. He's almost too careful with the complex ecologies and etiquettes of American campus life. Even his skinheads are not mere boneheads: indeed, Cole Hauser gives the performance of the film as their sinister-because-foresightful leader. Remy is so whinily unlikeable why would even Nazis put up with him? Malik has good lines, including a 13-word précis (which Hoop Dreams took three hours to say). Hurled at a teammate he's just let down: “All you ever gonna be is a runner. Like a horse. A slave.” But the other main characters seem unformed; the secondary characters are little more than ciphers, numbered points in a position paper which is intelligently presented but (like Fishburne's Phipps) disappointingly cool and (like Swanson's Kristen) just too vague to be memorable.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2169
SOURCE: Guerrero, Ed. Review of Rosewood, by John Singleton. Cineaste 23, no. 1 (1997): 45–47.
[In the following review, Guerrero offers a positive assessment of Rosewood, complimenting the film for exploring the “collective, national psyche.”]
John Singleton's Rosewood grapples with a powerful, daunting contradiction. Put simply, how does one make a slick, Hollywood action-adventure-entertainment flick, with big box-office expectations, about one of history's ultimate nightmares: genocidal racism? Singleton is not alone in attempting to negotiate this contradiction, since other mainstream filmmakers have attempted to do so before. Posed as question, this contradiction reverberates with a number of issues, raised most recently by the work of Steven Spielberg in Schindler's List (1993), Mario and Melvin Van Peebles in Panther (1995), Costa-Gavras in Betrayed (1988), and even Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves (1990).
Singleton answers the challenge of his material by casting this true and horrific tale in the mold of the Hollywood revisionist Western, with its lone, gunslinging hero “aimin' to settle down” in a prosperous little town in need of his talents and abilities. This Western is revisionist because the hero is black; the cultural focus is on African America; the scene is the South in the 1920s; and the issue is lynching and mass murder.
Rosewood is based on the terrible, historically-repressed events that took place in the small, thriving black town of that name, located on the edge of the Florida cypress swamps. Fueled by economic competition and jealousy, and finally ignited by an adulterous white woman's charge of abuse against a black man—the mythical and historically indispensable black other—a legally-sanctioned lynch mob from the nearby white town of Sumner descended on Rosewood and burned it to the ground. In the process, the mob managed to kill ‘several people’ (the body count was probably much higher than officially reported) and managed to drive several hundred of the town's residents into hiding in the surrounding swamps.
Yet the repressed does return, and the story was featured in 1983 on CBS-TV's 60 Minutes, indebted to the long memories of twenty Rosewood survivors and descendants, including Arnett Doctor, and the investigative reporting of Gary Moore of the St. Petersburg Times. After another eleven years of political haggling and hearings, the Florida State Legislature, in a first-of-its-kind gesture, voted monetary reparations for Rosewood's victims.
Of course, it's a long way from historical actuality to the big Hollywood screen, with its ultimate imperative that everybody's story be measured by its box-office potential—that is, be reduced to its commodity status. Thus, the nagging contradiction between commercial form and historical content pops up almost immediately in a self-conscious moment in Rosewood's opening scene when World War I vet Mann (Ving Rhames), flush with his discharge money and packing a couple of.45 automatics, rides into town. In the age of the automobile, a young boy asks the obvious question: Why is he riding a horse?
But the tension between content and form is present in other more significant and obvious ways. Hollywood always depicts the collective sufferings and struggles of oppressed peoples through the tale of the hyperbolic, heroic individual. Certainly, Spielberg's viewing the Holocaust this way in Schindler's List, or Spike Lee's masking his celebrity persona as Shorty, konked and Zoot Suiting his way through Malcolm X, or the Van Peebles trying to understand the political rise of the Black Panther Party through nostalgic eyes in Panther, are but the most recent variations on this gambit.
Singleton's prime attribute and contribution to black filmmaking has much to do with his ability to survive in the ‘movie business’ as a mainstream director moving from project to project. In this regard, one hopes that, by example and networking, he will help hold that space open for other emerging black directors of the same persuasion. From Singleton, then, one has come to expect industry convention rather than experimentation and subversion of form, no matter how socially insurgent the content of his films.
Thus, in dutiful big-screen manner, the story unfolds with Mann looking at a piece of property he wishes to buy, connecting closely with Rosewood's leading family, the Carriers—Sylvester (Don Cheadle) and Aunt Sarah (Esther Rolle) and taking a liking to their comely, school-teacher daughter, Scrappie (Elise Neal). Added to this stock mix of plot and characters are a number of ambivalent whites, including the sexploitative storekeeper, John Wright (Jon Voight), who becomes reluctantly instrumental in saving many of the citizens of Rosewood, and Sheriff Walker (Michael Rooker), who tries to control the drunken lynch mob from Sumner he has deputized. Of course, this Hollywood adaptation would not be complete without the displacement-by-class of all evil onto the poorest of Southern whites. These folks are most notably represented by a bo' hog-hunting, whiskydrinking, murderous, racist lunatic named Duke (Bruce McGill) and a ‘trashy’ young white woman named Fannie Taylor (Catherine Kellner), who initially yells “nigger” and sets things off.
What makes Rosewood an interesting and even powerful film, however, resides not in its form or formula, but in the way its visual spectacle and argument manage to break through the smothering, controlling embrace of Hollywood liberalism. In spite of itself, Rosewood manages to shake up the expectations of even the most jaded mall-multiplex cinéaste. Singleton's rendering of the Twenties town of Rosewood and its culture evokes notions of a stable, homogenous, unified, and self-sufficient black community between the world wars, while simultaneously depicting the climate of racism and black/white power relations that made such a black world necessary and, ironically, possible.
With all the fine detail of a mainstream cinema period piece, in the film's most seductive scenes the protagonist Mann breaks bread with the Carrier family and the next night attends a community New Years' Eve dance. In these fleeting moments—in the social world of black hospitality, dance, and celebration—Rosewood transcends formula. The costumes, the moves on the dance floor, even the brothers discreetly sipping from a jug and ruminating on the fringe of the gathering, nostalgically call up a world receded from our generational memory. But Singleton has a thing for parties, and one can contrast this Twenties community and social gathering with the other communities and parties across the great political divide of the civil rights movement-the Nineties 'hood ‘Bar-B-Q’ in Boyz N the Hood or the picnic in Poetic Justice. The paradigm has shifted and the problems have grown, but the beat goes on.
Rosewood's real power, however, dwells in the way the film, with its quite graphic scenes of racist, genocidal violence, “dialectically shocks” us, as Frederic Jameson would say, into new realizations about ourselves and our communal relations. As a national audience, both cinematic and televisual, we have become quite addicted and inured to the graphic verisimilitude of action-adventure violence as entertainment. What gives us that extra jolt of unease in Rosewood, however, is the subtle current of repressed history running through the film, no matter how commercially masked, that resonates with the Holocaust, the evils of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, or the genocide/countergenocide of the Hutu/Tutsi disaster in Rwanda. That is to say, the film forces us to recognize all of that seething fear and hatred reserved for the other in the planetary political unconscious, waiting to explode in our collective faces at the next economic downturn, the next instance of racial scapegoating, or the next spell of ‘war fever’ and communal suicide. At the height of the film's action, the disturbing sight of black men and women hanging from trees and telephone poles, highlighted by the flames of their burning community, seamlessly merges with those old Life, Jet, and archival photographs of real lynchings in America's historical gallery of horrors. Consequently, Rosewood's spectacle of violence is decidedly not escapist entertainment in that mainstream-cinema sense. Violence, here, demands a regurgitation of barely hidden collective nightmares and guilty complicities, as well as a painful examination of the national conscience. These are all things we as a national audience don't like to face, even in the darkness and anonymity of our cinemas. These concerns are symbolized in one of the film's closing scenes, when the rabid Duke, proud of his crimes, forces his young son to look at a pile of black bodies awaiting disposal. Here, all of humanity's body counts are evoked, from Auschwitz, to Wounded Knee, to My Lai. Singleton's obvious point—as the child rejects his father's wretched path and runs away from home—is that hope resides in the next generation.
To be certain, Singleton's film is full of messages of the more obvious, liberal, movie-industry variety, including those about some whites being rational, good, and perhaps heroic in evil times, to historic black arguments about self-defense and active struggle against racism. Even though trapped in a Hollywood black/white buddy configuration, Jon Voight and Ving Rhames do a reasonable job of lifting the film's messages above editorial didacticism. Voight's performance as a circumstantial hero—an ambivalent, exploitative white storekeeper in the black community, who finds his conscience in the heat of the massacre—shows his subtle and consummate skill as an actor. Rhames is equally outstanding as the quintessentially laconic, Hollywood tough guy who, in this instance, stakes a clear claim for black manhood and resistance in the face of oppression.
