Black Life On Film: Ice Cube And 25 Years Of 'Boyz N The Hood'

A quarter-century later, the movie’s lessons about loyalty and violence resonate powerfully

Doughboy: I ain't been up this early in a long time. I turned on the TV this morning, they had this shit on about... about living in a violent world. Showed all these foreign places. ... I started thinking, man, either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what's going on in the hood.

In the spring of 1991, I was 7 years old, and my family moved from one neighborhood on the east side of Columbus, Ohio, to another, slightly less dangerous neighborhood — one that, at the time, would still be considered “the hood” by those on its outskirts. Compared to where we lived before the move, there were more poor and working families, but still gunshots at night, still police sirens during the day’s long and slow hours, still worried parents at their windows, praying for their children. I was too young to understand violence as a thing that lived outside our doors, that would claim the lives and years of friends in a future that was near but still too distant to be visible. Instead, I reveled in having a backyard for the first time. I ran through the sidewalks with my older siblings, on the hunt for new friends.

On the television news, there was a grainy video of Rodney King, his body thrashing from the force of a police officer’s kicks, a baton cracking down on his ribs. I learned a new type of fear this way, through the confusion and anger of my parents and siblings, watching a man none of us knew being beaten viciously, broadcast for the world to see. It was something that some would say I shouldn’t have been watching — a plain type of evil, the type that cannot be disputed or softened. Still, I watched, in a room with my stunned family, in search of an explanation. Around that time, televised trailers were airing for a film called Boyz n the Hood. All I ever saw of it was a black screen with a slowly emerging white statistic: “One out of every twenty-one black American males will be murdered in their lifetime.” Then came gunshots. I remember my mother turning off the television.

Years later, in the bygone era of older brothers with VHS stashes and the forever-era of little brothers raiding anything that their older siblings want to keep from them, I blew into the mouth of an old VCR and pushed the Boyz n the Hood tape inside. By now I was 12, maybe 13. I had already watched Los Angeles burn, already seen boys playing basketball at the court one day, vanished the next. Once you understand violence, once its presence is constant enough, it can become something you survive until survival becomes normalcy, and fear becomes something you lie about when your friends are listening. Watching the previously forbidden film as a preteen in a basement during summer with friends didn’t allow for much critical analysis beyond the adrenaline that comes with getting away with something. But looking back on Boyz n the Hood now, having watched it at least a half-dozen times in the 25 years since its release, I think that it's less a movie about death, or about visualizing the ghetto as a living, breathing entity, as it is a movie about loyalty that spans generations. Much like the very hood I knew myself, it shows mothers and fathers doing their best to protect their children, their boys and girls rapidly becoming men and women. It shows loyalty among crews, and the lengths any of us would go to in order to keep ourselves close to our chosen family, despite their most glaring flaws. Boyz n the Hood never demanded the watcher to choose a narrative of the “good” black life vs. the “bad” black life, despite Cuba Gooding’s book- and street-smart college-dreaming Tre and Morris Chestnut’s football megastar Ricky having vastly different chosen paths and dreams than Ice Cube’s gang-affiliated Doughboy. Wanting to get out of the hood can be just as honorable as wanting to stay behind, or wanting to keep your hood with you when anyone tries to strip you of your roots, when a city tries to strip the land of its homes. With that in mind, I found Doughboy, though not painted as the most honorable figure, to be somewhat sympathetic. He was someone I knew, resigned to the machinery of what he understood at all costs.

Upon watching Boyz n the Hood for the first time and seeing Ricky murdered, I remember not being surprised. Even as a boy, I had lived long enough to understand that the person we think shouldn’t die is the one who, of course, sometimes dies. The sports star, the kind and warm convenience-store clerk, the loving single parent down the street. It was an end that I could almost see coming, even before I blew the dust from the VCR. I saw this end in the way my neighborhood basketball star, four houses down the street, was held close and watched over by his mother. I saw this end in the way the gang members who burned out on sports protected the high-school football stars, knowing that envy sometimes comes with a gun at its waist. Ricky’s death was easy to process and understand, even with the jarring scene of Doughboy carrying his bloody body into the house of his weeping mother, a scene that still rattles me to the core.

I always wanted more for Doughboy himself. Revenge, yes — of course the revenge for his brother’s death had to be a part of his destiny. Unquestioned, as if called down from the heavens. And, truly, fortunate is the death dealer who does not get a taste of their own medicine. But when the movie’s epilogue rolled out, detailing the fates of the characters, it pained me to see the words at the bottom of the screen telling us that Doughboy, too, had been murdered. I wanted Doughboy to live in the hood for 50 more years. I wanted him to protect himself, protect the hood. Perhaps help keep it alive, despite all the dying around it.

Growing up as a hip-hop fan in a landlocked state that had delusions of East Coast grandeur, liking Ice Cube was acceptable. In the early 1990s, the music coming out of the West Coast was great for a cookout or a house party, but it was largely inaccessible listening to people in Ohio. If you were truly committed, you might have put some gold Daytons on a drop-top Chevy and pulled it out on a summer morning, before the rain inevitably came in the afternoon. But the things happening in mainstream West Coast rap didn’t resonate with a bunch of kids who had never seen the ocean or felt sand between their toes.

