Hollywood rarely ventured into L.A.’s African-American neighborhoods until John Singleton, a 23-year-old first-time filmmaker, made this powerful examination of growing up black in the age of Rodney King. Now the director and cast reflect on the movie that scored two Oscar nominations, launched their careers, and changed the game.
When film student John Singleton saw Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing the summer before his senior year at the University of Southern California, he was confronted with the fierce urgency of now. “[After the movie] I just went to my dorm feeling intimidated but excited, and I was like, ‘How am I going to make it in this business? How am I going to have some type of voice?’” Singleton remembers. “I rolled down to my neighborhood where I grew up, and it just came to me. I said, ‘I gotta do something for black South Central L.A.’”
In the fall of 1989, Singleton began writing Boyz N the Hood. Thinking back to a group of his own childhood friends, he crafted a coming-of-age story about three black teens: bright Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who’s sent by his mother, Reva (Angela Bassett), to live with his father, Furious (Laurence Fishburne); athletic Ricky (Morris Chestnut), who chases a football scholarship; and brave Doughboy (Ice Cube), Ricky’s ne’er-do-well half brother who joins a gang. More than 25 years after its release, the writer-director and his cast and crew share the story behind the Oscar-nominated picture.
Singleton barely went to class while finishing the script; all he could think about in his last year of school was Boyz N the Hood, which he also planned to direct.
JOHN SINGLETON [writer-director]: I would write all night into the morning, sleep, and wobble my way through a couple of classes. I didn’t have the money for everything, so I had to use the public computers at school to write. I sat two feet away from people writing their term papers, and I would stand up periodically and walk around and say, “I’m writing the f—ing best screenplay of my life.” People were looking at me like I was crazy. I was so obsessed with what I was writing.
Once finished, Singleton’s script quickly made its way around Hollywood, piquing the interest of actors and Columbia Pictures’ Stephanie Allain, who passed the script to studio exec Frank Price. The pair found a producer in frequent Rob Reiner collaborator Steve Nicolaides.
STEVE NICOLAIDES [producer]: I was in Massachusetts on vacation with my family, and Stephanie called and said, “This is the greatest script I’ve ever read.” I read it in one sitting. It really got to my soul, so I said “I’m in,” and when I met John at his mom’s house, I asked, “Why me?” He said, “Because you worked on my favorite movie, [Rob Reiner’s] Stand by Me.”
LAURENCE FISHBURNE [Furious]: When I read the last three pages, I was in tears. It was a story about the African-American community in South Central L.A. by one of its sons. The scene with me giving Cuba a haircut, the idea that I’m sitting down and cutting my son’s hair in the kitchen, is very specific to our culture.
NIA LONG [Brandi]: My story is very close to Brandi’s story. At the time I wondered, “Why are they making a movie about this? This is just my life.” But for most people, it wasn’t. People who had no concept of how black people live were enlightened.
REGINA KING [Shalika]: We were so excited to be telling a story about a world we knew. We all had never seen a movie like that, we’d never seen a TV show like that.
Singleton wanted to make an authentic, realistic film and sought actors who understood and could convey life in the hood. He also strove to hire an all-black crew and shot on location.
SINGLETON: The first people that read for Tre were Morris Chestnut and Cuba Gooding Jr. Morris comes in and reads it, and he’s good, and then Cuba comes in and reads it, and he’s great. So I said, “Well, that’s it, that’s done. He’s gonna play Tre, and the chocolate one is going to be Ricky. I’m hungry, I’m going to lunch.” [Laughs]
NICOLAIDES: Laurence Fishburne was the Yoda to all this young cast. He gave lessons and gave support.
LONG: I had to run across the street and say, “Ricky got shot,” and I had never played hysterical in a film. Laurence pulled me aside after I did it one time. It was fine, but he whispered in my ear, “Give it all you’ve got,” and I knew exactly what he meant. I did it again and I just remember looking at him after, and he said, “There you go.”
FISHBURNE: Cuba had access to his emotions in a way I wished I had when I was his age. We were rehearsing the scene after Cuba’s been terrorized by the black cop. He’s in tears, and he starts punching wildly around the room, and he actually punched a hole in the wall. I was like, “Woooow.” That was rehearsal.