Rhames's Mann makes this point in a scene best described as ‘popcorn’ violence. While riding on his ‘hoss’ out of town, Mann is wildly fired upon by several whites who chase him deep into the woods. Finally, Mann turns, stands his ground, and opens up with both his.45s. Cut to the whites hauling ass out of the woods, with the punch line coming when they exclaim that they were ambushed by a gang of “ten to fifteen niggers.” The audience explodes with laughter. Singleton's timing and editorial touch, with this classic scene from the archives of the cinematic West, proves just right.
Some of Rosewood's messages, however, are not so entertaining or edifying. These moments find their origins in the film industry's habit of reflexively devaluing those powerless groups not at the center of its discourse or at the top of its representational caste system. Hollywood films, no matter who makes them, continue to be plagued by some very obvious color and gender problems. In the case of Rosewood, one must ask why it is that the darkest black woman in the cast (Akosua Busia as Jewell) literally opens the film with her legs spread wide and squealing in the pain/pleasure of miscegenation, and then, in the film's closure, is symbolically punished by having her murdered corpse gruesomely displayed face up, eyes open-in a close-up. The existence of a devaluing, color—caste hierarchy in this instance focused on those whom Alice Walker has referred to as “black black” women—continues to be a disturbing reality in commercial cinema.
Disturbing, as well, is how the liberal ‘problem-picture’ mechanism of displacement works when ultimately assigning blame and punishment for the genocidal operations of a systematic and collectively racist society. Unquestionably, the adulterous white woman, Fannie Taylor, is initially responsible for the horrific sequence of events that transpires in Rosewood. For certain, she bears the historical burden of articulating the repeatedly deployed, false accusation against black men as rapists and/or criminals. As is well known from the Susan Smith case and more recent spectacles in our televisual media circus, the electronic evocation of the black bogeyman is still big business. Moreover, Singleton does a reasonable job of looking into Fannie's motivations with some psychological subtlety. We see her abject misery and how she garners sympathy from the town's upstanding white women with her false charges.
In Rosewood's final scene, however, we're dealing with Hollywood's ‘trickle-down’ theory of punishment, with the most powerless individual in the hierarchy taking the rap for the collective. As Rosewood ends, the camera looks down in a long shot on a shack, and we hear the screams and blows of Fannie, as she is brutally beaten by her husband, mixed with the lush, poignant music signifying ideological and narrative resolution. In Singleton's defense, one could argue that a society that could burn and murder an entire black town on impulse would have no trouble thrashing one defenseless, lowerclass, white woman (although perhaps this is too subtle an insight for an action-adventure flick, even one with epic, historical pretensions). Hollywood films always argue for what they show in their action, and not necessarily for a director's intentions. So the film's narrative concludes with an act of symbolic punishment, one displacing all blame for the genocide of a racial minority onto yet another out group—women.
Ultimately, however, in spite (or perhaps because) of the tangle of contradictions that characterize Rosewood, John Singleton has made a film that prods the collective, national psyche. Although Rosewood wasn't commercially successful at the box office, the issues it explores will continue to resonate for some time to come, since the film is sure to have a long run in the video store, in the classroom, and within the critical discourse about Black Cinema.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770
SOURCE: Dean, Mensah. “Rosewood: Compelling Tale of Bigotry, Envy, and Violence.” Washington Times (21 February 1997): 15.
[In the following review, Dean offers a positive assessment of Rosewood, calling the film “brutal” and “explosive.”]
As if bracing us for the carnage to come, director John Singleton begins his historical drama Rosewood with a panoramic tour of the namesake town.
It would have been so easy, and quite an attention-grabber, to start this fact-based movie with a wide shot of a howling lynch mob, bloodhounds in tow, looking to avenge an alleged attack on a white woman by a black man on New Year's Day 1923.
But Rosewood, Fla., was a place before it was an incident, so Mr. Singleton wisely first transports us down quaint dirt roads where horses still compete with cars, past plain—but comfortable—wood-framed homes. We see vegetable gardens and livestock—both fixtures in the central Florida town, founded by blacks in 1848.
Over in the neighboring town of Sumner, home to the region's white folks, the houses are not as nice and are, in fact, the property of the local lumber company.
Despite differences in race and living conditions, all indications are that the two towns' populations live in relative tranquillity—if not exactly together.
Rosewood's people—many landowners, some even with such highfalutin amenities as pianos and electricity—know their situation is an aberration for the United States. Early on, matronly Sarah Carrier (Esther Rolle) says to World War I veteran Mann (Ving Rhames), “Colored folks own all the land around here, all the businesses, too. … You ever seen a place like Rosewood?”
“No, ma'am,” answers Mann, ostensibly a stranger who's just come to town intent on buying a piece of land in this bit of paradise.
But just as sudden as a change in wind patterns, things start to go terribly wrong for Rosewood's people, monumentally wrong.
The peace is shattered after Sumner's resident harlot, Fannie Taylor (Catherine Kellner), is beaten to a pulp in her home by one of the many men with whom she has afternoon affairs behind her husband's back. Her attacker is white.
To explain her multiple bruises, Fannie concocts a story that a black man broke into her home and beat her. “He was so big, and so black,” she wails in her front yard to a hastily assembled group of town folks, including gruff-talking Sheriff Walker (Michael Rooker).
A posse is soon formed, and the killing begins. The Sumner whites—aided by people from as far away as Georgia—go looking for a black escaped convict named Jesse, whom they suspect of the crime. In no time, the men degenerate into a mob, killing every black man, woman and child they encounter.
Though Florida placed the official death toll at six, Mr. Singleton, supported by interviews he conducted with witnesses and their descendants, depicts upward of 40 deaths—by hanging, shooting and other means.
During the four days of bloodletting, among those bold enough to mount a defense is Sylvester Carrier, (Don Cheadle), a proud black man who teaches piano and draws the wrath of Sumner's bigots for being able to own the instrument when they aren't, even though they can't play. Revelations such as this make it obvious that the jealous whites of Sumner were not so much interested in defending Fannie as they were in striking a blow at their more prosperous black neighbors.
The alliance between composite character Mann, played by Mr. Rhames with dignified resolve, and white Rosewood shopkeeper John Wright (Jon Voight) gives the film a Schindler's List flavor as they hide women and children before commandeering a train to ferry them to safety in another town.
Academy Award-winner Voight plays his character—Rosewood's only white man in the film, but one of several, in reality—with brilliant moral ambiguity. Yes, he helped save black lives, but he also provided the mob with munitions. He made a comfortable living off his black neighbors but only helped save them after being placed under great duress.
If Rosewood hadn't been based on fact, Fannie's claim that “a black man did it” would sound like a tired story line plucked from the news: You'll recall Charles Stuart of Boston, who shot himself and his pregnant wife, then said a black man committed the crime, and Susan Smith's claim that she was carjacked by a black man, when it was she who rolled her car into a South Carolina lake with her two sons strapped inside.
Watching Mr. Singleton's handling of this brutal, explosive story reminds one that we are not as far removed from our historical demons as we might think.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1309
SOURCE: Nicholson, David. “Rosewood: A Massacre Transformed into Myth.” Washington Post (21 February 1997): B1.
[In the following review, Nicholson offers a negative assessment of Rosewood, noting that the film “is a failure … albeit a noble one.”]
After making a gangster picture and then one that riffed on '30s romantic road comedies, John Singleton in his newest film turns the 1923 destruction of a black Florida town into a western featuring a sable Shane powerless to save more than a handful of women and children. The result, Rosewood, is a stunning look at the madness of race and racism, and a moving recreation of a shameful incident in U.S. history. But because the filmmakers stray from the facts, presumably in hopes of gaining a wider audience, there is a cheapness at the core of the film that comes perilously close to undermining it.
The Rosewood Massacre is a powerful story, one of those awful times in our history when God and his saints seemed, if not asleep, then to have been looking elsewhere. As author Michael D'Orso recounts in Like Judgment Day: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood, the horror began New Year's Day 1923 when a white woman, Fannie Taylor, burst from her home, screaming that she had been attacked by a black man. She lived in Sumner—near Florida's Gulf Coast, about 50 miles southwest of Gainesville—a hardscrabble mill town whose main industry was harvesting cedar and cypress from the swamps. A mob quickly formed to search for a black convict reported to have escaped from a chain gang just a day earlier. Dogs led the men to nearby Rosewood.
For seven days, fueled by blood lust, alcohol and a repressed hatred of Rosewood's “uppity niggers,” the mob raged through the town and the surrounding countryside. Men came from as far away as Gainesville and Jacksonville, some 200 miles away on the other side of the state, to join the killing spree. When their bloody work was done, at least six blacks—other estimates range from 40 to more than 100—had been killed. Two whites had been shot by a black man defending his home. And Rosewood, a prosperous little town with three churches, a school, a fraternal lodge hall and its own baseball team that had often played the white Sumner team in defiance of the strictures of segregation, was destroyed by fire. The 150 or more blacks who had lived there never returned.
