How to Survive in South Central

South Los Angeles – or South Central, as it used to be known: Where even today the overall crime rate is 23% higher than the national average,*  while at the same time average school test scores are 36% lower, over 40% of all kids don’t even complete high school; and the income per capita is 51% lower than the national average, the median household income is 40% lower, and  the unemployment rate is 39% higher than the national average.  Where decades after the Bloods and the Crips  turned city streets into a blood-soaked battlefield (and although the neighborhhood’s violent crime statistics had seen a considerable decline in recent years), as of September 2015, 80% of the area’s homicides were again related to gang violence, with a lack of employment opportunities constituting a significant  contributing factor, making for a 31% increase of people shot in the LAPD’s 77th Street Division alone the first half of 2015, and a city-wide 26% increase of shootings as well as a city-wide 18% increase of overall gang-related crimes.

South Central L.A.: Where “I’ll have my brother shoot you” isn’t just an empty threat, and guns are passed from one sibling to another when an older brother goes away to “do time.” Where owning a gun is a means of self-protection even for those who have always stayed clear of gangs. Where “where ya’ from?” is an inquiry about gang membership, not geographic origin, and wearing the wrong colors can cause you to be “hit up;” resulting in violence, and more violence by way of retaliation. Where kids learn early that a bullet doesn’t come with a name attached; and those who know the killer generally stay mum, either fearing reprisal or preferring to take care of their own, rather than leave justice to a police and a court system they’ve learned to mistrust equally early. And where crimes like burglary for the longest time only merited police attention if something actually was stolen, and were quickly sidelined upon the officers’ summons to another murder scene.

South Los Angeles
Map of South Los Angeles (source: Los Angeles Times)

South Central L.A. is the home of Tré Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his friends, Darren (aka “Doughboy”) and Ricky Baker (Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut). We first meet them at age ten, when Tré’s mother (Angela Bassett) sends him to live with his father Jason, a/k/a “Furious” (Laurence Fishburne), who seems better equipped to raise a son in a neighborhood like this. When we see them again they’re seventeen, Tré and Ricky about to graduate from high school, while Doughboy has already graduated – from shoplifting to guns and small-time drug deals. And while Furious guides Tré towards moral choices, responsibility and (self-)respect, Doughboy and Ricky are raised by a mother (Tyra Ferrell) who lacks the wherewithal to steer them out of the ghetto. Yet, Ricky in particular is naively, fiercely resolved to make it out of there; with a football scholarship (provided his SAT scores are high enough) or if that fails, by joining the army. And in a poignant, spot-on conclusion it is ultimately Ricky who forces Tré and Doughboy to choose their own paths in life, to either be drawn into the ghetto’s spiral of violence, or conquer their inner demons and extricate themselves from that vicious circle.

Upon this movie’s 1991 release, several Los Angeles cinemas either refused to show it at all or hired extra security guards: That big, in a city that had recently seen the Rodney King beating, was about to be rocked by the Christopher Commission’s scathing indictment of its police department, and was gearing up to the riots that would ravage its inner city the following spring, were fears of the reaction to John Singleton’s partly autobiographical film. Yet, while Boyz N the Hood paints a starkly accurate picture of inner city life’s daily realities, it in no way encourages violence – much to the contrary. That it is told from a profoundly “black” perspective is a given; and with that come charges that those of us with a more fortunate childhood often dismiss as the “chip” on many black people’s shoulders (e.g. the notion that drugs, liquor and guns in the ghetto are tacitly encouraged by society’s white-dominated ruling circles to keep inner-city minorities subdued). But while neither such charges nor their typically “white” response are the be-all and end-all of the problem, there is no question that drugs, alcoholism and guns are major issues in the ‘hood, as are teen pregnancies and unemployment; and Singleton intelligently weaves all of these elements into a compelling picture.

