John Singleton's 'Boyz' presents gritty realism with a message

March 13, 1992|By Nancy Spiller | Nancy Spiller,Entertainment News Service


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"Boyz N the Hood," the debut theatrical feature from 23-year-old University of Southern California film school graduate John Singleton, is a powerful autobiographical work that delivers an important message in terms its target audience can understand. That means rough language and graphic depiction of the violence endemic to the very real and ugly world of Los Angeles' South Central ghetto. But not a single frame exploits, as the remarkably self-assured Singleton sheds some long overdue light on the virtually institutionalized problems of inner-city blacks.

"One out of every 21 black American males will be murdered in their lifetimes," we are told in an opening title card. It is followed by the statement: "Most will die at the hands of another black male." While we are reading, we hear black men call each other "niggers"; automatic machine gunfire is followed by sirens. Singleton next fills the screen with a red stop sign, as he sets the audience down in South Central. The film that follows is an impassioned argument for that opening plea.

This is not a gentle tale of simple good people trapped in a world of someone else's making. Singleton, who grew up in South Central, wants blacks to take responsibility for their lives and their children, to stop letting themselves be victims of one another and the white society beyond. The story begins with 10-year-old Tre Styles, a bright but angry young man whose frustrated single mother finally sends him to live with his father, Furious (Larry Fishburne). Furious, as his name implies, is angry, but in a forceful and determined way, able to rise above the violent -- and self-defeating -- outbursts that regularly erupt in his surroundings.

We next see Tre as a high school senior (Cuba Gooding Jr.), whose friends have grown up in much the way his father had predicted. Ricky (Morris Chestnut), Tre's best friend, lives across the street with his mother, half-brother brother (Ice Cube), baby son and girlfriend. Ricky looks forward to going to college on a football scholarship, but already seems to have sealed his fate by having fathered a child so young. His brother, Doughboy, drinks and plays with guns, a gangster's lifestyle.

It's tough being anything but a criminal in a neighborhood where efforts at doing homework are regularly interrupted by police helicopters and gunfire. Tre and Ricky are eventually drawn into the evil with disastrous results. Audiences are left no longer wondering why so many young people are killed each year in the urban jungle, but marveling at the fact that anyone makes it out of there alive.

John Singleton, who has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director and who is up for a Writers Guild of America screen-writing award, has said that "Star Wars" made him want to be a filmmaker. But unlike George Lucas, a master of techno-entertainment, Singleton, thankfully, has something to say.


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This compilation of alleged highlights from the Oscar telecasts of the past 20 years is best summed up by 1978 host Johnny Carson's quip that the evening is usually "two hours of sparkling entertainment spread out over a four-hour show." About half of the 110-minute tape might be considered worth watching, the rest is presented in such lackluster fashion that only hard-core fans will want to plow through in one sitting.

Produced and directed by Jeff Margolis, who has helmed the telecast the past three years, the tape lacks a narrative spice that would make the clips truly compelling. Karl Malden doesn't count. President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he is the nominal host whose avuncular interruptions give it the feel of a freebie found playing in a continuous loop in the lobby of the Academy headquarters. We get reverence where we'd prefer the punchy repartee Billy Crystal employs to keep a lumbering event moving along.

Looking back, the '70s were a far more lively, spontaneous decade for Oscar when seemingly everyone used him as a political platform. Marlon Brando sent an American Indian to refuse his award. Vanessa Redgrave was burned in effigy by "Zionist hoodlums" outside the auditorium. And once again we get to see the streaker (remember that '70s craze?) who provided David Niven opportunity for one of his most memorable bon mots -- about the man's shortcomings.

"Oscar's Greatest Moments" tends to become a celebration of a celebration of a celebration. Art is reduced to adulation and applause. Bring along your own memories of the past 20 years for the viewing and you'll enjoy it all the more.

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