For the most part, the film preserves the historical framework of the story; inevitably, some people and their actions are conflated, and the actions of others omitted altogether. Other scenes are invented, as when the members of the Carrier family gather on what turns out to be the first night of the massacre to celebrate a child's birthday. In fact, Sylvester Carrier had, according to Like Judgment Day, gathered his people purposely to try to protect them from the mob.
What actually happened seems dramatic enough, but we can understand the change—it adds drama and pathos and shows the prosperity of the Carrier family. But another change, the insertion of a fictional character, Mann, played by Ving Rhames, almost fatally compromises the film.
A veteran of World War I, scarred psychologically in some way the film never quite reveals, Mann rides into Rosewood on the eve of the violence, astride a horse named—incredibly!—Booker T. Armed with two.45-caliber pistols and a carbine, carrying a secret treasure, he's the archetypal cowboy drifter—the film doesn't have to tell us where he came from, what's in the leather bag he retrieves from a hiding place, or what horrors he saw in the war. We've seen him, or countless others like him, countless times, in countless other pictures.
This borrowing from movie cowboy mythology turns out to be at the heart of the picture. When Mann rides out of town at the start of the violence, we know he'll be back—the genre demands it. Pursued in the woods by the killing mob, Mann vaults from his horse and comes up with pistols blazing. Late in the film Mann, having gotten a score of women and children on board the train that will take them to Gainesville and safety, holds off the mob pursuing on horseback and in cars. It's a moment we've seen time and time again in the movies. Except that this time the whooping savages pursuing the train are poor white trash, and the brave sharpshooter picking them off with his carbine is black.
It's not the only time Rosewood turns on their heads the conventions and stereotypes that have existed in the movies since The Birth of a Nation. Like Devil in a Blue Dress, Once Upon a Time, When We Were Colored and Mario Van Peebles' wretched, moronic Posse, it's a post-integrationist fantasy, looking back to a mythic, idealized past. Once upon a time, when we were colored, it and its cinematic cousins seem to say, we might have been separate and unequal, but at least we had our own communities and our own institutions. And we made out pretty well, as long as the white folks left us alone.
Thus the black residents of this Rosewood embody cardinal virtues such as thrift, loyalty, diligence and self-control. They are hard-working, proper and upright: Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle) wears a tie and has a piano in his parlor. When two white men make sexual comments to his sisters, he warns them to respect the women or face the consequences.
White people, on the other hand, are victims of their own lusts, unable to control their appetites. We first see John Wright (Jon Voight, as one of the few whites who live in Rosewood) rutting with a black woman on a counter in his store. A few scenes later, millworker James Taylor tries to bed his wife, Fannie, not caring that their front door is open. Their maid, Aunt Sarah (played by Esther Rolle), passes by and looks in, disdain and disapproval plain on her face. Later, Fannie sports with her lover, oblivious to Sarah and her granddaughter working outside the house.
I suppose it could be argued that black people need movie heroes, too, and that what Singleton and screenwriter Gregory Poirier have done is no different from, say, Lawrence Kasdan's Wyatt Earp, which ignores the reality that the real Earp worked both sides of the law, or Walter Hill's The Long Riders, which reinvents the story of the James-Younger gang as a struggle between the male desire for intimacy vs. the craving for autonomy.
But it does matter. Some incidents are so horrible they demand more fidelity from those who seek to recreate them than is evident here, Then, too, it seems there were many small instances of heroism—some Sumner whites, D'Orso claims, hid blacks in their homes, despite the risk to themselves—instead of the one or two large acts depicted in the film.
It's all the more surprising because Rosewood is so tough-minded in other ways. Singleton and Poirier let no one off the hook, showing how good, decent people can turn into killers when they join a mob. But the truth is that the Rosewood Massacre occurred because of a singular failure of the imagination—the whites who lived in Sumner were incapable of seeing the blacks with whom they lived, worked, played and, inevitably, made love, as human. It's a failure that has dogged our history ever since the first Africans encountered the first Europeans on our shores.
In its own way Rosewood is a failure, too, albeit a noble one, because its makers cannot imagine the horror outside the cliched Hollywood vérités. To the extent that they cannot, they diminish what happened, rewriting history with lightning and giving us something very much like a Birth of a Nation for black Americans.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1115
SOURCE: Svetkey, Benjamin. “The Race Question.” Entertainment Weekly (7 March 1997): 20–21.
[In the following essay, Svetkey discusses the question of whether white filmmakers should be allowed to make films that deal with African-American themes and characters.]
Case No. 1: You are a respected white director who makes a serious film about a grim chapter in American racial history—the 1963 slaying of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. But just as you're dusting off the mantel for that Oscar, the reviews slam you for shoving black characters to the sidelines and focusing on a white assistant district attorney. One black critic even labels your movie the most offensive film of 1996. Adding insult to injury, in its first weekend of wide release it makes a measly ＄5 million.
Case No. 2: You are a respected black director who makes a serious film about a grim chapter in American racial history—the 1923 mass murder and burning of an entire black town in Florida. Once again, some critics take aim, blasting you for demonizing whites, turning blacks into cardboard saints, and propagating what one calls “politically correct jingoism disguised as melodrama.” The opening weekend numbers: a paltry ＄3 million.
Talk about a no-win scenario. Rob Reiner's Ghosts of Mississippi and John Singleton's Rosewood couldn't be more different, but even as audiences have largely ignored both, tempers have flared in Hollywood, where a very personal debate has been raging about who should be allowed to direct what sorts of pictures. Black filmmakers, furious at what they see as a long history of industry insensitivity, have accused white directors of patronizing attitudes and even outright racism. White directors. meanwhile, feeling damned if they do and damned if they don't, have lobbed back charges of reverse racism. “When you deal with race, you're dealing with a tough subject,” says director Norman Jewison, who took the challenge in his 1967 social drama In the Heat of the Night and in 1984's A Soldier's Story. “It can be very treacherous.”
“Let me put it this way,” offers Singleton. “The whole of American cinema, from the moment Thomas Edison invented the kinetoscope, has served to dehumanize black people, to make them into cartoons. White filmmakers have been remaking The Birth of a Nation over and over, except that now they do it in different ways. White directors don't have a vested interest in making well-rounded black characters,” he goes on. “Anyone who says they do is a liar. But black filmmakers do. If D. W. Griffith knew I was making movies, he'd be rolling in his grave. I want to keep him rolling.”
Singleton is laying it on a bit thick—after all, the last cinematic hero to wear a white sheet was Casper—but he does have a piece of a point. For decades, Hollywood films have dealt with race the same way—with a white protagonist smack in the middle of the action. Think Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Gene Hackman in Mississippi Burning, Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill, and Alec Baldwin in Ghosts. One reason has been fear of alienating white moviegoers; another, that there weren't any black filmmakers with clout. Recently, though, much of that has changed—as Singleton's new movie makes brutally clear.
Based on the sketchy facts of a historical incident, the film unfolds in a black town called Rosewood, a paradise on earth where everyone is well fed and gainfully employed. But when a woman from the neighboring white town falsely cries rape, it sets off a chain of revenge that ultimately leads to mass murder. The movie's biggest invention is its main character—mysterious black stranger portentously named Mr. Mann (Ving Rhames), who rides into town on a stallion, falls in love with a local girl, and eventually, six-guns blazing, attempts to save dozens of black children from being savaged by the Klan.
“He doesn't do anything John Wayne or Gary Cooper didn't do,” insists Singleton. “But the fact that he's a black man makes it totally different.”
“I'm sick of movies where the white man has to come in and save the blacks because the blacks can't take care of themselves,” explains veteran actress Esther Rolle. who plays Rosewood's angelic matriarch. “In this movie you've got a black man telling a black man's story, rather than a white man trying to interpret a perspective totally alien to him.”
The white man she's talking about could be Rob Reiner, once TV's most famous liberal. Ironically, the artist formerly known as Meathead agrees with Rolle—sort of. “For years I had wanted to make a film that dealt with race relations,” he said when Ghosts was released. “I didn't feel I had the right to tell the stories of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or even Medgar Evers. But I felt I had the right to tell the story of a white person facing these issues and what he learns about himself.”
In other words, it would be presumptuous for a white director to tackle the black experience—unless he tackled it through the perspective of a white character, like Alec Baldwin's assistant DA Bobby DeLaughter. Ghosts screenwriter Lewis Colick elaborates: “If we'd made the Medgar Evers story, can you imagine the hits we'd have taken? ‘How dare these white guys make the Medgar Evers story!’ So we didn't go near that. But it turned out to be a no-win situation. It just makes me crazy when I think about it.”
He won't get much sympathy from Spike Lee, who directed 1992's Malcolm X after wresting the project from Jewison. “Ghosts of Mississippi is a bulls— movie,” he says. “If you're going to tell a story about civil rights, then black people cannot be muthaf—in' peripheral.” Lee thinks it's possible for a white director to make a sensitive film about the African-American experience, but not likely. “Because he's never been a black man in the United States,” he says. “You grow up with a whole mind-set.”
