John Singleton’s Boys n the Hood is possibly the most important, most thoughtful and best coming-of-age story ever put on film. It centers around the two relationships that form the life of Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.). First is his relationship with his father Furious (Lawrence Fishburn), and second is his relationship with his gang-influenced neighborhood.
In the movie’s opening scene, we see Tre around age 11 in a fight at his school, where he was very much in the right. But he had made an agreement with his mother that if he ever got into a fight, he would have to go live with his father. He was scared to go live with his father, but his mother’s decision was not a punishment for getting into a fight but the necessary action of a mother. She made the agreement with her son, because she understood his involvement in fights as evidence that he needed his father to raise him, to teach him how to be a man. And this is exactly what we see happen throughout the rest of the movie.
Through his own actions and experience, Furious teaches his son how to become a good man in difficult surroundings. He shows him how the gang mentalities that have infiltrated the neighborhood are the results of systemic racism, but he never allows anyone, especially his son, to use that as an excuse to give into the hopelessness or violence of the hood. Furious teaches that the police are to be feared and respected, both for the good they are supposed to do as well for the racial bias and brutality more often experienced in the hood than any good, recognizing that Tre could be a victim of police brutality at any time just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the perfect touches of the film is how every time police officers are present, the camera always ironically emphasizes the words on the police car that say “to protect and serve” while showing police behavior that does the opposite.
Because everything that Furious teaches his son is based on his own experience, the fact that Tre was born when Furious was 17 is the anchor of every aspect of the father-son relationship. Their talks about sex are very frank but surprisingly conservative. Tre is surrounded by teens that have become parents. He knows he would never be one of the fathers around him who abandons his child/children and their mothers, but he also knows that an unwanted pregnancy would be devastating to his dreams of getting out of the hood. Just as Furious teaches Tre an appropriate fear for the gangs and the police, he also teaches him an appropriate fear of sex. The best line in the movie is when Furious says, “any fool with a d*** can make a baby, but only a real man can be a father.” Whenever the two are together, Furious lives this and shows his son how to as well.
The other formative relationship for Tre, his relationship with the hood, is the test of how well he applies everything he learns from his father. His dismissals of the most notorious gangster in the neighborhood, Doughboy (Ice Cube), shows how well he’s trying. His genuine love and respect of his girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long) looks completely different from any of the romantic/sexual relationships in the hood. But the fact that Doughboy’s brother is Tre’s best friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut) is where the rubber meets the road for Tre. The scenes that keep us asking whether or not Tre will listen to the voice of his father when confronted by the voice of the hood when it comes to all he experiences in his friendship with Ricky are handled in way almost like a thriller. We are so invested in Tre’s wellbeing that his deliberations over life-altering decisions are some of the most intense and exciting moments the movies have ever brought us. Boyz n the Hood transcends both coming-of-age and gangster film genres by taking us directly into the life of a kid living in the hood who wants to stay separate from that same hood. Its political and racial implications are very important for the America we live in 27 years later. Its philosophical and spiritual implications are universal, confronting all viewers with the questions of how and why we make the decisions we do and what are the voices we listen to and value that inform those decisions.