CUBA GOODING JR. [Tre]: I could see how Tre expressed a street hunger necessary to transcend his environment. It became a character and experience I could craft from real people I came into contact with. I felt no other actor could bring what I could to the role.
STANLEY CLARKE [composer]: Ice Cube was so young. I remember a moment when he and I were in a trailer with a couple other actors, and he goes, “You know, one day I’m gonna write my own movies, I’m gonna have my own production company, and I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna do that.” And he did it.
SINGLETON: I had Ice Cube in the back of my mind [after meeting him at The Arsenio Hall Show]. When he came in to read for the part, he had been on tour for AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, and he hadn’t paid too much attention to this. So he sucked.
NICOLAIDES: John went, “F—! I wrote this for him!” But they talked to each other later that day and Ice Cube said, “Let me read it and come back tomorrow,” and he nailed it.
GOODING: I remember how nervous Ice Cube was about the emotional weight of that final scene. He didn’t want to disappoint anyone with his inability to cry. My only advice was to just say the words and the emotion will take care of itself.
CLARKE: I was doing the Arsenio Hall Show as an artist, and backstage, a guy said to me, “You’re gonna do my movie one day,” and I said, “Sure, kid.” Less than a year later I got a call to meet this guy at his office. I remember John was sitting on his couch playing something that looked like a Gameboy, and he said, “Remember me?” [Laughs]
With a first-time director and a mostly unknown cast, Boyz received a $6 million budget and 38 days to shoot.
SINGLETON: It wasn’t a leisurely film schedule; we were supposed to do it in 38 days. I remember one time I was working so hard on a shot in the middle of the street, I fell asleep in my director’s chair. [Laughs]
NICOLAIDES: We had to go fast. On the first day of shooting, during the first take, John said, “Cut! Let’s move on.” Then we moved on to another, and he said again, “Cut! Perfect.” I had to go up to him and say, “You know, you can do more than one take.”
MORRIS CHESTNUT [Ricky]: Because Cuba had already been in the industry and done a pilot, every time I saw him, I would ask him questions. I’ll never forget, one day he came out of his trailer and I happened to be coming out of my trailer, and he pretended like he had to go back into his trailer to get something. [Laughs] I mean, he was very good to me. I was just green.
Released in July 1991, four months after video of police beating Rodney King heightened racial tensions, the film moved audiences with its themes of friendship and community, earning $57.5 million.
NICOLAIDES: Boyz N the Hood wasn’t just showing another dead boy in an alley. Ricky was someone who had a life, a backstory. The movie was very small and very cheap to make, but it packed an insane wallop emotionally.
SINGLETON: When Doughboy kills the people who killed Ricky, half the audience cheered, and a guy in the audience goes, “Why y’all cheerin’? Don’t you know what this is sayin’?” I loved that.
CHESTNUT: When I’m walking down the street, the thing I hear the most is “Ricky!” I don’t mind it, because people are still touched. After all these years, it’s still extremely relevant.
NICOLAIDES: After the movie came out, I was in a van with Rob Reiner for A Few Good Men, and he said, “Why’d you fade out Ice Cube at the end like we did with Chris in Stand By Me?” And I said, “You don’t get it? The whole movie was an homage to your movie!” [Laughs] Rob was like, “Oh my God. I missed all of that!”
FISHBURNE: As long as there are human beings, there will be boys, and boys need to be made into men. But in order for boys to become men, they need to be initiated, and they will either be initiated in the light by men like Furious or they will be initiated in the dark through jail time or gangs or whatever. That’s just a humanistic, universal truth.
Boyz N the Hood earned Oscar nominations for directing — making Singleton the youngest director in history acknowledged in that category — and for its screenplay. The film continues to be celebrated as an honest portrait of black urban life.
SINGLETON: The Oscars made me work even harder. Sidney Poitier told me something very important when I was getting started. He said, “Just because a film doesn’t do a lot of box office or get a lot of awards when it first comes out doesn’t make that film less worthy of being considered a classic.” At my age now, I’m more pragmatic about that.
FISHBURNE: I was surprised by the nominations. It was a movie with black people in it! That s— doesn’t happen! That s— just happened again with Moonlight. It’d be nice if that were the norm — if the playing field was always level for everybody.
A version of this story originally appears in Entertainment Weekly’s Untold Stories issue, on stands now or available to buy right here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.