Jewison, not surprisingly, dissents: “That's apartheid thinking. I don't buy into that.”
Moviegoers, meantime, aren't buying into any of it. “There are some subjects American audiences just don't want to see, and race is one of them,” says one former studio head. “Not even African-Americans are going to these movies. The subject is just too tired. People have seen that, done that.” And yet, the subject remains irresistible to filmmakers of all colors. Despite the long odds and short tempers, several more race-related movies are in the works, including—the ultimate in white hubris!—an Oliver Stone biography of Martin Luther King Jr. As for Singleton, his next project is a film even Meathead's old nemesis wouldn't miss: an update of Shaft.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1060
SOURCE: Cottrol, Robert J. Review of Rosewood, by John Singleton. American Historical Review 103, no. 2 (April 1998): 636–37.
[In the following review, Cottrol offers a positive assessment of Rosewood.]
If historical films serve an important historical purpose, they do so not because they accurately reproduce the details of the past in ways that satisfy specialists: few do. Instead, films serve history by reminding audiences ignorant of, indifferent, and increasingly even hostile to considerations of past events, of the way people not unlike themselves lived in other times. By that standard, Rosewood directed by John Singleton, is a very valuable effort indeed. The story of the destruction of a prosperous black township in northern Florida in early 1923 provides the occasion vividly to tell three stories remembered today by few Americans, black or white. The first is a story of black achievement in the face of overwhelming adversity in the Jim Crow America of the early twentieth century. The second story is of the bestial racial violence visited upon Americans of African descent, particularly in the wake of World War I. The final story, the most undertold of all, is black resistance to that violence, a resistance that frequently rose to heroic if often not effective levels.
Singleton weaves these interrelated stories together through the use of a fictional protagonist named Mann (Ving Rhames) placed, to an admirable extent, among the characters based on actual historical figures in the Rosewood tragedy. Mann rides on horseback into the town of Rosewood like the hero of many a Hollywood western. He is a World War I veteran still wearing his beat-up campaign hat. We will later learn in passing that he was the recipient of the nation's second highest award for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross. He has come to settle in Rosewood, a small, all-black town whose residents have achieved a measure of economic stability through farming, working in the nearby lumber mill, and small business. The film also introduces us to characters based on historical figures such as Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle), a black man who died defending his family from a white mob, and John and Mary Wright (Jon Voight and Kathryn Meisle), white storekeepers who rescued many of the black residents of Rosewood.
The black folk of Rosewood had managed to carve out a relative measure of prosperity and contentment by the early 1920s, but that was all destroyed in the rampage of January 1923. A false accusation by a white woman that she had been sexually assaulted by a black man created lynch fever. Within a week, whites from the surrounding towns had destroyed the black village, killing or dispersing most of the residents.
It is in the depiction of that lynch fever that Singleton's direction provides its greatest value. Rosewood captures the culture of the lynch mob in a way few others, popular or scholarly, have been able to do. The sheer barbarity of the enterprise, its physical cruelty, is vividly on display. Most harrowing is the scene of the white father who drags his reluctant son to participate in a lynching as a kind of perverted rite of passage.
Yet Singleton also admirably resists the temptation to make his and history's white southerners one-dimensional. There are white heroes. The Wrights protect, at gunpoint, black families from a white mob. Railroad workers help spirit black women and children out of Rosewood to safety. An armed posse stops the lynch mob from entering a neighboring town, saying, “Our colored are law-abiding folks.” These individuals are not anachronistically made into late twentieth-century liberals; instead, Singleton wisely allows them to be men and women who are shaped by the confining racial sensibilities of their time and place but who also at critical moments manage to transcend those limitations.
And Rosewood captures the often hidden story of black resistance to racial violence in the Jim Crow era. Central here is the fictional Mann, whose exploits are in the great Hollywood heroic tradition. Mann sends half a dozen members of a lynch mob fleeing for their lives as he fires at them with army-issue.45 caliber pistols in both hands, great catharsis if not exactly accurate history. Mann also manages a gruesome escape from his own hanging. Singleton is at his best, however, not in creating the legend of the superheroic Mann but in his depiction of the genuine courage of actual blacks forced to defend home and family from the inhuman fury of the mob. Sylvester Carrier defends most of his family, preventing their murder. In the film, he successfully escapes the mob. The real story had a less happy ending: Carrier was reportedly killed in Rosewood, but he did save his family through armed resistance. Both the real Carrier and his altered cinematic counterpart provide an important reminder of a time when the willingness and ability of African Americans to resist mob violence provided the only real impediment to the ever-present rule of Judge Lynch.
Rosewood's dramatizations should be taken with a supplement, the Discovery Channel documentary The Rosewood Massacre: The Untold Story. This film tells how the history of the Rosewood massacre had been long suppressed until it began to be uncovered by investigative journalist Gary Moore in the early 1980s. The interviews with survivors of the massacre are particularly compelling.
The documentary also places the events in a broader context. With the help of historians John Hope Franklin and Daryl Scott, the filmmakers present the massacre against the broader background of racial tension in the rural South of the 1920s. This was the period of the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and heightened white southern fears of the black veterans of the American Expeditionary Force. Black veterans were feared because they had seen a world less confining than that of the American South and because many, like the fictional Mann, could fight. The Rosewood Massacre also informs us that state authorities knew of the events and refused to intervene.
The story of Rosewood is more than a simple story of racial violence in one small town. It represents an era when the law's failure and white envy combined to make black life precarious. That history has been obscured, not only for the town of Rosewood but for similar communities in other states. By bringing this history to light in a popular vehicle, John Singleton has done much to enhance the public's historical education.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666
SOURCE: Flowers, Phoebe. “Shaft Cops Out Patchwork Script.” Miami Herald (16 June 2000): S32.
[In the following review, Flowers offers a negative assessment of Shaft.]
John Singleton's remake of Shaft casts Samuel L. Jackson, in all his furious glory, as John Shaft, who back in the day was a black private dick doing double duty as a sex machine to all the chicks, but now is just a really, really angry cop with unproven carnal prowess. (Lest there be any confusion, Jackson's John Shaft is not the John Shaft; he's nephew to the character Richard Roundtree made immortal in the 1971 blaxploitation classic.)
It's important to note that the original Shaft, while it has its own impenetrable place in history, wasn't particularly great, or even all that entertaining, save a few indelicate one-liners that still hold up today (Sergeant: “Where are you going?” Shaft: “To get laid; what about you?”). The new Shaft, while energized by several fine performances and occasionally powerful charisma, isn't particularly great, or all that entertaining either, and these days it's certainly not breaking any boundaries.
The film follows, in a circuitous and unpolished fashion, Shaft's attempts to bring a comically racist, extremely wealthy young WASP (Christian Bale) to justice after the boy kills a black man outside a New York nightclub. Bale, as Walter Wade, is extremely fun to watch coming off his starring role in the controversial American Psycho. Here, he's had his eyebrows thinned a little, but he's still as broadly evil as he was in Psycho, and gets to pout and sneer with similar panache.
Shaft has gotten more press lately than its makers would like for the discord that went down on the set. Jackson, it is said, hated everyone, while Singleton allegedly loved the extras he auditioned a little too much, and both the star and the director held co-screenwriter Richard Price (The Color of Money, Sea of Love) in contempt. Jackson, commenting on Price's contributions to the patchwork script, admitted that he openly “refused to say that white man's lines.” It shows: While his talent is largely beyond reproach, Jackson's apparent decision to replace the screenplay as written with many of his utterances from Pulp Fiction is not.
The use of those lines, however, makes it sharply evident how much better the movie would have been in the hands of someone like Quentin Tarantino: a puerile but wildly inventive and agile filmmaker who would thrive on this sort of explosive, ultra-campy material. Singleton, on the other hand, distinguished himself over the past decade for how poorly he has lived up to the great expectations of his debut film, the outstanding Boyz N the Hood. He followed up the over-earnest and limp Poetic Justice and Higher Learning with the woefully inaccurate Rosewood, and his flaccid Shaft, even if it is the defenseless victim of a major studio and too much script tampering, lacks the overall thrust it so desperately needs.
Several of the performances, however, do a good job of distracting from the movie's crippling impotence. Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense) is very good in the completely unnecessary role of a bartender who could be Shaft's key to sending Walter Wade to jail; as Rasaan, Shaft's frequent collaborator, the rapper Busta Rhymes gives the movie some levity.
