Coming in the wake of Do the Right Thing and Hollywood Shuffle, and providing an L.A. coming-of-age counterpoint only a few months after New Jack City’s New York kingpin story, Boyz n the Hood helped change Hollywood 30 years ago. Written and directed by a 22-year-old John Singleton, the potent debut wasn’t just an insightful look at traditionally ignored or caricatured communities, but an introduction to a vast array of talented Black actors who would go on to dominate the big screen in the years to come. The ‘90s saw a short-lived boom for Black cinema as studios looked to cash in on what they saw as a fad, and even if it took decades for the reliably racist film industry to oh-so-slowly come back around, some of the interim’s most familiar faces solidified themselves in vibrant roles straight outta South Central.
Singleton’s story about a block and its residents centers on a group of childhood friends: Cuba Gooding Jr.’s straightlaced college hopeful Tre Styles, Ice Cube’s philosophizing dope dealer Doughboy and Morris Chestnut’s football prodigy/teen dad Ricky Baker (a name Taika Waititi would pay homage to in Hunt for the Wilderpeople 25 years later). Gooding Jr. and Chestnut were the first two actors that came to read during casting. That should’ve been a clear sign of a greenhorn. Doughboy, one of many characters straight out of Singleton’s life, was written for Cube. That should’ve been shoot-for-the-stars wishful thinking. What were the odds that Ices Cube and -T would prove themselves breakout actors only months apart? But Singleton had a vision, one rooted in his own experiences, that he—as a very young, Black first-time writer/director—needed to prove viable as more than just a great script. And Cube and Gooding Jr.’s audition tapes did that before production even began, winning over studio head Frank Price, who became convinced Singleton “had good taste in actors.”
No kidding. Even counting the abilities of casting director Jaki Brown (who also handled Juice, South Central, Hollywood Shuffle and—funnily enough—Jackie Brown), Singleton’s choices stand out.
Cube is captivating as Doughboy’s ex-con Confucius, rolling through punchlines, macho posturing and embedded social commentary with the ease you’d hope for but never dare to expect from a musician skilled at the same. Singleton and Cube’s relationship directly led to the latter’s place as an industry powerhouse. “He’s my mentor,” said Cube, “the one who said if you can write a record, you can write a movie.” Cube wrote and starred in Friday (with Boyz co-stars Nia Long and Regina King) the same year as he appeared in his second Singleton movie, putting him on the path to become the powerful multi-hyphenate multi-franchise Cube of today.
As his foil, Gooding Jr. is vulnerable and good-naturedly childish—a horny goober whose parents secured a good head to his shoulders and kept its fade touched up. A few years later he’d cement himself as a household name with his Oscar-winning, money-showing turn in Jerry Maguire (also with King).
Notice all that crossover? Boyz n the Hood was a hotbed of lasting talent. It offered Long, Gooding Jr. and Angela Bassett their second film roles as named characters, after the less-than-impressive Buried Alive, Sing and Critters 4, respectively. It gave Chestnut, Cube and King their film debuts. King’s first three films would all be from Singleton, but it was Boyz that allowed her to break out of early TV typecasting. “It was the film that people realized I could be more than Brenda, Mary’s daughter [on 227],” King said. “It changed my life.”
Singleton showed that same casting loyalty to Dedrick D. Gobert, who made his debut as the scene-stealing, pacifier-chomping Dooky. After coming into the audition with the prop in his mouth (“That kid walked in looking just like that!” said Singleton. “He had it in his mouth when he was talking, and I was like, ‘This guy’s gotta be in the movie!’”), the actor kicked off a fad and found himself a Singleton staple, until he was murdered in an event with eerie similarity to Boyz’s street race at just 22 years old.
Standing out from the fresh-faced majority of Boyz’ players is Laurence Fishburne. The most seasoned member of the main cast (with only Tyra Ferrell, wielding her climactic and monumental breakdown, coming close) is unstoppable as the platonic ideal of a father figure. Not only is Furious Styles in competition for the best name in all of cinema, he’s one of its best dads. Coming off one of his other dominant and underappreciated performances in Spike Lee’s School Daze, Fishburne played a mortgage broker much like Singleton’s own father, dropping soliloquies about gentrification alongside heart-to-heart ballbusting about using condoms. He’s charming and sharp, warm yet strict—a beacon of responsibility and respect that still has enough good humor to pantomime sniffing out if you’re gettin’ any. It’s a movie-making performance enhanced by the specificity of Singleton’s semi-autobiographical writing.
“Yeah, he was very politically-minded, very Black conscious,” Singleton said of his dad. “He was the only single dad on the block, so a lot of the kids looked up to him. I have to thank my father; I never had to grow up with a lot of the insecurities a lot of young black men have. He gave me a foundation that I needed.”
On the other side of that parental relationship is Bassett’s stone-cold Reva Devereaux. Outside of some very funny telephone conversations, Bassett shines in a restaurant scene opposite Fishburne. Navigating a tough conversation around coffee orders, Bassett manages to let the chemistry between the two sneak out even while bringing Furious down a few pegs. Whenever another actor in the ensemble gets a prominent scene, the movie completely shifts for them—a sign not only of stellar casting top to bottom, but of a filmmaker who cares deeply for every character he’s written. King is a hilarious vortex of thirst and eye-rolling indignation; Long is unbreakable and solid, balancing out Gooding Jr.’s raw and needy flailing.
And they all stick in your mind because of how Singleton staged his nuanced writing. These are good actors given scenes that push them, that showcase sides of them that Hollywood wasn’t giving Black actors the opportunity to lay bare. The physical intimacy between both the film’s lovers and its platonic men is still bracing: Gooding Jr.’s crying collapse into Long, clinging to her stomach, is wrenching, and the embraces he shares with Cube and Fishburne are utterly and unselfconsciously sweet. Casting is only the first step. Giving a great cast moments they weren’t going to get anywhere else sets them up for future success, where the young Black actors wouldn’t need to solely rely on the young Black director shaking things up to give them a shot.
Today, that cast counts two Oscars, half a dozen Emmys, a slew of nominations and billions of box office dollars between them. They’re major network TV stars, Marvel characters—helming their own Oscar-nominated debut features. But it’s telling that success wasn’t limited to the most visible part of Boyz’ production: For example, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Oscar-winner Peter Ramsey got his start storyboarding the movie. Sure, this could also be attributable to Singleton’s eye for talent, but it’s also worth thinking about the sheer amount of talent available to a filmmaker with newfound studio power in an industry still mired in racism. A Black cast was certain, but Singleton told his producer, Steve Nicolaides, that he also prioritized a Black crew. “I don’t care if I’m the only white person on the set,” Nicolaides replied. It wasn’t just that Singleton found so much potential, but that he went looking in the first place. As impactful as Boyz n the Hood was, those he found and subsequently highlighted with the film became embedded into the cultural mainstream thanks to that springboard.
As industry movements like #OscarsSoWhite and others encourage and illuminate the need for a diversifying shift at every level of entertainment, one can’t help but feel that the promise of the ‘90s for Black filmmakers, actors and other cinematic professionals has come back around—perhaps with a more stable, sustained and accountable foundation not solely based around jumping on a money train. With prominent stars like Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathan Majors, Wunmi Mosaku, Winston Duke, Zendaya and countless others capitalizing on both blockbusters and arthouse projects, and with filmmakers like Janicza Bravo, JD Dillard, Shaka King, Tayarisha Poe and a similarly long list of others behind the camera (including Regina King, thankfully now showing off her excellent directorial chops), the groundwork is being set for another massive wave of Black talent to take over Hollywood. Maybe in another 30 years, it won’t feel so special.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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