Boyz n the Hood, Chi-Raq, and America 2016

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During the introductory scene of John Singleton’s 1991 Boyz n the Hood, ten-year-old Tre Styles (Desi Arnex Heinz II) is walking home from school with his backpack-clad classmates down a suburban sidewalk. A direct route home, of course, is not an option: they’re kids being kids, and they want to go on small adventures. One of Tre’s friends proposes that they go see a dead body—not an uncommon dare or scare tactic, at least in the movies. But unlike Stand by Me (1986), where the search evokes a coming of age story about friendship that takes a crew of young boys through forests and river banks, Tre and his crew know exactly where the corpse is—right around the block, behind a long stretch of abandoned property.

So caught up in what these youngsters are about to see, the audience may miss the governing statement of the film that follows: two jump cuts, each to the sound of bullet shots, moving in on canvassed campaign slogans strewn across a dilapidated wall. The slogans are Old Western “Wanted” posters of Ronald Reagan wearing a ten-gallon hat—part of his “Cowboy President” campaign platform in the 1980 and ’84 presidential elections. Except these ads have real-life bullet holes in them: a signal that this Western will be grimly real.

Cast under the pall of the Reagan and Bush I eras, Boyz n the Hood re-interprets the genre; a dying suburban neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles fights to survive modernized “Wild West” influences. Later in the film, seven years after Tre sees a dead body and is living with his dad, Jason Styles (Lawrence Fishburne), he’s seen as a high school senior (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Tre’s grown into a bright young man with a typical teenage capacity for knuckleheaded behavior, and his childhood friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut) has developed into a broad-shouldered running back with a sweet natured aloofness.

Whoever you are, wherever you are from, at some point you’ve had a little bit of Tre and Ricky in you. You’re seventeen, and you’re smartening up to the world, but there is still a seemingly infinite amount of time to irreverently take on immature behavior with little consequence: to tell tall tales, say stupid things, and, as Tre would put it, “cool” at late-night haunts.

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We may all be Tre and Ricky, but Tre and Ricky aren’t most of us. In Boyz, their ‘hood’s skeletal structure may be the same as most of suburban America, but many of the homes are ramshackle, the grass is dying, and the streets are saturated by gangs armed with semi-automatic weapons. Looming over Tre and Ricky’s days of “Amos and Andy” banter is a constant obsession over survival and escape. Even an extended period of levity is impossible. Tre—handsome, well-dressed, and exuding a bright future—walks across the street from a jovial party to bring his dad some barbeque on what should be a casual Saturday afternoon. But casual is a luxury in these kinds of neighborhoods. Before Tre crosses the street, a gang member pulls up by him and, unprovoked, points a double barrel shotgun at his face. As he drives off, the gang member declares “mark.” The tag is entirely arbitrary. So long as guns and anger rule the street, everyone is a mark.

Directly contradictory to its early “Cowboy Presidency” nod, Boyz n the Hood is no classic 40s Western. There is no tough but fair sheriff to protect the community; instead, a hateful black police officer roams the streets, practicing a version of “broken windows” policing every chance he gets. Tre’s dad is heroic—an immensely well-read professional who fiercely loves his son. But he’s no John Wayne, readily available with two six-shooters to protect Tre in a neighborhood where assault rifles and machine guns are passed around in cars like fast food meals.

Nor, as the notoriously self-serving NRA arguments goes, can Tre or Ricky legally own a gun for their own protection. They are under eighteen. But perhaps more importantly, they both are peaceful souls who, unlike their peers, want to exercise their right not to own a gun. As Boyz evokes a feeling of warmth for the duo, depicting Tre and Ricky in an intimate series of everyday senior-year situations, there is also a looming feeling of rage that they are utterly defenseless as law-abiding citizens and normal college-bound seniors.

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Boyz n the Hood’s re-interpretation of the “Cowboy President” ethos is complicated by the fact that Tre’s neighborhood is not an entirely unique historic phenomenon. Historically, gun-wielding cowboy gangs were regularly employed by cattle ranchers back in the mid-1800s to drive cattle to railroads to be transported and sold to beef factories; during the several hundred-mile-long drives, farms and Indian territories were trampled and cattle fevers spread. Farmers or Native American dissenters who sought to protect their land were dealt with violently.

Likewise, as Jason “Furious” Styles argues before a Compton street corner to a youth gang, semi-automatic weapons are so prevalent in the ‘hood because “they want us to kill ourselves.” The “they” Furious is referring in the film are real estate corporations, which—not unlike the railroad tycoons of the late 19th century—stand to incidentally benefit from the spoils of gun violence. And while the faces and nomenclature between these historically discrete agents of change differ, the one governing commonality remains the same: unfettered gun ownership and correlative violence play a pivotal role.

However, the “they” today runs deeper than a single business entity. “They” represents a cultural ethos of neglect perhaps best exemplified by one of President Reagan’s defining speech quotes:

We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.

That kind of paradigm serves mightily the National Rifle Association (which backed Reagan’s presidential bid in 1980) and the prison industrial complex, both which erupted during the ’80s. Taken under a binary light (as most of these statements erode into), the argument stands for the principal that one shouldn’t blame society’s lax enforcement of interstate drug and weapon trafficking, but criminals alone, and to then hold them accountable.

