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Once Upon a Time in L.A.: Revisiting the Ridiculous Fear of ‘Boyz n the Hood’

On this weekend in 1991, John Singleton’s debut film became a box-office hit. It also became a lightning rod for people looking to write off Black movies as violence-inducing. But that narrative was always more fairy tale than reality.

Columbia Pictures/Ringer illustration

The most famous line from John Singleton’s 1991 debut, Boyz n the Hood, strikes a chord because it’s so reflective of the era in which the film was released. In the final scene, a solemn Doughboy (played by rookie actor Ice Cube) offers a sobering perspective on how the world feels about places like South Los Angeles: “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.” Telling Black stories from a place of authenticity was Singleton’s mission, beginning with Boyz n the Hood, which he wrote and directed almost immediately after he graduated from the University of Southern California in 1990. Boyz n the Hood, the tale of three young men trying to survive South L.A., melded gutting realism with coming-of-age earnestness. It was instantly hailed as a cinematic achievement, praised for being brilliant, pioneering, and essential. But for a brief period of time, there were concerns over whether or not it was dangerous.

After impressing audiences at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival and drawing critical acclaim ahead of its release, Boyz n the Hood opened in 829 theaters on July 12, 1991, raking in over $10 million during its first weekend. Unfortunately, violence broke out in theaters showing Boyz n the Hood across the nation and threatened to overshadow its otherwise successful opening. Two people were killed and more than 30 were injured in incidents that took place in 12 states. Some theaters canceled screenings; others took additional precautions, including installing metal detectors and employing extra security. Columbia Pictures elected not to remove the film from distribution, instead offering to pay for extra security should any theater request it. In a truly insulting moment, Singleton was forced to defend Boyz n the Hood against allegations that the film should be held accountable. “I didn’t create the conditions under which people shoot each other,” Singleton said during an ensuing press conference. “This happens because there’s a whole generation of people who are disenfranchised.” (Singleton reportedly called the focus on the violence “artistic racism.”) And what makes the claim so ridiculous is that Boyz n the Hood, with its “Increase the peace” tagline, is decidedly anti-violent.

Boyz n the Hood follows the bright Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), his friend and prodigious athlete Ricky (Morris Chestnut), and Ricky’s half-brother, Doughboy—a knucklehead who’s done bad things, but isn’t bad at his core. As they navigate their surroundings, the film delivers overt messages about the indispensability of positive role models, the threat of gentrification, and valuing life despite growing up in an environment where the slightest disrespect can sign your death certificate. By going wide and examining the societal factors that created these circumstances, Boyz n the Hood highlights why incidents like stabbings, shootings, and fights at movie theaters occur. “I think, from a sociological standpoint, he really illustrated what kinds of conditions lead to those kinds of actions,” Stephanie Allain, a producer who was an executive at Columbia Pictures at the time, says of Singleton. But because the film depicted gang culture (if only to dissuade), it was accused of glorifying violence and attracting gangs.

“The movie was about gangs,” Roger Hom, then a deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, told the Associated Press about the theater violence in 1991. “With the incidents occurring elsewhere, you can draw your own conclusions.” No one has to think too hard to draw their own conclusions about what a statement like that means: that certain films—Black films, specifically—cause violence because they depict it. Roger Ebert, who gave Boyz n the Hood four stars, defended the film with the reminder that gangs are not its central focus: “It would be tragic if this statement about gang violence was suppressed in any way.” But this was a different time: an era before hip-hop was recognized as the popular music, rappers like Ice Cube were mainstream figures, and Black cinema as we now know it had caught on with the masses.

By 1991, Singleton, along with the likes of Spike Lee and Reginald and Warrington Hudlin, was at the forefront of an emerging class of Black filmmakers. The week Boyz n the Hood opened, Singleton’s newfound success was the lead of a New York Times Magazine story about the rise of Black filmmakers titled “They’ve Gotta Have Us.” Despite Hollywood’s interest in Black stories, the desire to be entertained by Black people (or to profit from that entertainment) doesn’t equate to appreciating or respecting them. And despite the commendation Boyz n the Hood received, the concern over its supposed “dangerous” qualities reflects a culture of fear steeped in racism.

A moment that should’ve been a victory lap for Allain and Columbia Pictures soured quickly. Allain was on a retreat in Santa Barbara, California, along with fellow Columbia executives including Frank Price, Peter Guber, Jon Peters, and Amy Pascal when Boyz n the Hood hit theaters. Spirits were high, especially since it was Allain who got hold of Singleton’s script after meeting him roughly a year prior. “We were all at some fancy hotel, we’d had some retreats that day, we were getting the numbers, they were really good, and everybody was happy,” Allain says. “In fact, we did a little caravan where we drove out to some movie theaters in areas of Santa Barbara. They were packed. And we’re like, ‘Oh my God, it worked, it worked, it worked!’” But the mood changed dramatically by the day’s end.