But the real savior is Jeffrey Wright as Peoples Hernandez, a gangster who develops (with apparently little direction on the writers' parts) into a much more complex and satisfying villain than Bale's sulking Walter. Wright, who played the title role in Basquiat and won a Tony for his role in Broadway's Angels in America, is a blisteringly good actor, and through his performance the movie finally offers something more than Shaft angrily wandering around, clad in black leather, while Isaac Hayes sings a cover of his own brilliant “Theme From Shaft.” It's not easy to forgive a movie that so ungratefully wastes its potential with such a poorly structured plot, but Shaft has a few redeeming moments up its sleeve after all.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1331
SOURCE: Perry, Douglas. “He Could Dig It.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram (16 June 2000): B1, B9.
[In the following essay, Perry provides an overview of Singleton's career.]
As he stepped into the crowded room, the inevitable happened: an audible, lustful gasp.
John Singleton, arriving late, wasn't surprised. He glanced up at the sound, then raised his head high, and paused—and in that moment, as they watched a sly smile curl his lips and his penetrating black eyes survey the scenery, every female present knew exactly what he was thinking. Namely, that any one of them—forget boyfriends, crushes or even husbands—would go with him right now if he so much as crooked a finger their way.
And he wasn't even famous yet.
John Singleton wouldn't admit to it now, but the moment was unmistakable that first day of class at the University of Southern California—and finally, a dozen years after witnessing it, I know how he mastered that magnetic presence: He watched Shaft.
The 1971 MGM classic—the first major studio film to show an African-American as a swaggering, irresistible hero—was the movie of Singleton's childhood. Which might just be why the 32-year-old director is bringing the “sex machine to all the chicks,” as Isaac Hayes' famous theme song calls private eye John Shaft, back to the big screen. Singleton, who stormed Hollywood nearly 10 years ago with the realistic urban drama Boyz N the Hood, has the charisma and the looks to star in the new film himself. But he's staying behind the camera, and sometimes—only sometimes, mind you—he worries about whether he has the touch to make his updated Shaft, played by Samuel L. Jackson, the kind of role model for today's urban kids that the original was for him.
“The most challenging aspect was to try to make it hip—a really cool, contemporary film,” says Singleton from his Manhattan hotel.
Because the original Shaft, directed by pioneering black filmmaker Gordon Parks, was nothing if not cool and contemporary—and revolutionary. To begin with, it was everything a detective film should be. It had a tough, cynical private eye; a beautiful dame-in-distress who can't wait to toss her undergarments for him; trash-talking gangsters with names like Bumpy; and plenty of over-the-top violence.
“It was a quality, funky movie,” Singleton says, pointing out that Hayes won an Oscar for the score and that the film's writer, Ernest Tidyman, won a gold statuette the same year for The French Connection.
But of course what made Shaft really interesting—and unique—wasn't that it was a good PI film. It was the way Parks and Richard Roundtree, who starred in the title role, played with and against the genre's conventions.
For Roundtree, with his strutting sex appeal on full display, it was his moment (however fleeting it turned out to be). To be sure, he wasn't the first mainstream black movie star, but Sidney Poitier wasn't Shaft—couldn't be.
“While [the original] Shaft doesn't hold up these days as an action film,” Elvis Mitchell recently offered in The New York Times, “its detractors are probably too young to be aware of the elation that charged movie houses of the '70s as cheering black audiences saw a dark-skinned hero—iconic and masculine in his up-to-the-minute proto-fade haircut and collection of leathers—in total control of his destiny.”
Among the cheering moviegoers back then were Singleton and his father. The director remembers clearly his dad taking him to see Shaft when Singleton was only 3 or 4 years old. “My father looks very much like Richard Roundtree—tall, dark and really good-looking,” he says. “When we came out of the movie, he was walking 10 feet taller. He said: ‘You know, somebody saw me coming up the street and went ahead and made that movie!’”
Of course, the elation black audiences felt watching the original isn't likely to greet Singleton's new version, which opens today. “You hadn't seen a black man do what [Shaft] did on screen,” Singleton notes of the first movie. Now we have, many times over.
But if Singleton can't re-create the same excitement among black audiences, he can at least re-create the movie's signature I-feel-good style—complete with the famous Hayes theme—that seems so alien to today's rap and hip-hop stars.
It was a style that Singleton, who was born and raised in Los Angeles' depressed South Central neighborhood, needed when he was growing up. In the inner city, many kids found self-affirmation in gangs. Singleton turned to movies instead.
“Movies were my escape from the neighborhood,” he says. “I really loved them. The only thing I was interested in was making movies. I could have taken any other path. Where I lived, I had to work at being a nice kid, teach myself discipline. I tried to do well in school so I didn't end up like everybody else around me.”
He attributes much of that drive to be different to his father, a mortgage broker. “My father said: ‘If you go to jail, I ain't coming after you!’ and ‘Don't ever steal!’ I did steal toys and candy bars because I had no money to buy them—but before we had that conversation. My father was a strong black man. He wouldn't let me make the mistake a lot of people were making. Whereas [other kids] looked up to the cat on the corner who was the local hero Crip, I looked up to my father.”
His father's example led Singleton to the high school honor roll and a place at USC's film school. It was while he was at USC that he wrote Boyz N the Hood, which scored him a prominent student award and brought about a studio deal. A month after graduation, he had his own office at Columbia Pictures, with ＄6 million to make Boyz. It should have been a tremendous boost to his self-confidence. Instead, it had the opposite effect.
“My agent told me, ‘If [the daily footage] doesn't look good, they can fire you,’” he recalls. “I was nervous, but I never let on. I thought that if I could survive the streets, I could survive this. The first day, after the dailies came in, the head of production said: ‘John Singleton is a director.’”
Released in 1991, Boyz N the Hood was Singleton's semi-autobiographical story of a young black man's coming of age in a gang-infested neighborhood. The film received the kind of critical plaudits an artist is lucky to get once in his lifetime. At 24, Singleton was nominated for a Best Director Oscar—the youngest person and first African-American to win such recognition—and also received a nomination for Best Screenplay. Boyz went on to become one of the highest-grossing films ever directed by an African-American.
Singleton followed his debut with Poetic Justice, Higher Learning and Rosewood, none of which have reproduced Boyz's critical or box-office success. But Shaft seems ready to change that—not that kudos or big receipts are foremost in the filmmaker's mind. Singleton says he takes pride in not caving in to studio pressure to make the kind of films that have teenagers lining up around the block.
He still gets “flashes of where I'm from,” he says. “Like, when I want to defend my art, I turn into a street kid and fight for what I believe in. You don't get anywhere being a conformist.”
Now, with Shaft, Singleton moves from a hyper-realistic portrayal of the black urban experience to an impressionistic portrayal, through which he projects a confident, ultra-cool image for today's young audiences.
Though he says his Shaft isn't an homage, he acknowledges that Parks inspired him, and not just to be a sex machine—or at the very least a girl magnet—like John Shaft.
“He was the only cat I could look to and say: He did it. He was the first African-American to direct a studio-financed picture. He directed a great movie, Shaft. So I knew I could make movies, too.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798
SOURCE: Wilmington, Michael. Review of Baby Boy, by John Singleton. Chicago Tribune (26 June 2001): K2649.
[In the following review, Wilmington offers a positive assessment of Baby Boy, commenting that the film will act like “a smack in the face to some audiences.”]
Baby Boy is an uncensored, unvarnished portrayal of African-American life in South Central Los Angeles—the site of John Singleton's 1991 breakout hit Boyz N the Hood. His new film is so violent and full of sex, foul language and woman-trashing dialogue that some viewers will recoil. Others may damn it as another exploitative collection of negative stereotypes.
Still others, though, may applaud Singleton's daring, returning to this rough-hewn territory after making his big action hit Shaft. Singleton was 23 when he made Boyz, and once again he trains his sights on young urban Los Angeles males, trapped in a rite of passage and in a world bristling with resentment, danger and sex.
The film is certainly a shocker: The language stings and so do the body-blows and gunshots, so jarringly amplified they seem to explode near your ears. It follows the misadventures of 20-year-old Jody (MTV personality Tyrese Gibson, who got the role intended for the late Tupac Shakur), an unemployed layabout who has fathered two illegitimate children. Baby Boy shows a rough path to maturity while seeming to exploit a lot of the violence and prurience around Jody. I think Singleton is simply telling it the way he sees it—exactly as he did in Boyz N the Hood.
Jody is the “baby boy” of the title, who we first see in that womb, sucking sustenance, insensate. It's the film's prime metaphor: the young man as baby boy, stubbornly fending off maturity, indulging pure appetites.
In his waking moments, Jody is an unemployed, unwed father who still lives with his mother Juanita (A. J. Johnson) and hangs out with his gun-toting, hot-tempered chum, Sweetpea (Omar Gooding). Meanwhile, Jody's two children live with their two different mothers, sensible Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) and jealous Peanut (Tamara LeSeon Bass) while Jody simply drifts along: a manchild far from the promised land, selfish and slothful. He can't choose between Yvette and Peanut, joins Sweetpea in his gun-toting brawls and becomes intensely jealous of his mother's boyfriend, an ex-con turned garden worker named Melvin (Ving Rhames) because he's scared of being displaced.
