Our domestic apartheid

Glenn McNatt

July 17, 1991|By Glenn McNatt

AFTER A rash of violent incidents at theaters around the country marred last Friday's opening of the film "Boyz N The Hood," Columbia Pictures issued a statement defending writer-director John Singleton's work as "a powerful motion picture about one of our nation's most pressing social problems."

For once, Hollywood wasn't indulging in typical public relations hyperbole.

"Boyz N The Hood" opens with the sounds of a gang-killing and the superimposed statement that one in 27 African American males will become a victim of a homicide. It then proceeds to document in minutely observed detail the tragic social etiology of that shocking statistic.

Set in South Central Los Angeles, "Boyz N The Hood" is a black coming-of-age movie photographed in the verismo style of Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" films and set to the impatient, angry rhythms of urban rap music. The story line follows the rites of passage toward adulthood among a group of friends whom circumstance and individual inclination cause to pursue radically different paths.

What makes the film different from so many others of the genre is its insistence that, even amid the most debased environment, character is destiny. The film presents a panoply of vivid black characters who are recognizably real yet never slip over into being mere caricatures of social types.

In its statement, Columbia Pictures correctly points out that it isn't the movie that caused the violence. "Random violence exists not only in Los Angeles but all over the country. It predated the opening of "Boyz N The Hood' and sadly it almost certainly will continue well into the future," the statement said.

The reason it will continue, the statement went on to say, is because "this violence is a phenomenon caused by anger and hopelessness and fueled by an incredible abundance of readily available firearms."

Right on.

At their best, movies offer up a mirror to reality, and what is reflected in them is not always pretty even though it may be true.

The unpretty truth that lies at the heart of "Boyz N The Hood" is that nearly a quarter of a century after the high tide of the civil rights movement, the children of the generation that marched in Selma and Chicago still find themselves trapped in the poverty and despair of the inner-city ghettos, with few ways out.

No wonder they are angry. And no wonder that anger so regularly finds expression through acts of seemingly random violence.

For make no mistake: It is the ghetto itself which is the fundamental act of violence perpetrated by society against these young people. They know that white America wants to keep them there because it hates and fears them. They know that the inner cities are our domestic apartheid.

When they lash out against the structures that systematically deprive them of self-respect, of decent educations, decent jobs and all the opportunities which white Americans take for granted, the objects of their rage and frustration tragically are almost always other young people like themselves.

These are difficult ideas to get across in a movie. Yet "Boyz N The Hood" somehow manages to succeed on this deeper level of social commentary without sacrificing the dramatic requirements of character, plot and action.

Unlike the recent movies of black director Spike Lee, for &L example, which only pretend to address social issues, "Boyz N The Hood" is not peopled by stereotypical, stick figure stand-ins for social types. Nor are its secondary themes -- drug abuse, teen pregnancy and AIDS -- mere rhetorical devices to be abandoned in the media without explanation or resolution.

There is never any doubt that the characters in "Boyz N The Hood" are real people, and that their joys and suffering are also real. It seems to me this in itself represents a major, long overdue advance in Hollywood's portrayal of the African American personality.

Perhaps with this film, the industry may actually be embarking on a new era in which black urban reality can be portrayed in a way that doesn't simply reinforce the pervasive negative stereotypes that so far have largely dominated Hollywood's view of ghetto life.

But even if white America ultimately harkens to this new vision, it will mean nothing unless the nation can then summon up the moral courage and commitment to tackle the root cause of the problem films like "Boyz N The Hood" describe. The violence will never end until the ghetto's walls are torn down. But the walls won't be torn down until America decides that it no longer needs to practice our domestic apartheid.

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