In the Hood, you're quick or you're dead; sometimes you're quick and you're dead; sometimes you're just dead. And, sometimes, you get out.
The Hood -- the word is a hip-hop reduction of "neighborhood" -- is Crenshaw, in South Central L.A. A casual tour might suggest to visitors that they'd traveled back in time to the Saigon of the late '60s. Overhead the choppers hover, their lights probing the alleys and back streets; at night automatic weapons fire splits the air; nobody goes out if they don't have to; and every morning the bodies are found.
Yet John Singleton, whose powerful "Boyz N the Hood" is the most penetrating examination of the Crenshaws of America to date, isn't quite ready to surrender to despair: He also finds love and loyalty, and particularly the strength of a devoted father who can pull a son back from the craziness.
Singleton's thesis is painfully clear: The boys without the father die, the boy with the father lives. Family is destiny. Lack of family is death. So obvious, then, is the thrust of the movie that it somewhat lacks suspense. One knows what will happen, because it's inevitable, given the thesis. And that thing happens. And the movie is over.
Yet to dismiss the film on the basis of its predictability is to absolutely miss the point. Singleton creates a vibrant portrait of a culture at flash point, devouring itself, subject to its own pathologies. And he creates a vivid sense of the power of friendship as well as fatherhood.
The movie is a kind of black urban "Stand By Me," differing from the rural white work in that it has three friends standing by each other rather than four. The three are Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), a sensitive intellectual; Doughboy (the rapper Ice Cube), a hell-raiser with a good heart but a furious temper; and Ricky (Morris Chestnut), an athlete who dreams of attending the University of Southern California.
Ricky and Doughboy are half-brothers, with no father present; Tre's dad, a tough, no-nonsense savings and loan officer, is played brilliantly by Larry Fishburne, and one mark of the 23-year-old Singleton's uncanny artistic maturity is that he doesn't oversentimentalize Fishburne's Furious Styles. Furious is a grump and an autodidact and he's not afraid to raise a hand to his child. He's no idealized paragon; he has a mean streak and an attitude problem. But he's one other thing: He's there. And, there's a lot of there there.
Furious guides and bullies and sometimes torments Tre; most importantly, he gives him an image of male responsibility. And you can sense, behind the brittleness, his love.
Poor Doughboy and Ricky: They're wonderful young men, loyal, strong, sweet of heart, but, lacking that guidance, they drift. Doughboy seems the most tragic: He's the guy you'd want next to you in the foxhole on a long night in the middle of a war. But in the gun-rich and temptation-dense culture of South Central L.A., his self-destructive tendencies are given vent; you can feel him spinning toward destabilization. Ice Cube is brilliant in the role.
Ricky is probably the least well imagined; he's the only one of the three boyz n the hood who feels like a cliche, and as he struggles to make a passing grade on his SATs so that he can get his scholarship, one feels the approach, on little elephant feet, of Tragick Fate.
But "Boyz N the Hood" has the artistic strength to tell a truth on its own terms; it's a terrific movie.
'Boyz N The Hood'
Starring Larry Fishburne and Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Directed by John Singleton.
Released by Columbia.