The Making of a Classic: Boyz N the Hood
When Los Angeles native John Singleton began his studies at the University of Southern California (USC) in the fall of 1986, he was just another aspiring filmmaker with hopes of conquering Hollywood. Three and a half years later, he was represented by top agency CAA, had a three-year multipicture deal with Columbia and was about to direct his own script titled Boyz N the Hood. The conquering had commenced.
Boyz told the story of three friends growing up in South Central L.A. amid rampant drug use and gang-related violence. Other than Laurence Fishburne, the cast consisted mostly of big-screen newcomers, such as Cuba Gooding Jr., Nia Long, Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut.
The film was released on July 12, 1991, two months after premiering at Cannes, and instantly became a financial and critical success. The opening-day headlines, however, weren’t all positive. Despite the movie’s plea for peace, sporadic violence broke out in and around several theaters showing the film, resulting in one death and 33 injuries. Some theaters responded by canceling future screenings or adding extra security.
Modestly budgeted at under $6 million, the movie went on to make $56 million. Singleton was nominated for two Oscars the following year, including best director, making him the youngest person—and the first African-American—to ever receive that honor. Although he didn’t win an award, Singleton was now a key member of the “Black New Wave.”
As is often the case when a film proves to be fresh and commercially viable, a rash of similar movies followed (Menace II Society, South Central, among others), but Boyz N the Hood remains the most celebrated and significant of its kind—a fact that was cemented in 2002 when the movie was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Twenty years later, the players behind and in front of the camera share their memories of making this classic.
“Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood”
John Singleton, writer-director: I had this movie in my head even when I was in high school. The idea came from me and my friends—I used to run with a crew of three guys—growing up in South Central playing stickball and football in the street and sitting on our porches talking about the world and what we were going to do. I wrote the script in less than a month in the Waite Phillips Hall computer room at USC. While I was writing, I would laugh, cry and act out all the parts. The people sitting next to me thought I was crazy. The title was going to be either Boyz N the Hood, from the Eazy E song that Ice Cube wrote, or South Central Story.
Stephanie Allain, then-vice president of production, Columbia Pictures: I had just been promoted from reading scripts to being a creative executive at Columbia, and I was charged with replacing myself with a person of color, because, as you can imagine, I was the only one. John came in, and within an hour, I found out that he had written a script called Boyz N the Hood, he wanted to direct it, and he wouldn’t let me see it.
Singleton: I pitched the script all around town, and when everyone would ask if they could get a copy, I would say, “Nah. The only way you can read it is if you can make a deal with me to direct it.”
Allain: I went to high school in Inglewood, so I made it a point to get that script. After badgering John and his agent for weeks, it finally showed up on my desk. I closed my door and read it in one sitting. By the time I was done, I was sobbing. I realized then that I had a purpose at Columbia, and that was to get this movie made.
Frank Price, then-chairman, Columbia Pictures: Stephanie and [production executive] Amy Pascal were very enthusiastic about the script, so they asked me to read it over the weekend. I did and thought it was terrific. On Monday, I told them to set up a meeting with John.
Singleton: I could have peed in my pants when I learned that I was actually directing the movie, because I had never made a film before. Now I had to basically back up all the shit that I talked.
“It looks like you got all your friends over here”
Singleton: Fish [Fishburne] was the first person who I had ever met professionally in this business. It was on the set of Peewee’s Playhouse [Singleton was a production assistant; Fishburne starred as Cowboy Curtis]. I told him that I really looked up to him, and that I was going to write something for him someday.
Fishburne [Furious Styles]: His energy was really high when he was talking about it. I said, “Wait, how old are you, man?” He said, “I’m 19.” I was like, “OK, OK.” I gave him my agent’s information and told him to send it when he was ready. Three years later, I got a copy of Boyz.
Ice Cube [Doughboy]: I met John backstage at The Arsenio Hall Show. He was an intern. He told me that I’d be perfect for a movie he was writing. I thought he was being a bit ridiculous because I wasn’t an actor—I was just trying to be the best rapper in the world. About a year later, [Minister Louis] Farrakhan was speaking at the Bonaventure Hotel in L.A., and John came up to me and said, “Remember me? I’m a senior now at USC, and I still got this script that you’re perfect for.” It still kind of went in one ear and out the other.