“That night, just as I was kind of dozing off to sleep, Amy called me from her room and said, ‘People are hurt, people are dying,’” Allain remembers. “And … I literally went into shock. I was just so upset. And because the entire time, and even during the whole campaign, we just kept reiterating that the reason the movie was made was to increase the peace. The reason the movie was made was because we wanted to make a statement about kids in these situations and, through Tre’s journey, making the right choice.”

Allain was reassured this wasn’t her fault (“I was told, ‘You did everything you could,’” she recalls), but the scenario forced Columbia to consider not showing Boyz n the Hood in certain theaters. “There was a lot of talk about holding theaters that were in urban areas,” Allain says. “Because there was fear out there already.” Columbia stood behind Boyz n the Hood, leaving the decision to pull it in the hands of individual theaters. Capitulating to the negative press, even as a preventative measure, would’ve validated the notion that a film that featured violence only to underscore why it occurred was actually responsible for it.

There’s not much violence in Boyz n the Hood, and most of it is connected. A calm night ends in gunfire following a confrontation between Ricky, Doughboy (who was protecting his brother), and a group of rivals. This turns tragic when, in the film’s most harrowing scene, Ricky is murdered by the adversaries just before learning that he’d met the academic requirements for a football scholarship to USC. Doughboy avenges his brother despite understanding that he can also (and ultimately does) fall victim to this cycle of violence. It all illustrates how small altercations can turn fatal; the devastation of extinguished potential; and how the lessons Tre’s father, Furious (Laurence Fishburne), taught him ultimately saved the son’s life. Removing Boyz n the Hood from theaters would’ve only substantiated the belief that Black films and Black people are violent. And that conversation was already occurring when Boyz n the Hood was released.

Lee commanded the world’s attention in 1989 with Do the Right Thing, which chronicled racial animus in a Brooklyn neighborhood where tension increased with the summer’s heat over the course of one day. It finally erupted in a climactic moment of violence, as Mookie (played by Lee) hurled a trash can through the window of his employer, Sal’s Pizzeria, after NYPD officers choked Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) to death and whisked his body away in a police car. Do the Right Thing was applauded for its bold analysis of racial dynamics, but some critics believed it would cause riots. Writing for New York Magazine, David Denby claimed that Lee engineered “the dramatic structure that primes Black people to cheer the explosion as an act of revenge.” Denby added that “if some audiences go wild, he’s partly responsible.” The same New York issue included a piece from Joe Klein, who alleged the film’s climax could ruin Lee’s career “if Black kids act on what they see.” All of this, of course, was incorrect: The only violence associated with Do the Right Thing took place on screen. However, another Black film that opened to violence two years later was taken to task for circumstances beyond its control.

Four months prior to Boyz n the Hood’s release, the opening of Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City was marred by violence at theaters nationwide that resulted in one death and several arrests. The film, which explores the crack epidemic in New York City, depicts drug dealing and violence for the purpose of admonishing it. Regardless, many critics blamed New Jack City for what transpired off screen. “I think we’ve finally reached the point where screen violence is so graphic and extreme that spontaneous imitations like these are inevitable,” Mark Crispin Miller, a media studies professor at Johns Hopkins University at the time, told The New York Times. In a piece written for Entertainment Weekly, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. acknowledged an astute observation made by New Jack City’s charming-but-ruthless archvillain, Nino Brown: “Ain’t no Uzis made in Harlem.” Focusing on what’s portrayed in a film like New Jack City and linking that to tangentially related violence ignores a condition in favor of a symptom. “Those who are worried about violent crime should learn to aim their sights a little higher,” Gates wrote after noting “don’t shoot the filmmaker—he’s just the messenger.”

The shortsighted reactions to films such as Do the Right Thing, New Jack City, and Boyz n the Hood are a way of infantilizing Black audiences. They suggest Black people are easily influenced and inherently violent. Dr. Todd Boyd, a professor who studies the intersection of race and popular culture at USC, says the stereotypical fear that Black people won’t be able to separate on-screen action from real life is part of the history of cinema. He highlights footage of the boxer Jack Johnson’s fights as early and controversial examples of film. “Once Jack Johnson became victorious, police went into the ring to stop the filming so that audiences wouldn’t be able to see him knocking out his white opponent,” Boyd says. “And later, there were bills being debated in Congress that would ban fight films because the thinking was, if other Black people saw a Black man beat a white man, then it would encourage them that they, too, were on the white man’s level.” Boyd adds that this was a harbinger of what would unfold through the years. “This idea that Black people are like children and if they see something or they hear something, they might not be able to contain themselves,” he says. “And so I think underlying a lot of the thinking back then around Boyz n the Hood was this same idea that a lot of people who perhaps didn’t even bother to watch the film and just heard ‘Boyz n the Hood,’ heard what it was about, and tried to put two and five together and get four.”