The performances are strong—not just Rhames, but also Johnson as the vibrant Juanita and Gibson, whose pop star presence carries him through. Singleton uses Juanita and Melvin as examples of the maturity Jody won't assume and they're the best-drawn characters. More important, they carry the story's moral weight. The basic opposition is between Melvin, a hard-as-nails ex-criminal who's buried his past and embraced adulthood and Jody, a latent criminal who flees all responsibility. Rhames is brilliant as Melvin: a gentle, reasonable, guy who nevertheless always seems on the verge of explosion, especially when baited by Jody's Peter Pan.
But, just as Melvin can't get Jody to accept him or face his problems, we see those problems multiply: the return of Yvette's ex-con ex-boyfriend Rodney (smartly played by rapper Snoop Dogg), mounting arguments with Melvin and the constant issue of Jody's mistreatment of his two families.
Boyz N the Hood and Baby Boy share the South Central setting, the violence, the “absent father” theme. In both cases, Singleton is clearly arguing against the irresponsible or deadly behavior he shows: the casual sex and broken families, the drive-by shootings and hair-trigger fights. But in Baby Boy the violence and sex are so shockingly immediate, they often seem like reportage than provocations. The first film is gentler and dreamier, a young man's look at a violent milieu he has left behind. The return visit is slicker, harder. More “wised up” and, in many ways, far more disturbing. Baby Boy is shockingly violent and defiantly incorrect, but some of that violence is also funny which makes it even more affecting. The movie delivers its message that urban families should stay together but it also lets us enjoy Jody's irresponsibility, laugh at his casual brutality.
Singleton, himself an unwed father, doesn't and perhaps can't resolve all the contradictions he shows here. But like Jody, he tries. In 1991, he was a prodigious young talent, straight out of film school. In the intervening years, he has become so skilled at all the cinematic tricks, so assured and forceful, that when he uses violence, the impact is more immediate.
Baby Boy is a movie that will act like a smack in the face to some audiences, while others may laugh in recognition. Is it really an attack on the problems it shows, or a wallow in them? In a way, it's both things at the same time which is the movie's most disturbing side of all.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1169
SOURCE: Harrison, Eric. “Baby Boy is Passionate and Disturbing.” Houston Chronicle (27 June 2001): F5.
[In the following review, Harrison offers a positive assessment of Baby Boy.]
A decade after Boyz N the Hood, it's easy to forget how impressive an achievement that movie was, especially considering that its writer and director was only 23. Drawing on the circumstances of his own life, John Singleton created a new kind of movie, one that spoke directly to disaffected youths while at the same time offering mainstream America a stirring glimpse into a world rarely shown on film.
It was hardly Singleton's fault that a flood of gang-related, hip-hop-influenced movies followed. Few of them built on Singleton's work; most merely exploited the audience he discovered. Within a few years of its release it seemed Boyz had given birth to a creatively stunted genre, but one that somehow kept luring ticket buyers even when the films had nothing to say.
Singleton's new movie, Baby Boy, is the filmmaker's first return to this much-plowed ground. It is a far more mature work than Boyz, deeper and more disturbing, and it's more rewarding than most of the other gangsta-rap-influenced films we've seen the past decade.
The movie has faults—it's sometimes preachy, for one thing, and some characters undergo inexplicable changes or do foolish things for no better reason than to give Singleton something cool to shoot—but this is a bracing film, passionate, frightening, sobering and funny all at once.
MTV VJ, model and singer Tyrese Gibson plays Jody, a 20-year-old man who has fathered two children out of wedlock, spent time in prison and still lives with his mother. Gibson is impressive in this, his first film. So is everyone else, particularly Ving Rhames as Melvin, the menacing hulk who starts a relationship with Jody's mom and moves in.
A. J. Johnson plays Jody's mother, a girlish grandmom at 36.
Melvin, a hardened O.G. (original gangsta) struggling to stay on what passes in his world for the straight and narrow, is both a figure of awe and dread. He is both the (mostly) responsible grown-up Jody aspires to be and the icy killer he may yet become.
Boyz launched or solidified the careers of at least half a dozen stars, including Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett. Baby Boy may do the same for its talented and mostly unknown cast. It includes Omar Gooding (Cuba's brother) as Jody's best friend, Sweetpea, and Snoop Dogg, who plays the resentful former lover of Jody's main squeeze.
Taraji P. Henson plays Yvette, Jody's spirited girlfriend who wants to get married and have a normal home but finds that nearly impossible. The men in her life run the gamut from irresponsible Jody, whose hobby is making model cars, to the skeletal, amoral thug Snoop Dogg plays.
Jody and Yvette's volatile love affair forms the center of the story. Jody wants to settle down, but he can't get a job, and he can't leave other women alone. One scene says it all about their relationship: One minute, they're outside screaming “I hate you” at the top of their lungs. Then they're entwined in bed, moaning about love.
Some of the gangsta movies since Boyz—Belly comes to mind—made black people seem like another species. With all of the screaming and glowering and ghetto posturing going on, and the characters' disregard for the value of life, it was hard to recognize their humanity.
Baby Boy never loses sight of its characters' humanity. With few exceptions, these are complex, multilayered people who are full of contradictions. There's plenty of screaming and posturing, to be sure, but then a character that had seemed a walking stereotype will do something unexpected and moving.
Some of the contradictions are played for humor. Sweetpea, who's quick to bust a cap between somebody's eyes, is given to falling to his knees in prayer. While it's questionable whether he's fit to hold a job in the square world, he wants to.
Another impressive facet of this film is the way it vividly brings to life its time and place. It depicts a heightened reality, but when it sets a scene on Crenshaw Boulevard—the main drag in south-central Los Angeles—it feels like Crenshaw, not some generic avenue. Singleton grew up in the neighborhood, and you can tell he knows the environs.
He's shakier with some of the transformations Jody undergoes. Early in the film, Jody has a sudden revelation and sets about changing his life. The words that fall from his lips are unmotivated and don't jibe with what we've seen of him.
Also, he's shown to be in continual contention with Melvin, Rhames' character. It's understandable. He's worried Melvin will hurt his mother and even more worried that their relationship will push him out of the house. But the strapping Jody is no fool. It's highly unlikely he would ever lay a hand on the massive Melvin unless he was prepared to die.
Singleton also strains much more than is necessary to make a big statement. The movie, in fact, starts with a pretentious and frankly silly voiceover that quotes a psychologist who believes black family dysfunction derives from historical factors that have frozen black men in perpetual childhood. It accompanies a shot of Jody as a fetus surrounded by amniotic fluid.
One of Singleton's weaknesses as a writer has always been his tendency to speechify. Time and again in Baby Boy, he features characters telling the truth. It works when it's in character, but too much of it sounds like Singleton lecturing us through fictional mouthpieces. He either doesn't trust the audience or he doesn't trust his stories to get his point across.
It's too bad, because when he lets behavior define the characters, he's great.
Everyone is always telling Jody to grow up. In that way, he's like the Warren Beatty character in Shampoo, another film that commented on the times by examining a distinct Los Angeles community, with particular emphasis on one selfish and hedonistic male.
Baby Boy even has the same overall story arc. Near the end, when everything goes wrong and Jody's mistakes are dogging him, it's hard not to think of Beatty—another pretty baby boy—alone on a hilltop at the end of Shampoo watching his last chance at happiness slip away.
But Jody, as they say down on Crenshaw, ain't going out like that. He takes matters into his own hands and sets things right. It's not giving too much away to say Baby Boy ends on an up note. One of the movie's most disturbing elements is the way it doesn't dwell on the bad acts that had to be committed in order to get there.
This isn't a criticism. It is one of the ways the film is true to the culture it depicts. These are not angels. The people in the movie have all done wrong and may do wrong again. It's how they survive.
They can live with it.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811
SOURCE: Turan, Kenneth. “This Isn't Neverland.” Los Angeles Times (27 June 2001): F1.
[In the following review, Turan offers a generally positive assessment of Baby Boy, but notes that the film is “at once too neat and too messy.”]
Given the small number of major studio releases that focus on issues within the black community, let alone the specific segment Baby Boy deals with, it's easy to empathize with the sense of urgency writer-director John Singleton must have felt in making this compelling but problematic film.
Yet that same insistence seems to have influenced Singleton to be more of a polemicist than a dramatist, causing his seriocomic romantic melodrama to be wildly erratic and uneven. A story of Peter Pan in the 'hood, of a lost boy who can't or won't grow up, Baby Boy is heartfelt and personal as it attempts to deal with something real, but its increasing desperation to get everything said leads it to stumble over itself. It is a Polaroid snapshot that's finally in too much of a hurry to be fully developed.