Singleton: We really became solid when we met again at a Public Enemy concert in Hollywood. He gave me a ride home to campus.
Ice Cube: We ended up talking in the parking lot for so long, his ride left him.
Singleton: He played me beats from AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, which he was working on. I told him that I had finished the script and that I thought we were going to be able to make it real soon. We were two brothers from South Central rolling down the 110 freeway talking about our dreams.
Ice Cube: Months later, my manager at the time told me that somebody wanted me to be in a movie, and she gave me a script. I was really engulfed in my music, but I had seen Ice-T do New Jack City and Kid ‘n Play do House Party, so I was like, ‘OK, it’s time for us rappers to make movies now.’ I went to audition, and when I saw it was John who was the director, I was like, “Oh shit, you were serious.” But I hadn’t read the script or memorized the lines, so I kept f—ing up. It was just terrible.
Singleton: He sucked.
Ice Cube: John said, “Look, man, I want you to do the movie, so come back tomorrow, but if you don’t do good, I’m going to have to get somebody else.” That night, I read it and said to my girlfriend, Kim, who is now my wife, “This is a movie about how we grew up. Shit, I can play any of these parts.” So when I went back, I knew the flavor; I knew what he wanted.
Singleton: Morris came in first and read for [the part of] Tre. Then Cuba came in. Afterwards, I said to [casting director] Jaki Brown, “Well, it’s over. The first guy is going to be Ricky; the second one is going to be Tre. And Cube is playing Doughboy— so I’m going home.”
Morris Chestnut [Ricky Baker]: I loved football and was kind of a happy-go-lucky kid, so I just think the part of Ricky was for me.
Cuba Gooding Jr. [Tre Styles]: It was easy for me to identify with Tre; there were things in my life that mirrored the same ones he was going through in the movie. I had my own personal run-ins with certain elements when I was a break-dancer living in the streets.
Nia Long [Brandi]: When I saw the title of the script, I was like, ‘I bet this is some White guy trying to write a story about hood life.’ I lived that life, so the last thing I wanted to do was be a part of something that wasn’t authentic. John Singleton? I guess that sounds like a Black last name, but who is he?
Angela Bassett [Reva Styles]: I went down to Leimert Park where John’s office was set up, and when I saw him, he looked like he was 15. But I wanted to do the film, whether he was 15, 19 or 12; it didn’t matter.
“How to survive in South Central”
Long: The set was about 10 blocks from my house. I could have walked, except that probably wouldn’t have been the safest thing to do.
Allain: We had to loop a lot of dialogue because of the noise from the helicopters flying above or from gunshots going off.
Gooding: Every single day of shooting when there were a lot of extras, there was either a fistfight or threats. It could have been rumored or it could have been real, but there was always an underlying tension on the set. The actors felt it, the crew felt it and the security people felt it.
Steve Nicolaides, producer: We were going to shoot the scene [in which] Ice Cube kills [two guys] across the street from the entrance to the Jungle [apartments affiliated with the Bloods]. I got word that someone named Bone, speaking for the Bloods, had to meet with me. He said, “Word is out that your movie is dissing the Bloods. So if you’re going to have Ice Cube in a blue Detroit Tigers hat shoot a guy dressed in red across the street from the Jungle, I can’t be held responsible for some 14-year-old kid popping Ice Cube or somebody else on the set.” John was like, “F— that.” But he came to his senses, and we found another location.
Ice Cube: When the neighborhood speaks, you should listen.
“So you gonna give me skins or what?”
Long: The idea of a guy who I wasn’t involved with kissing me and having him touch my breasts freaked me out. I wasn’t mature enough to understand that it was just part of the job.
Gooding: She was rattled. I tried to make her calm, so I started picking my toenails and doing all this stuff. It had the opposite effect.
Long: I was like, “Do you honestly think that is helping? It’s making me want to throw up.”
“Domino, motherf—–! Whatcha say about that?”