Black films, especially during this period, were more likely to face scrutiny for the violence they depicted or what might be associated with them. If what took place during Boyz n the Hood’s opening weekend happened when Terminator 2: Judgement Day was released the previous week, or during screenings of Point Break, which opened the same day, it’s highly unlikely they’d be considered a threat to public safety. One person was killed and three others injured during an opening day screening of The Godfather Part lll in Long Island, New York, on Christmas Day 1990. To little surprise, the reaction to the incident wasn’t the same for the final installment of arguably the most lauded film series in the history of American cinema. There was violence during showings of 1979’s The Warriors, a look at gangs in New York City. Thirteen young men were arrested and a fatal shooting took place outside separate showings of 1988’s Colors, a study of South Los Angeles gangs told through the eyes of two white cops, but neither film was characterized as a safety hazard in the same way. Black films, like Black people, are held to a different standard.

“I think if there’s a shooting at a white movie, people are going to just dismiss it as a coincidence,” Boyd says. “They’re not going to read anything into it beyond a shooting at a movie. ‘Oh, this happened at the movie. It’s a coincidence.’ They’re not going to read it as a Black phenomena or some larger, broader social issue. But with a Black film at that time, especially, everything about it is potentially controversial.” Boyd also rightfully points out that violence in film didn’t begin in the ’90s. “Did John Wayne movies attract violent crowds? They were especially violent. The Western as a genre was inherently violent, did anybody talk about that when [Sam] Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch? There’s a lot of violent films, I mean Arnold Schwarzenegger’s whole career is tied to violence. Sylvester Stallone—these are two of the biggest movie stars from that era, did people say that about their films? Violence is a very integral part of American culture. People walk around strapped; they proclaim their Second Amendment rights. I don’t know how to talk about America without talking about violence—it’s not just in film.”

An October 1991 Ebony story about the violence at movie theaters parsed the incidents connected to Boyz n the Hood and New Jack City, including the assertion that Boyz n the Hood’s marketing attracted gang members. (It was a well-intentioned effort, even though the article’s title references the “Black-on-Black crime” myth that ignores the realities of intra-racial violence in the U.S.: Americans are overwhelmingly murdered by members of the same race.) Allain remembers she and Singleton were alarmed by the first trailer because it didn’t exactly represent the movie they made. “It definitely looked like it was a gang movie in the marketing,” she recalls. “And I remember that both John and I were very uncomfortable with that. We were like ‘Guys, it’s not that’—especially given the fact that we realized that, you know, it could be some shit started at the theaters. But they were like, ‘Look, the job is to get butts in the seats. Then when they see the movie, they’ll realize it’s a coming-of-age story.’ I remember even the poster was like ‘It ain’t no fairy tale.’ I was like, ‘Oh no, that’s not what we were trying to do!’” According to Allain, this is why she and Singleton made sure “Increase the peace” was the film’s parting thought: “We really wanted to make sure that people knew the filmmakers were of a different mind.”

Initial trailers may not have included less-thrilling moments like a young Tre going fishing with Furious or an older Tre trying to persuade his girlfriend, Brandi (Nia Long), to have sex with him, but that still doesn’t mean Boyz n the Hood was positioned to draw gangs. “It’d be one thing, I guess, if they came out and said, ‘Bloods and Crips get a 15 percent discount on tickets,’” Boyd says. “Then you could maybe say the movie was marketed to gang members. But the subject matter would attract anybody. If you were a Black person at this time, here’s a Black film from a Black filmmaker that’s quite timely.” At the same time, it’s set in L.A., so people from the city are going to see locations and circumstances they recognize.

A large share of the hand-wringing and apprehension around Boyz n the Hood is because, like Do the Right Thing, it marked new cinematic territory. “What both of those films remind us is that in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Black film was still a relatively radical concept,” Boyd says. “The idea that by this time, film-school-educated Black filmmakers would be able to make movies like Do the Right Thing and Boyz n the Hood in this moment: during the crack cocaine epidemic, other iterations of ‘law and order,’ and what was going on in society. These movies were a fairly new phenomenon.” Lee made his debut in 1986 with She’s Gotta Have It, and prior to that, most of the Blaxploitation films of the ’70s weren’t written, directed, and produced by Black creators.