Boyz n the Hood painfully reminds us that this interpretation fails when innocents try to live a normal life in areas ridden with semi-automatic weapons. Near the end of the film, Doughboy (Ice Cube)—a gang leader who, at twenty-four, visibly carries enough sadness, regret, and parental neglect to fill several lifetimes—laments that “either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care” what’s going on in the ’hood. Doughboy could be referring to the “news” only, though that’s an overly simplistic interpretation. His audience does know, has been shown, and should care what Ricky and Tre have gone through.

So then what?

Over the last two decades, rather than the creation of more films addressing the emotional brutality of gun violence, there has been an industrial boom of gun violence in PG-13 films and addictive first-person shooter games, many of which celebrate the unfettered access to bazookas and machine guns used to effectuate riptides of visceral blood splatter.

At least after Boyz, and particularly during the Information Age to follow, “don’t know” and “don’t show” were no longer excuses when addressing more effective gun-control measures. However, between 2001 and 2013, there have been 406,000 deaths by firearms on US soil, with the steady increase of a few hundred a year from the 30,896 fatalities in 2006 to the 33,363 in 2013. Perhaps only a “correlative” number, the guns per capita rate in the United States is 88.8 guns available to every hundred people. Despite these harrowing numbers, the most recent Issue-Priorities Gallup Poll categorizes “gun policy” as below average importance to both parties in this year’s Presidential election. In the Internet Age, “don’t know” and “don’t show” are no longer excuses. Only “don’t care” remains.

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Just prior to Boyz n the Hood’s 25th anniversary this July, Spike Lee released a vitally important gun control feature, Chi-Raq. While Boyz pleads for gun control in America through personal narrative coupled with soulfully delivered insight, Chi-Raq boils with outrage at the surreal dystopian aspect of the lack thereof. Based on the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, Spike Lee’s exhaustive patchwork of inner-city caricatures—shirtless gangs toting six packs and armed with heaps of semi-automatics, brassy girlfriends with Amazon figures, and a cast of despicable politicians and gun-fetishizing law enforcement officials—fill the air with fulminating street poetry and fact-laced riffs, all which eerily parallel a personally disconnected social media generation immersed with snappy Twitter and blogosphere screeds.

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True to the greater body of Lee’s work, Chi-Raq isn’t much for quiet nuance or slowly nurtured, carefully connected plot or emotional development. On a cinematic level, the film risks more than a few unsatisfying moments. Not every pro and con of Lysistrata’s (Teyonah Paris) response to reckless gun violence—a “No Peace, No Pussy” campaign which sweeps over the world seemingly overnight—needs to be spelled out over recurring scenes lasting a few minutes apiece. There is also an uneven treatment of the titular character Chi-Raq’s (Nick Cannon) tortured past and his relationship with Lysistrata. And after Lysistrata’s “no peace, no pussy” militia improbably (and hysterically) takes over a military training base strictly by using their sexual wiles, the film indulges in about twenty minutes during which flagrant stereotypes of men, women, the police, and military are hastily stirred to an abrupt, sketchy conclusion.

But as Lee himself announces at the beginning of Chi-Raq, this is film is about national crisis, so you’d excuse him for erring away from a more narratively satisfying story in which Chi-Raq and Lysistrata develop a more lasting personal connection to the audience, as did Singleton through Ricky and Tre a quarter century earlier.

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Times are different, and both logical currency and lengthy personal narrative have proven to have zero value toward sufficiently increasing federal gun control measures, or at least harnessing more mature debate on the matter with peace and love in mind. If semi-automatic weapon massacres at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, an Oregon Community College writing class in 2015, the streets of Chicago on Memorial Day in 2016, or at an Orlando night club two weeks later can’t each accomplish these goals, then what will?

The same question can be asked about the harrowing rash of fatal police shootings which reached nearly 1,000 individuals in 2015. That year was the aftermath of Michael Brown’s fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, an incident which catalyzed woefully stalled legislation toward greater restrictions on police use of deadly force.

While these emergent issues continue to be put on hold, matters have become worse. Within the course of forty-eight hours, between the morning of July 5, and the evening of July 6, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile both died due to fatal police shootings that—at least preliminarily—appear to constitute unjustified use of deadly force. The very next evening, as if part of an ongoing live nightmare, the sheer madness of gun-related violence continued when, at a street protest against police violence in Dallas, Texas, a sniper shot at twelve police officers and killed five of them.

All to say, Chi-Raq’s manic cinematic mashup serves as a terrifyingly prescient statement on violence that continues to rear its ugly head. Traditionally slow, hyper-partisan political procedure is entirely ineffectual toward sufficiently ending gun-related violence. As the film cries in its opening credits, “this is an emergency,” one which requires immediate effort at every political level—for once, without anger, gross self-interest, legislative squabbling, and of course, guns.

While Chi-Raq’s messy last act is hopeful, it also finalizes itself as a louder, angrier sequel to Boyz n the Hood. Prior to the final credits, Boyz ends with an onscreen message to “Increase the Peace.” In Chi-Raq, Samuel L. Jackson yells at the audience to “Wake up!”

Here’s hoping that we will.

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Image credits: feature image, image 1, image 2, image 3, image 4.


Argun Ulgen is a film and culture writer residing in New York, NY. In addition to contributing film essays to The Rumpus, Argun is a staff writer at PopMatters.com and a contributor at Salon.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BrooklynCycles. More from this author →