Ice Cube, N.W.A’s most skilled MC, embraced a more East Coast–influenced sound in the early ’90s, first working with Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, then using their heavy, frantic, urgent sound as a blueprint for four albums between 1990 and 1993. Those albums played loud in the parks and spilled heavy out of cars, and I grew up endeared to Ice Cube the MC. I still count him as one of the five best rappers of all time. Versatile, political, sometimes nuanced, and a stunning writer, Cube was South Central to his core, but he felt like one of the New York rappers I admired so deeply. Even in the late ’90s, when he dove back into a West Coast sonic aesthetic, he stretched the imagination of regional rap. For an entire decade, Ice Cube matured me as a rap listener. Without his ’90s run, I wouldn’t have the ear that I do, or the willingness to take listening risks. He built a map, and I followed.

The criticism of Cube's performance in Boyz n the Hood, at least on my streets, was that it wasn’t real acting, it was just Cube playing the dude he plays behind a microphone — the same sneering and careless troublemaker from N.W.A, or the antagonizing street-smart hood from AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. Cube was, in some ways, playing the role of America’s worst nightmare, a role he was deeply familiar with living. But, of course, he was so much more.

If you play the movie Friday in a room full of black people, one of us will quote a line as the character says it onscreen. Then another of us will do the same, and perhaps another. Maybe, by the time you’re an hour in, you'll forget that there are characters on the screen at all. Every character is there with you in the room, on the couch, on the floor, laughing and slapping the wall. I find it important to always remind people that Ice Cube wrote Friday — making it a script by someone who truly knew and understood his people, the full scope of our neighborhoods and the characters within. Yes, I have known a Deebo. Yes, I have known a Felisha. Yes, I have wasted a slow and hot day on someone’s porch because there was nothing else to do. Friday, at its core, is a buddy comedy with a simple premise. But to me, it's much more. It's a masterpiece, one of the great black films of a generation.

Ice Cube grew up and got old and made the kind of movies that some of us roll our eyes at, with some gems in between. It’s funny, isn’t it? The meme of young N.W.A–era Ice Cube situated next to Ice Cube in a family comedy like 2005’s Are We There Yet? makes for a striking image, but it doesn’t quite represent what I find to be a fascinating trajectory. Ice Cube can no longer be who he was in the ’90s, but give him his due for what he has done, more than once: Ice Cube has, for years, spoken to various levels of black sanctuary with anger, humor, and emotion. I see my hood in every Barbershop film — the joy of the space, and the fear that it may no longer exist. Ice Cube’s most intense political music still echoes down an entire generation, years after it was made.

Like many of the black men who helped raise me, Ice Cube is complicated, sometimes problematic, and still often endearing. I fight internally with this, the same way I fight internally with the black spaces we all glorify: the misogyny of the barbershop, the respectability politics of the cookout. I come back to Ice Cube because he embodies this, too. The full scope of every black man I know and have grown with, including myself, is incomplete without our emotional and social failures. I cringe at the occasional Ice Cube interview, I cringe at the occasional remark from my barber, and I value both of these men for what they have given to a world that I am lucky enough to share with them, despite our failings.

And I suppose that this, too, is loyalty. That's the lesson I first learned from Boyz n the Hood, and the one I carry with me even now. I learned at the feet of Ice Cube once, and I love him forever now. The hood is not glamorous or romantic, but it is mine. It is ours, those of us who still sleep with its whispers hanging over us. And I am loyal to this. I return to where I am from and give a hug to my man who has done dirt and will do more, because we were kids once, riding our bikes through these same streets, and I love him for that. I have sat in a chair and looked through glass at a person in an orange suit and seen them as I remember them best, shooting jump shots with me on a bent rim in a dirt field — and I do this because I love them. I buy a DVD from the DVD hustler outside the corner store because his daughter held my hand the day of my mother’s funeral and I love her, and so I love him, and so I love what feeds him, and so I love his hustle.

There is a video again. A black person is dead on camera again. And I think now, after so many of these incidents, about the urgency that comes with discussing the whole and complete life. I think about the necessity of going beyond the snapshot of death and the wedging in of binary narratives. A person is a whole person when they are good sometimes but not always, and loved by someone regardless. I love the people where I’m from because they would fight to humanize me if I died violently on film. We would do this for each other, despite anything in our pasts, because no one else would do it for us. We know that we are more than only good and only bad, despite what happens to the names of the dead after they are no longer around to speak them.

There’s a scene in Boyz n the Hood, toward the end, the morning after Doughboy gets revenge on his brother’s killers. He sits down with Tre in the morning sun, a 40 oz. in his hand. In a rare moment of emotional humanity, he tells Tre that he feels alone, in the wake of his brother’s death and his mother blaming him for it. “I ain’t got no brother,” he says. “No mother either.” As Doughboy begins to walk away, Tre yells after him: “You’ve got one more brother left.”

Doughboy turns back, nods, walks away, and vanishes into the sun. Alone, but briefly loved.

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