The rise of Black filmmakers during the early 1990s took place against the backdrop of a world that hadn’t caught up with what was happening in Hollywood. Boyz n the Hood was released in the middle of George Bush’s presidency and between the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 and the 1994 crime bill. Society was focused on gangs, and the crime rate, particularly for violent crime, was high. Boyz n the Hood was the work of a 23-year-old Black man that starred an outspoken rapper who, just a few years prior, was targeted by the FBI. It embraced hip-hop, as did its director, and gang culture was part of its narrative. Despite its very clear message, it was an affront to the sensibilities of anyone unable or unwilling to go beneath the surface. “Hip-hop is no longer controversial, but in ’91, it was,” Boyd says. “And so you take hip-hop, you take gang culture, you take racism, and you have young, energetic Black filmmakers framing issues from their perspective. It’s a lot, I think, for some narrow-minded people to deal with. So I think, yes, there was definitely a lot of fear—uninformed fear, but fear nonetheless.”

Boyd remembers one bizarre claim that Singleton and Lee’s films were to blame for one of the more famous uprisings in American history. “I remember Mickey Rourke saying that John Singleton and Spike Lee were responsible for the [Los Angeles] riots,” he says. “And I guess I’ve never forgotten that, because that’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard in my life, but he said it with a straight face. So you just have to look at how new all of this was at the time. And people were, in some cases, struggling to make sense of it.”

In March 1991, an unarmed Rodney King was savagely beaten by LAPD officers as they arrested him. George Holliday filmed the act of police brutality, which was soon broadcast worldwide. In April 1992, the Los Angeles riots exploded hours after a jury failed to convict the officers despite evidence clearly showing their extreme overreaction. This past May, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis when a police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Video footage of Floyd’s death, captured by Darnella Frazier, went viral and sparked worldwide protests. Films like Boyz n the Hood don’t cause civil disruption, but live footage showing law enforcement using excessive—sometimes lethal—force against Black people does.

Since Floyd’s death, there’s been an active, and sometimes disingenuous, interest in Black people, Black culture, and the Black experience. “I can’t tell you how many interviews I’ve done over the last month specifically about, ‘Can you give us some films that people could watch to learn more about the African American experience?’” Boyd says. “I’ve answered those questions more times than I can count in the last month. I’m like, ‘Well, you know, the movies that I want to suggest are older. And I’m kind of surprised you haven’t seen them by this point, but oh well. OK. I guess.’ And a lot of the films made during that time are still relevant now.”

Sudden interest in the Black experience should be met with the same skepticism as any content created to make it easily digestible, but Boyz n the Hood, like Do the Right Thing, is a film that’s always relevant. It shows the obstacles Black people had to traverse while growing up in places like South L.A., including threats on the both sides of the law. Tre has a future, but where he grew up removes any guarantee that he’ll be able to experience it. The totally innocent Ricky had a future too. Boyz n the Hood squarely confronts that harsh reality. “If you’re going to be authentic, you have to deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Boyd says. “And that’s what I think Boyz n the Hood tries to do.”

Although Boyz n the Hood understands its world far too well to indict it, certain moments drew disfavor for heavy-handed moralizing despite the sweeping approval. “I remember that even after the movie came out, even after it made so much money, people were like, ‘That movie was so after-school special,’” Allain says. “There was all this talk about when [Tre] gets out of the car. I remember at some screenings people would boo when he gets out because kids have misconceptions about what courage is.” Tre made the right decision, and it was imperative that Singleton, who died of a stroke last year, communicate that because Boyz n the Hood was personal to him. Anything Singleton touched had to be honest, and though someone as self-assured as he was didn’t need the affirmation, the world agreed he had something worth saying: Boyz n the Hood grossed over $57 million worldwide. The Academy doesn’t validate anything, certainly not Black art, but Singleton earned two Oscar nominations in 1992: one for his screenplay and the other for Best Director. He’s still the youngest, and first Black director, to be nominated for the latter. Ten years later, Boyz n the Hood was added to the National Film Registry.

The violence that broke out when Boyz n the Hood was released into a world in need of its perspective is a minor footnote in the film’s legacy, but the reactions to it illustrate a resistance to change and a fear of the unfamiliar. Alas, racism isn’t based on logic. Someone had to explain what was happening in South L.A. at the beginning of the ’90s; John Singleton did it with aplomb. “Art doesn’t cause these ills,” Allain says, “it reflects them.” And that ain’t a fairy tale, it’s simply the truth.

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.

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