Here’s a factoid that, if you’re about my age, will make you feel nice and old: It was 20 years ago today that Boyz n the Hood, John Singleton’s iconic coming-of-age-in-South-Central tale, first hit theaters. It was one of the 19 films released that year helmed by African-American directors in the wake of the critical and financial success of Spike Lee’s early efforts, which proved the existence of a passionate and underserved audience; that year also saw the release of New Jack City, The Five Heartbeats, A Rage in Harlem, Daughters of the Dust, and Lee’s own Jungle Fever. Never before had one calendar year seen so many films from black voices; sadly, it hasn’t happened since.
The most influential — and most financially successful — of those “Black New Wave” films was Boyz, which begins as a kind of black Stand By Me set in 1984, before leaping into the (then) present as teenage Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his best friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut) try to stay out the trouble so prevalent in their South Central neighborhood, and often caused by Ricky’s hardcore half-brother Doughboy (Ice Cube). Though the oft-imitated picture suffers somewhat from its melodramatic tendencies (spoofed so mercilessly in the Wayans Brothers’ Don’t Be A Menace…) and the flashes of casual misogyny that would become so troublesome in Singleton’s later work, Boyz n the Hood remains a powerful, important film that captures a key moment in popular culture with both style and intensity. It was also an early milestone for not only Singleton but several performers involved in the film; in celebration of its twentieth anniversary, we’ll take a look at what became of them after the jump.
Cuba Gooding Jr. (“Tre Styles”)
No one involved in Boyz has had an odder career trajectory than Gooding, the relative film newcomer (one of his few earlier roles found him sitting in a barber’s chair in Coming to America) who played the leading role of Tre. Boyz got Gooding into some A-list films, including Outbreak and A Few Good Men, but usually in small, ensemble roles; he didn’t really break out until five years later, when he took the show-stopping role of Rod Tidwell in Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire and played it to the full hilt, winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. But with occasional exceptions (like his understated supporting turn in As Good as It Gets), his post-Oscar career choices were downright befuddling — though there is certainly a dearth of quality leading man work for black actors, there’s still no explaining vehicles like the 1999 Speed-on-an-ice-cream-truck-with-Skeet-Ulirch picture Chill Factor, or the second-fiddle-to-Disney-dogs movie Snow Dogs, or (worst of all) the notorious gay-panic “comedy” Boat Trip. He made occasional attempts at “serious acting,” co-starring with master thespians like Robert DeNiro (Men of Honor), Anthony Hopkins (Instinct), and Ed Harris (the execrable Radio), but these went over no better. His films of the last decade have ranged from wretched theatrical releases like Daddy Day Camp and Norbit to straight-to-DVD efforts like Hero Wanted, Hardwired, and The Hit List (what? Exactly.) His last high-profile turn was a small but effective role in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, where he proved he’s still got some juice, if only (alas) when he gets a script that doesn’t stink.