From its opening shot of a naked, adult black man curled up in a womb with a giant umbilical cord, Baby Boy utilizes the vivid, direct imagery of a comic book (albeit a very adult one) to make its points. This image goes along with a brief voice-over about a psychological theory that posits that racism has, in effect, infantilized young American black men.
That embryonic man in the womb is Jody (singer and MTV veejay Tyrese Gibson), officially introduced eating candy and waiting outside L.A.'s Leimert Park Women's Clinic to drive his girlfriend Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) home from having an abortion.
It's not that Jody is opposed to having children. Far from it. He already has a child with Yvette, and another one with his other “baby mama” Peanut (Tamara LaSeon Bass). What he doesn't want to do is get in any way committed, let alone married, to either a woman or a job.
Just as big a kid in his own way as his tiny children, 20-year-old Jody lives at home with his mother, Juanita (A. J. Johnson), and hangs with his violence-prone best friend Sweetpea (Omar Gooding, Cuba's younger brother). “One thing I know how to do,” he boasts, “is make pretty babies,” and though the women in his life are continually and understandably exasperated with him, he sees no need for further accomplishments.
Things start to change when Juanita, only in her mid-30s herself, decides she deserves a life of her own. She takes up with Melvin (Ving Rhames at his most super-intense), a tattooed and muscular landscaper who flaunts his O.G. (original gangster) past when he tells Jody, “I seen it all and I done it all to the full.”
Soon Melvin is spending all his time at the house with Juanita, drinking up the Kool-Aid and engaging in so much passionate sex it keeps Jody up at night and makes him worry that his mother will force him to move out. Adding to his problems, Yvette's ex-boyfriend, an evil gangbanger named Rodney (rapper Snoop Dogg), is released from jail just looking for trouble.
Though Jody is no stranger to violence and has been in prison himself, Baby Boy takes pains to paint him as basically not a bad kid. Aimless, rootless, maybe even borderline amoral, yes, but more than anything someone who can't seem to help being irresolute and weak.
It's in fact one of the characteristics of Baby Boy that many of its characters are prone to making mistakes, even Melvin. Convincingly played by Rhames, up to and including a show-stopping nude shot, Melvin's darker past keeps threatening to reemerge, though the man has somewhere learned to meekly confess, “I made a mistake, I'm sorry” when he's caught in a misdeed.
All this probably makes Baby Boy sound like a more successful picture than it is. Yes, it's a relevant story, as you'd expect from the writer-director of Boyz N the Hood, but the plot points and dramatic ideas tend to be contrived and conventional, and there's a didacticism, a lack of subtlety and sophistication, in the presentation.
Baby Boy is also notable for the rawness and sexual specificity of its often raunchy language. The words feel authentic to these particular characters, but the pedestrian nature of what they're saying when they're not talking dirty is an additional hindrance to the film's success.
With a contrived ending that leaves too many questions unanswered, Baby Boy is at once too neat and too messy, but films like this are too rare to leave it at that. Ragged but ambitious, it retains a core of genuine emotion despite its agitprop leanings. Like its characters, this picture is doing the best it can, and although that may not be everything, it ought to count for something.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 635
SOURCE: Verniere, James. “Singleton's Baby Boy Doesn't Stray Far from the Hood.” Boston Herald (27 June 2001): O47.
[In the following review, Verniere offers a positive assessment of Baby Boy, though notes that the film is undeniably similar to Singleton's Boyz N the Hood.]
Boyz N the Hood becomes singular with Baby Boy, John Singleton's hot-button follow-up to his groundbreaking 1991 drama, a debut made when Singleton was a baby boy himself.
His hip-hop filled new film promises to be just as provocative as Singleton's unflinching portrait of the South Central Los Angeles war zone and its effect on African-American families. Baby Boy begins with a voice-over quoting a psychiatrist's observation that young African-American men are experiencing a kind of group arrested development.
As we watch an image of the film's grown male hero in the womb, a voice-over observes that these “baby boys” call their girlfriends “momma,” their friends “boys” and living quarters “cribs.” Jody (recording artist Tyrese Gibson), this film's New Age Peter Pan, is a handsome young man and father of two living with his attractive 36-year-old mother Juanita (A. J. Johnson) in a room decorated with images of Tupac and Tyra in the small home Juanita inherited from her mother.
Unemployed and unambitious, Jody knows something of the dangers of South Central, having lost an older brother to the streets. Jody spends much of his time shuttling between the young mothers of his two children, Yvette (Taraji P. Henson), who despite a habit of sucking her thumb has a career and a Honda Accord, and Peanut (Tamara LaSeon Bass), a spoiled, young woman who lives with her fuming, Mercedes-driving mother.
Jody enjoys practically unlimited use of Yvette's car without shouldering any of the real costs. He hangs out with his volatile best friend Sweetpea (Omar Gooding), and he thinks he's “getting over” on one and all. But everything changes once Juanita, who has been happily cultivating her own garden, falls in love with Melvin (Ving Rhames), an imposing, reformed O.G. (old gangster) with his own business, a no-nonsense attitude and a fondness for making breakfast in the nude. Melvin has survived his own perilously rocky road to adulthood. Now, he's independent, self-sufficient, proud and beholden to no one.
Jody is threatened by Melvin, a bullet-headed mountain of muscle who mocks Jody for being “young, dumb and out of control.” Once king of the hill, Jody has someone else sucking up his Kool-Aid and his mother's attention. At the same time, his “baby mamas” are rebelling, especially Yvette, who finds Jody's two-timing unworthy of her. Before long, Jody's getting around on an old bicycle while ex-con Rodney (an impressively menacing Snoop Dog) moves in with Yvette and his son.
Like Spike Lee, Singleton's spiritual mentor, Singleton treads fearlessly and often hilariously in a sociological minefield, and manhood might be the most explosive issue of all. Half the laughs I heard at the screening I attended were laughs of recognition, especially at an incredibly bitter fight between Jody and Yvette followed by a bout of hot, make-up sex.
Singleton's social commentary too often takes the form of operatic action and preachy speeches directed not so much at the characters, but at the audience. And he needs to work harder at directing his actors. While Rhames is magnificent in the tough-loving, father figure role Laurence Fishburne played in Boyz N the Hood, Singleton's younger actors sometimes flail around.
But the writer-director's sense of humor is his saving grace. When Jody walks into the kitchen after Melvin has spent the night and spies Melvin's massive buttocks as he stands naked before the kitchen stove, his reaction and the reaction of the audience are priceless. Undoubtedly, someone will complain that Singleton is inexcusably “airing dirty laundry,” but Baby Boy argues that the unexamined life is not worth living.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531
SOURCE: Sterritt, David. “Boyz Director Revisits the 'hood in Baby Boy.” Christian Science Monitor (29 June 2001): 17.
[In the following review, Sterritt offers a mixed assessment of Baby Boy, arguing that the film “breaks little new ground.”]
“He got a Oedipus complex!” exclaims a streetwise character in the middle of Baby Boy, and that sums up the plot in a sentence. Sophocles should get a screenplay credit for John Singleton's new movie—or maybe Sigmund Freud, who gave modern resonance to the ancient tale of a man who murders his father, marries his mother, and slowly realizes the horror of his life.
Things are a little less grim in Baby Boy, but not much. Set in the African-American neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, the story centers on a young man named Jody who lives with his 36-year-old mother and her new boyfriend, an ex-con who claims to have mended his ways. Jody also has two girlfriends, two infants being raised by those girlfriends, and two questionable friends—one a rambunctious companion, the other a jailbird with a dangerous streak.
The movie begins on an intellectual note, stating a psychologist's theory that years of racism and oppression have made many black men see themselves as overgrown children rather than genuine adults. This gives us a clue to Jody's way of life and kicks off the Oedipus theme that gallops through the rest of the story. Sometimes it's clumsy, as when Jody and his ex-con “father” start an intense physical rivalry, and sometimes it's more subtle, as when Jody's menacing friend becomes another jealous rival.
Singleton launched his filmmaking career with Boyz N the Hood a decade ago. It was set in the same L.A. environment, and it was razor sharp in its depiction of rough-and-tumble youths struggling to survive in a rough-and-tumble world.
Singleton has fared less well with more recent offerings like Rosewood and Higher Learning, although his commitment to making socially serious films has been commendable even when the movies themselves didn't pan out.
Baby Boy is a touch too ambitious for its own good, but it has enough assets to stay watchable even when its characters wear thin and its running time (an overlong 132 minutes) has you checking your watch. Singleton possesses a keen eye for details of life in the 'hood, and his instinct for casting is first rate. Tyrese Gibson pulls off the difficult feat of making Jody likable and aggravating at the same time. A. J. Johnson does much the same as his mother, and Taraji P. Henson and Tamara LaSeon Bass are excellent as the girlfriends.
Best of all is Ving Rhames as the two-time loser who turns out to be a more complex character than anybody recognizes—he's the one who notices the Oedipus overtones in this domestic drama—and Omar Gooding makes the most of his small role as a best friend. Also strong is rap star Snoop Dogg as Jody's younger rival.
