Director John Singleton Explains How He Brought LA to Life in 'Boyz n the Hood'

Back in cinemas after 25 years, here’s how LA’s game-changing ’hood drama pushed the agenda for young black creatives.

Entertainment
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Los Angeles native John Singleton was just 23 when his directorial debut Boyz n the Hood was released back in 1991. With Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Laurence Fishburne among the lead roles, the Oscar-nominated coming-of-age drama captured LA like it had never been seen before, giving on-screen presence to what was happening at street level and a voice to the city’s black community. A quarter of a century later and Boyz n the Hood‘s key themes – police brutality and inner-city violence – are more relevant than ever, making its forthcoming UK re-release essential viewing for first-timers.

Boyz n the Hood marked an emphatic springboard for Singleton to be taken seriously as a director. Since its arrival his career has gone from strength to strength and next year sees the release of Snowfall – a similarly gritty look at Los Angeles’s crack-cocaine epidemic during the 1980s. With Singleton in London for its relaunch as part of the BFI‘s Black Star program, we spoke to the pioneering director about Boyz n the Hood‘s lasting legacy and what makes LA such rich material for filmmakers.

John Singleton Boyz N The Hood Snowfall Los Angeles

What first inspired you to get that side of the camera?

As a black man working in a business that didn’t necessarily have black people in it, I knew that I’d have to write and direct my own films. Coming from where I’m from, it was a challenge to to be taken seriously enough to get a chance to make a film and – to do what I so ambitiously wanted to do – I had to write it myself.

Did people view you differently after Boyz n the Hood‘s release?

I was a new young filmmaker and suddenly I was someone to look at, and there was excitement around what I was trying to do.

“The film voiced what was going on in the streets through the music of N.W.A, Ice T, and the burgeoning gangster hip-hop movement.”

How did the movie go down in LA?

It was huge – nobody had done a film like it before in LA. The film was a reflection of reality and a view of what was happening in the streets. I always call Boyz n the Hood a hip-hop movie with no one rapping as it shows the world that spawned the music.

How did you soundtrack Boyz n the Hood?

The film voiced what was going on in the streets through the music of N.W.A, Ice T, and the burgeoning gangster hip-hop movement [click here for soundtrack]. LA has a really specific voice and we were showing that voice on film. People had heard it in records but not seen it in a movie before. I wanted music that people would be playing from their cars and their homes and boomboxes.

Why do you think the film has aged so well?

It’s really of its time but it’s also timeless because the conditions and things that people are going through still exist, whether that’s those in urban environments living under a police state, prevalent black-on-black crime, or the nihilistic view of the world that young people have when they don’t see anything else. Neighborhoods have changed and evolved but many things remain the same and as long as that’s the case then things won’t change.

How would you approach a remake?

People ask me to remake it all the time but I wouldn’t do that. I would choose another urban story to tell rather than make something I’d done before.

With that in mind, what can we expect from next year’s Snowfall?

It’s before the period of Boyz n the Hood and it shows how the neighborhood evolved into what it became. You see when people first started seeing their homes as prisons and started putting bars up on their windows and you see how it went from cocaine to crack. Like Boyz n the Hood it’s about life in LA.

How much has the industry changed since you started out?

Now it’s not such a big deal for a black person to make a film. Back then there were hardly any people making films on a regular basis – now we have a plethora of black voices on film and some black women, too.

What would you say to the next generation of directors?

Learn how to write your own material. If you can do that then you can control how it rolls out. You’ve got to be able to correct the blueprint of the film you want to make, otherwise someone else will and then it isn’t your own vision.

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