Equally well-deserved as the praise for Singleton, who garnered “best director” and “best screenplay” Oscar nominations and several other distinctions, are the kudos to the movie’s outstanding actors. Then-23-year-old Cuba Gooding Jr. came practically out of nowhere to give a fully accomplished, emphatic portrayal as Tré, caught between the lessons of ghetto life and those of his father. (Although this wasn’t his first movie, he had never before appeared in a remotely as prominent role.) Morris Chestnut’s naively determined football hero-to-be Ricky is similarly compelling; and Laurence Fishburne noticeably didn’t have to reach far for his “Furious” Styles: While based on Singleton’s father, the role was created specifically with him in mind. So, reportedly, was Ice Cube’s Doughboy; and he, too, is a perfect match, giving the teenage trio’s most troubled member a depth clearly informed by his own South Central boyhood (although despite his songs’ inflammatory lyrics, he himself stayed clear of gangs). Angela Bassett finally is the perfect foil for the movie’s male characters, exemplifying a woman who through hard work gets as far out of the ghetto as conceivable and unlike her ex-husband doesn’t avoid the moneyed upper-crust, but doesn’t forget her origins, either, and is still perfectly capable of talking tough when challenged.

The movie’s last words are Ice Cube’s, both spoken as Doughboy and rapped in How to Survive in South Central, underlying the closing credits. “Either they don’t know, don’t show or don’t care what’s going on [here],” Doughboy comments on a TV program about exotic faraway places he’s seen shortly after experiencing the kind of violence that he knows will haunt him forever. And in his rap song, sarcastically premised on a guided tour to the “concrete Vietnam” South Central L.A. (“Have you witnessed a drive-by? Okay, make sure you have your camcorder ready!”), Ice Cube warns: “Rule number one: get yourself a gun … ’cause jackers … love to start shit. Now, if you’re white you can trust the police; but if you’re black they ain’t nothin but beasts. … So don’t take your life for granted, ’cause it’s the craziest place on the planet … This is Los Angeles.”

Boyz N the Hood was released 25 years ago. It is as topical as ever.

*And if you think today’s figures are bad, let me just mention that just over a decade ago, murder rates were five times the nationwide average, or in absolute figures, double the entire U.S.’s death rate for breast cancer (L.A. Times, January 1, 2004.)  At the time, over the period of the preceding 15 years the LAPD had accumulated a staggering backlog of 4,400 unsolved homicides: roughly 3/4 of the city’s total. – In the early 1990s, when this movie was released, the murder rate was triple that of the more recent past.



Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia Pictures (1991)
  • Director: John Singleton
  • Producer: Steve Nicolaides
  • Screenplay: John Singleton
  • Music: Stanley Clarke
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Charles Mills
  • Cuba Gooding Jr.: Tré Styles
  • Ice Cube: Doughboy / Darren
  • Morris Chestnut: Ricky Baker
  • Laurence Fishburne: Furious Styles
  • Angela Bassett: Reva Styles
  • Tyra Ferrell: Mrs. Baker
  • Nia Long: Brandi
  • Regi Green: Chris
  • Dedrick D. Gobert: Dooky
  • Tammy Hanson: Rosa
  • Darneicea Corley: Keisha
  • Na’Blonka Durden: Trina
  • Susan Falcon: Mrs. Olaf
  • Jessie Lawrence Ferguson: Officer Coffey
  • John Cothran: Lewis Crump


Major Awards and Honors

American Political Film Society Awards (1992)
  • Peace Award
NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Image Awards (USA) (1993)
  • Outstanding Motion Picture
National Board of Review Awards (1991)
  • Top 10 Films of 1991 – No. 7
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1991)
  • New Generation Award: John Singleton
New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1991)
  • Best New Director: John Singleton
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards (1992)
  • Most Promising Actor: Ice Cube
Young Artist Awards (1992)
  • Outstanding Young Ensemble Cast in a Motion Picture: Desi Arnez Hines, Baha Jackson and Donovan McCrary
MTV Movie Awards (1992)
  • Best New Filmmaker: John Singleton
BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) Film & TV Awards (USA) (1992)
  • BMI Film Music Award: Stanley Clarke




The “inofficial” soundtrack of Boyz N the Hood


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