Tyra Ferrell [Mrs. Baker]: One time I called [Ice Cube] by his real name, O’Shea, and he ran over and told me off and said, “Hey, I’ve got an image.”
Long: Cube’s hair didn’t scare me because Jheri curls were in, but his eyebrows used to freak me out! I was like, “He’s going to N.W.A. me.”
Ice Cube: The hardest scene for me was when I had to cry near the end. I hadn’t cried in a long time and wanted it to be good. I had buried those feelings deep inside me and they were hard to get out, especially on cue.
“We need to keep everything in our neighborhood, everything, Black”
Singleton: Spike Lee had kind of established having an entirely Black film crew. If [the 'hood] sees a whole Black crew working on a movie, the local residents are going to be like, “Hey, this is some real shit.”
Chestnut: It was my first movie, so I didn’t know that that’s not how it’s normally done in Hollywood. Looking back, it made the experience more special.
Fishburne: We were telling a story that came out of our community, so that heightened our enthusiasm for and commitment to the material. We don’t often get to tell those stories.
Bassett: We were all young and hungry to do this kind of work, so there was a real sense of pride and ownership.
“I’m Getting the F— out of L.A.”
Allain: I flew over with John and Ice Cube to Cannes, and when we got off the plane, it was literally like they were rock stars.
Singleton: I was so green. I didn’t drink wine. All I had the whole time were scrambled eggs and steak frites. But it was incredible. We partied with Madonna; we were the toast of Cannes.
Allain: There was a 20-minute standing ovation after the film ended.
Ice Cube: I thought the story and the language barrier would really alienate [an international audience]. I guess I was wrong.
“Increase the Peace”
Singleton: Opening night, I got a limousine and went with some friends to the Cineplex Odeon in Universal City. Terminator 2 was playing in three or four theaters while Boyz N the Hood was in one, which had less than 300 seats. There were maybe 1,000 people outside all wanting to see [my film]. There were a lot of Bloods inside. As we were walking out, two dudes came in, in full paraphernalia. I think they were Crips. I told the manager that he should not let those two come in, because if they did, he was going to have problems. We left and as we were heading down the hill, we saw police cars coming up.
Price: The film had the right sentiment, but if your movie gets all tagged [as incendiary] and anything happens within a mile of the theater, it’s suddenly the movie’s fault.
Singleton: It wasn’t the movie. The violence was there even if I never made a f—— movie. It had nothing to do with me.
Ferrell: At parties, White people would come over and say, “Oh, my God. Thank you for making me understand what that life is about.” That made me realize that it was more about just making a movie, it was also a political statement about what was going on.
Ice Cube: Boyz N the Hood was the first look into that world. Why do kids turn to gangs in South Central? And the film didn’t glorify anything; it was just real.
Nicolaides: It put a human face on what was happening in the hood. These weren’t just Black thugs shooting each others, but real kids with potential and hopes and dreams.
Long: It was part of a movement that gave Black filmmaking an opportunity to have a voice and presence and to say to Hollywood, “People will come and see our movies. Black people are working. We are here.” I can’t wait to show it to my son. And I would have already if his mom’s boobs weren’t in it. I don’t care about the violence because I can explain that to him. But because my tits are in the movie, I have to wait.
Singleton: I was very proud of the Oscar nominations. I was also nervous, because I didn’t want to be a flash in the pan. So my attitude was, ‘Fine, that is all good, but now I have to go make Poetic Justice.’ I do regret not going to the Oscar luncheon. I was rehearsing with Janet Jackson that day.
Jaki Brown, casting director: None of the actors’ careers were a surprise to me. I knew at the film’s premiere that Hollywood was getting “The Black Pack.” And as far as packs go, the actors from Boyz, for their youth, were much more successful than the actors in the Brat Pack.
Gooding: Being in Boyz N the Hood set such a high standard for me. I thought all my movies would be received like that. [Laughs.]
Chestnut: People still come up to me and say things like, “You got over a 700 on the SAT.”
Singleton: It’s amazing how many people talk about the film as if that’s all I have ever done. But I have no resentment. It’s very fulfilling to make a picture that means something to people. I love Boyz N the Hood because it is so me and where I am from. It was the movie I was born to make.