In the original trailer for John Singleton's 1991 film Boyz N The Hood, violent images play over a thudding drum track, as voice over introduces viewers to the hard heart of South Central Los Angeles. "This is Los Angeles, gang capital of the nation." Then, "In South Central L.A., it's tough to beat the streets."
Even before the strain between police and the black community became symbolized by the videotaped beating of Rodney King at the hands of LAPD officers, the city was becoming synonymous with crack cocaine and gang violence. In particular, South Central was notorious for gang colors and drive-by shootings.
Into this environment, 20 years ago this month, Singleton's film exploded off the screen, challenging the tabloid stereotypes of urban life and chipping away at notions of who could and should be making movies in Hollywood.
Stephanie Allain, who worked at Columbia Pictures at the time, was one of the few female executives — and one of the few executives of color — at a major Hollywood studio. In May of 1990, Allain says, she was looking for an assistant who would read scripts for the studio.
"I heard about a kid who was still in school who was interested in the job," Allain says. "So I called him up. Little John shows up in my office and he starts telling me about the script he wrote. And he's telling me how he's gonna direct it, and he's not even out of school and he has an agent. And I'm thinking, 'Okay, this kid's not really a reader, he's a writer. Let me read the script.'"
The kid was 22-year-old John Singleton, and his script told the story of Tre, Ricky and Doughboy, three friends growing up with dreams of one day moving beyond their violent circumstances in South Central. The script focused on the relationship between Tre and his father, Furious Styles, a single parent trying to instill values in his troubled son contrary to the pressures and temptations of his environment.
"It's a story that a lot of those cats used to make in the '80s, in the suburbs, but made in the 'hood," Singleton says of the films that inspired Boyz N The Hood. "I loved the pictures, but none of those people looked like me. So me and my friends would catch the bus up to Hollywood, and we'd go see the movies, and we spent the whole time going down Vermont talking about the movie we would make. And the movie that we would make would always be something like what I did with Boyz N The Hood."
Singleton's script was written with power and immediacy. Allain says it absolutely floored her.
"It was one of those moments where I closed my door, I sat and I read it in one sitting," Allain says. "I was devastated. And I closed in and thought, 'Okay. This is what I'm here to do.'"
Singleton says he just wanted to put a young, black, male experience of Los Angeles up on the screen.
"It's like you, you're taught to have the potential to explode," he says. "You know, it's like if a person looks at you wrong, if a certain slight could turn into, like: boom!"
Nevermind that he'd never directed a feature film before: Singleton was determined to direct the script himself, despite the objections of the studio.
"He was offered like $100,000 just to walk away," Allain says. "'What would you say if we gave you $100,000?' And John was so cool. I was so proud of him. He said, 'I'd say this conversation's over.'"
When casting for the film began, Singleton focused on the lead role, Tre Styles, which eventually went to Cuba Gooding Jr., still just a kid himself, on the hustle for his next gig.
"You gotta remember this was early in my career," Gooding says. "it wasn't about reading scripts for me. It was about picking up your sides for an audition the next day. This is embarrassing to really cop to, because I'm looking back on it now, [but] I didn't know what stage direction was. I didn't know what 'EXT,' 'INT' — I didn't know that meant 'exterior,' 'interior.' I just knew my lines. I knew Tre's lines. I knew his father Furious is mad at him, and I knew that emotion. That's how I came to this story."
Singleton cast veteran Laurence Fishburne as Tre's father, and filled out the rest of the cast with what what would become a who's who of black actors: Angela Basset, Regina King, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long and, in his first role as an actor, the rapper Ice Cube.
Gooding remembers that the relative inexperience of the cast didn't keep them from sensing that something special was happening.
"None of us knew what we were involved with," Gooding says. "We just knew that we had nothing to lose to put our whole body, heart and soul in these roles, and that's exactly what we were looking to do."
Watching the film today, it's amazing to think that a first-time director was able to coax such mature performances from his cast. One thing that Singleton says helped: he took directing lessons from Francis Ford Coppola, by way of Fishburne, who had worked with Coppola on Apocalypse Now.
"This is before we even started. I said, 'Tell me everything you did that Francis taught you as an actor,'" Singleton says. "And we sat in my little apartment and everything, he'd say they'd read the script and he'd do improvisation that had to do with the characters and nothing to do with the script to flesh out the characters, he says, and then we'd eat a lot of pasta and drink some wine and stuff."
The film was almost instantly recognized as an extraordinary work. Boyz N The Hood was selected for the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, and when it opened in the U.S. on July 12, it was met with both critical and financial success. It took in nearly $60 million at the box office and earned Singleton two Academy Award nominations, for best original screenplay and best director. He was the youngest director, and the first black director, ever nominated in the latter category.
In the two decades since Boyz N The Hood, Singleton has gone on to write, direct and produce films that have earned nearly half a billion dollars at the box office, including Shaft and 2 Fast 2 Furious. But Stephanie Allain says his first film is still his signature piece, and "still powerful."
What started in 1991 with a 22-year-old who just wanted to make a movie with characters who looked like him, is now, 20 years later, a powerful documentation of the pains and hopes of an entire city.