Baby Boy breaks little new ground, and the climax is less compelling than it should be. It's always lively, though, and it reminds us how well Singleton knows the harrowing terrain he's explored in his best movies, including this one.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1767
SOURCE: Brent, Kristal. “Rocking the Cradle.” Washington Post (30 June 2001): C1.
[In the following interview, Brent and Singleton discuss the visual imagery in Baby Boy.]
When John Singleton—then a “bookworm” 21-year-old film-school student, by his own description—made Boyz N the Hood, his saga about growing up in south-central Los Angeles, he was instantly catapulted into fame and fortune. Made for ＄6 million, Boyz eventually grossed more than ＄56 million in the United States, and it garnered rave reviews. Because of it, Singleton became, in 1992, the first African American and the youngest filmmaker to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Director (plus a nod for Best Screenplay).
This week came Part 3 of what he calls his “hood trilogy” (1993's Poetic Justice, with Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur, was number two), and in it Singleton returns to a signature theme: the cycle of doom that perpetually threatens to engulf the unwed black matriarch and her children.
Baby Boy opens with the disconcerting, hallucinatory image of a grown man surrounded by blood vessels, membranes and fetal liquids. The umbilical cord still intact, he rests, at peace, inside his mother's womb. Juxtaposed is the undeniably manly voice of the character, played by Tyrese Gibson.
“There's this psychologist,” his voice-over begins. “A lady named Dr. Frances Cress Welsing. She says … the black man is a baby. A not yet fully formed being, who has not yet realized his full potential.” (Welsing, an African American, writes in her book The Isis Papers that this process happens “unconsciously” in response to the black mother's fear for her son's fate.)
Cut to an abortion clinic.
Now the same man, Jody, is assisting his grieving girlfriend into a car. This is not the first pregnancy to be terminated by the couple, and Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) and Jody are already raising a young son. Right after depositing “baby mama” number one in her apartment, Jody again takes to the streets, this time to visit baby mama number two across town.
“Baby boy's” final stop is his mother's home, to his own room (decorated with images of the late Shakur and a former Singleton flame, model Tyra Banks). Here Jody retreats into a favorite pastime: tinkering with low-rider model cars. Clearly, the film implies, it is time for Jody, 20 years old and unemployed, to grow up.
But Singleton is not a message man, he insists.
“I hate that whole thing of being this guy who always has to—like I'm sticking a message down your throat,” he says. “I'm not that guy at all. … Basically I'm here to like, you know, entertain people. And if they find something in it, then cool.”
He continues: “When I made Boyz N the Hood, I was just really cathartically writing something about the way I grew up. And it's so funny because now every time I make a film, it has to have some kind of social commentary. That was never my original intention. My goal [with Baby Boy] was to try to make a film that was kind of like a rap album: audacious, young, brash … funky.”
Singleton does acknowledge, however, that he makes “personal” films about subjects close to his heart. Economic empowerment and self-reliance, for example, is a favorite theme. (In Baby Boy, he even makes a cameo appearance as a video-selling entrepreneur.)
But the central subject matter of this, his sixth film, is dysfunction, a word Singleton uses often when discussing the movie.
“You get stuck in a mentality,” offers Omar Gooding, who plays Jody's friend Sweet Pea (Cuba Gooding Jr., who made his feature film debut in Boyz, is the actor's older brother), “and you have females who allow you to live off them.” One of them being the baby boy's own mama.
On the one hand, Singleton pokes fun at Jody's predicament. Picture muscular Gibson tearing through town on a souped-up bicycle, for example, after Yvette in her car.
But Singleton also seems intent on justifying how the baby boy came to be. “Black women are acting out of the dysfunction of a racist society that attempts to emasculate the black man,” he explains. “Black people as a whole are … fighting more than they're communicating, [while] the women have to bear the burden for the whole community. They have to take care of the children, they have to work and take care of their men. … Some women give in to the whole dysfunction of that and say, ‘Hey, you know, that's my man. I'm gonna roll with it.’”
Ving Rhames, who also stars in Baby Boy says the film “deals with what I call psychological slavery. Because I can look at way back in the day [when the] white slave master'd get the big black buck and say: ‘Look. Here's 10 slave women. I want you to sleep with them, get them all pregnant. I'll give you a chicken for every baby you produce. You don't have to father that kid. You don't have to nurture the kid.’ Jump to 2001, black men having babies, and where's the black man?”
Boyz N the Hood angered some feminist critics, who argued that the film demonized, yet again, the black matriarch. For many, it was a bitter reminder of the “Moynihan Report,” issued in 1965 by then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a document that many in the black community saw (despite Moynihan's stated intent) as blaming low-income single mothers for the chaotic state of African American families.
In Boyz, Angela Bassett's character is chastised by Laurence Fishburne's for not letting go of her baby boy. Another early prototype of the baby mama railed at her 10-year-old son: “You ain't [expletive]. You ain't gonna amount to [expletive].” And in one scene a neglected toddler wanders into the street while her mother peddles sexual favors for drugs.
Matriarchal blame is even more apparent in Baby Boy.
“In Jody's case,” explains Henson, who plays Yvette, “his brother died, so … all of [his mother's] energies went into him. He was spoiled. He didn't have to be aware of anybody else. Because that's how Miss Juanita set his life up for him.”
“These are babies having babies,” says Adrienne-Joi Johnson, who researched her part as Juanita by talking to teenage mothers. “We're dealing with what happens now that they're growing up together … and trying to raise each other actually, with no guidance.”
Henson, a native of Southeast Washington, confides that in playing Yvette she drew on her own experiences, recalling an abusive relationship that lasted eight years. “You know how sometimes you think you've gotten over something and, in actuality, what you've done is swept it under the carpet? Yvette is my hero, because she speaks up. In my situation, I wasn't able to speak my mind as she does.”
When asked if this film, like Boyz, reflects the story of his life, Singleton looks slightly put off. “No, it's not autobiographical,” he replies. “When I was 20 years old, I was at USC. Film school. You know?”
And yet there are hard-to-ignore parallels. The film is, in part, about men having children with various women. When pressed, Singleton acknowledges that he has five children by four women.
“But that has nothing to do with my being a baby boy,” he insists. “Those are two different things. [In the movie] we're talking about a 20-year-old kid who's going through a dangerous rite of passage. He doesn't have the resources that I have, both economic and mental. … I'm a 33-year-old man,” he adds. “With a job.” Laughing, he adds: “I'm not walking around the mall with no shirt on, trying to talk to 16-year-olds.”
Tosha Lewis, the mother of Singleton's oldest child, Justice, has garnered media attention in recent months with claims that the director was not present during the first three years of their daughter's life.
“That is a lie,” responds Singleton, who adds that he is seeking full custody of Justice. “You want to be real about it? This woman has been the bane of my existence because she's a scorned lover. She hasn't moved on, and it's been 10 years.”
“I'm man enough to admit that … dysfunctional relationships had to be explored,” he adds. “You know, it is more the norm than the exception that these men and women are fighting.”
Perhaps the most disturbing scene of Baby Boy is, in fact, a fight in which Yvette belittles and curses and hits Jody so persistently that the blow she finally receives in return feels inevitable. A jarring bedroom scene follows—sex as apology—accompanied by a montage of images in Yvette's mind: a fantasy wedding, an afternoon by the lake, an abortion, a funeral, prison.
What did Singleton mean to convey with such a scene?
“It's about her hopes,” says the filmmaker. “And her worst fears if she continues on in this relationship. A lot of women have told me that's the kind of thing they think about during sex.”
In 1999, Singleton pleaded no contest to charges of assault and battery filed by Lewis. He was ordered by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to undergo counseling and to make a short film against domestic violence. Nonetheless, he now calls the criminal charges “a lie, too.” He adds, “I had to plead no contest just to get it off me.”
The film Singleton was ordered to make is actually going to be about “violent women,” he says. “I'm a very passive guy, and I'm saying that there's this dangerous dysfunction that runs through all these relationships. No one would ever think that I was the one going through the abuse. So that's what my short film is going to be about.”
Although Singleton says he did not want Baby Boy to have a “neat and tidy” ending, we last see Jody and Yvette as they were in the fantasy scenes: picnicking in the park, engaged and expecting another child.
“I felt that I at least needed to give this couple some hope,” says Singleton. “At least I gave her a ring and they're probably going to get married.
“People can watch it and if they want to change their lives, they can change. Some people may look at it and are just happy to see themselves and their dysfunction on the screen.”
His fingers racing across an imaginary computer keyboard, he adds, “I wasn't thinking, ‘I'm going to make a positive statement by doing this.’ I just thought, ‘I'm going to begin with an abortion and end with her pregnant again.’ Why? Because it was inevitable.”
With that, the director bursts into laughter. “They have sex constantly,” he says. “It was inevitable.”
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