"Boyz in the Hood" main actors, Ice Cube (left), Cuba Gooding Jr. (center), and Morris Chestnut (right)

Growing up with John Singleton: Remembering his first movie that paved the way for an innovative genre of inner city films | Think Piece

5 mins read

Two weeks before turning 16, the movie “Boyz in the Hood,” released in theaters.  Across the nation, more panic set in as Black youth piled into cineplexes in the middle of a hot summer.

White folks and Black respectability politics were petrified. With summer job programs vanishing and resources siphoned from some of the most vulnerable communities, youth were restless. In Los Angeles, the crack epidemic flourished and Black gang culture started creeping outside of the inner cities of southern California and into wherever drug culture and Black folk lived.

When “Boyz in the Hood” came out, me and my friends were consumed with making sure that we saw the major motion picture before a friend could spoil the story.

Like my mom and dad, many parents feared for their children to attend the movies because of reports of gun shootings and fights at the theater. Those stories were prioritized news items on major TV stations. Although, they were few and far between, we served more as crime features on evening news.

Somehow that framed the city’s idea of what it was like to be young and Black in Los Angeles.  We knew it to be false. Thankfully, my parents saw merit in our recreational request. They allowed me, my oldest sister and some friends, to go to Hawthorne Mall’s theater.

The movie house was like a concert. It was the weekend and we had enough money for a ticket and some popcorn. The scene outside Hawthorne Mall’s theater and inside the lobby was reminiscent of the early 1900s, Chicago. This is where the term “the stroll” was birthed because moviegoers wore their best social outfit during the Midnight ramble.

Rather than ragtime dresses and fur coats, on that day to see “Boyz in the Hood,” our fashion sense were ironed and creased Levi jeans, short tennis skirts, Nikes with ankle socks donning cotton puffs at the Achilles tendon, khaki pants and tee shirts.

To date, I never saw a movie that opened me up to a cinema that could tell a story so nuanced and unapologetic. “Boyz in the Hood” gave us a language, and America, a purview into a layered, and often invisible part of the city that Ice Cube accurately penned‚ “LA ain’t all surf and sun.”

Singleton’s movie made me present in a way that was unfamiliar previously. I did not know how unnoticed I was until I saw myself, or at least a portion of my story on the screen. Of course, the female characters were problematic to me then, but I was not even aware of terms like gender-stereotypes and the male gaze.

Nevertheless, that movie, left a mark on me that affects how I represent and present Black people.

John Singleton congratulates Ice Cube for his star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Cube got his acting break starring in two of Singleton’s movies, “Boyz in the Hood,” and “Higher Learning.”

I was not alone. Singleton’s aesthetic birthed a genre of movies that paved the way for more filmmakers and a wave of actors maligned in mainstream film.

“Boyz in the Hood” surrounded the lives of three boys growing up in South Central Los Angeles. It centered, Tre, a young man sent to live with is dad, Mr. Furious Styles, after after his parents divorced. Rarely did Hollywood show a Black, father-and-son relationship that was as seriousness as it was nurturing.

As Tre and his childhood friends grew up on different paths, all came face-to-face with critical life decisions. One joined a gang. One remained stellar in school. One became a promising athlete.

When the inevitable happened—the promising athlete who was graduating from school and with a baby on the way was shot.  

I replayed another Ice Cube lyric, “Shit, the strong even die in South Central.” It was a sober reality that debunked the broken-record message we oft heard from our elders: “If you work hard then you’ll … blah blah blah.” As a teen who say more than my share of carnage and heart break, even though I lived in a stable, loving home, knew that, that line laughed at dreams deferred.

How to survive in South Central

At the time that “Boyz in the Hood,” came out, I lived just south of 120th Street in Raymond Avenue Crip neighborhood. John Singleton, the young and brash filmmaker who scripted and directed the movie, went to an elementary school about a 15-minute drive away in a section called the Bottoms. This is where Crenshaw Mafia Bloods made their home. Ironically, it is close to site of new NFL football stadium for the Rams.

During this time, at the height of a youth subculture that would intertwine into the mainstream, we mapped out our existences and lives through church and school, strawberries and narcotic deals, and, segregation and a police-state.

Most of us were children or grandchildren of southern migrants. Or, like me, a migrant herself. When my parents arrived to the West Coast still shaking the Ohio chill from their bones and scraping Deep South dirt from their soles, they quickly nestled into the Louisiana-Mississippi-Arkansas-Texas network that had been slowly taking shape since the late 1800s.

I remember the beach trips and free swim at the park pools. Playing off of one of the corridors of Vermont Avenue under warm sunny afternoons that quickly reverted to chilly nights. Most days, I rocked to the click-clack rhythm of cheap Kmart, rubber flip flops and the electronic, pre-EDM sounds of Egyptian Lover and the World Class Wrecking Crew.


As vivid as the Hollywood sign on a windy day when my father took us to our aunt’s house driving a brown station wagon on the 101 freeway, I remember Los Angeles’ happy times. Sadly, it was brief. We got there in 1977. By 1983, Black Los Angeles was under siege.

During pre-crack, we struggled, and sometimes it was almost insurmountable; however, it still wasn’t close to when crack came. He was something like a grim reaper on our migrant naiveté.

We were not prepared. When I say “we,” I mean Black Los Angeles. Nobody had seen anything like it. We did not have the words or mental capacity to craft the rapidly-forming apocalypse. Praying it away at church was pissing on fire.

Neighbors’ and family members’ parents became zombies. Friends became numbers in foster care. Our beloved Watts, South Los Angeles and Compton transformed into the war zones that many Vietnam veterans left in South Asia.

By high school, we were well trained. You didn’t go into huge crowds. You jumped and prepared to book (slang word for run) at the slightest bang or pop. You did not date a guy too far from your neighborhood or he would get jumped visiting you. You became proficient at scaling a fence. You wore tennis shoes at public events in case you had to hop a fence or jet. Most importantly, your color-coded coordination had to be on point.  This included a geospatial awareness of territories.

Between laughter and life’s milestones, we began to grieve in another way. Victims of Jim Crow white supremacy shifted to institutionalized racism. We went from police brutality and blatant removal of resources to frequent announcements of jailings, arrests, drive by shootings, and deaths—which were blamed on the youth and our hip hop street culture.

In contrast, Singleton’s movies, including the list of those that came after, and even his current TV show, “Snowfall,” showed beautiful markings in terrain prescribed to be unsightly. Like him, I saw breath-taking scenarios and actors navigating real-life plots.

Today, Singleton’s family and beloved family buries him at only 51-years-old. Similar to Nipsey Hussle, he was taken suddenly, and in the middle of his best creative years. Ironically, he passed on the 27th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. Nonetheless, the time he spent carving paths and planting seeds feeds people like me who must use media to repaint, reframe and love our existence.


Kaia Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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