SOUTHAMPTON, NEW YORK. — Southampton, New York -- We saw a very good foreign film here the other night, one of those coming-of-age movies in exotic settings. The people were attractive, likable types trying to survive in a hostile environment. The language was a little hard to follow sometimes, but the customs and costumes were interesting in a kind of National Geographic way.
It was called ''Boyz N the Hood'' and it was set in a place called South-Central Los Angeles.
The film is the work of a gifted 23-year-old black man named John Singleton -- from the ''hood.'' That's ''neighborhood'' in white English.
In interviews, he calls the neighborhood where he grew up a ''police state,'' saying he does not see any difference between ,, being a prisoner of slavery or the Los Angeles Police Department. I'm not sure I agree with that. The problem in South-Central is too little policing, not too much. In that hood and hundreds of others all over the United States, there are few laws and less enforcement, and an underground economy disconnected from American prosperity. Black people are left to abuse, steal from and kill each other in such enclaves; police patrol the borders, trying to keep such young men away from the rest of us, letting drugs and blood flow in littered streets.
The film has tremendous power as a documentary, again National Geographic style, because it treats such things as ordinary and because the world John Singleton grew up in behind a facade of stucco bungalows and tan lawns is so alien to most of us. It does not look so bad, at least to New Yorkers, but to stay is to die young -- one way or another.
Are there really people like that? There sure are, but few whites really know much about them, and no white man could make this film. That says something to me about busing -- Mr. Singleton's parents saw that he was bused to white schools -- and the need for affirmative action so that more blacks will come into our country to tell their stories.
Mr. Singleton is a symbol, I think, of the brave resolve of millions of black parents determined to show their children a way out of the American enclaves. The result of that determination, black -- activism and the civil-rights laws of the 1960s and early '70s, is that more and more blacks like him are making it big. But the blacks left behind are worse off than ever, living in these foreign ,, places of crazed street warfare -- with the dangers of crack and drive-by shootings.
''What's the difference now?'' I asked my wife, who was a Los Angeles County social worker in South-Central and Watts just after the Watts riots of 1965. ''It looks almost exactly the same as it did then,'' she said. ''But it is obviously much more dangerous. I drove and walked around those neighborhoods, a 23-year-old white woman -- pregnant -- and I don't remember ever being afraid.''
What she remembers most were other pregnant women, black ones, 14 and 15 years old. They are the young mothers of teen-agers in the movie, and become grandmothers in their 30s. Three generations in just 25 years. Also, she said, the curtains were always drawn; women with children but no men at home watched television most of the day.
The look of much of Mr. Singleton's film is working-class America, but many of the mothers then, and now, did not go out to jobs. Welfare was their work. In the third generation now, welfare is still a career for the black Southern Californians whose grandfathers and grandmothers went there from the South to work during World War II -- their daughters and granddaughters are being rewarded with bigger checks for having more children.
With all that, Mr. Singleton's film is straight American Romantic. ''Boyz . . . '' is preachy sometimes -- urging black Americans to take control of their own neighborhoods and destinies -- with more than a touch of Frank Capra's old American dreaming. Hard work and listening to your parents is rewarded, and the reward is going to college -- and getting out of the hood. I think I would prefer a U.S. invasion of these enclaves, annexing them to the country or the mainstream, as if they really were foreign countries as Texas was in the 1840s.
This documentary of dreams and despair in a foreign place is the most important American movie this year. This, the good and the bad of it, is what we, the majority, have chosen not to see, the truth we prefer to see walled off by freeways and occupied by police.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.