Table of Contents
2. Main Characters and their Functions
3. Criminal Prejudice surrounding young African-American Men in the Film
3.1 The “violent and menacing Street Thug”
3.2 Drug Trafficking
4. The Persistence of the Ghetto
4.1 Unemployment through Lack of Education
4.2 Institutional Factors
5. How can young African Americans “escape” the Ghetto?
“In striking contrast to the convergence between blacks and whites on most socioeconomic indicators, the continuing severity of residential segregation remains a central feature of the African-American experience. African-Americans remain more segregated than any other racial or ethnic group, and this residential isolation persists across all levels of socio economic attainment.” This spatial segregation of African Americans has been present in the United States approximately since the 1940s, with blacks predominantly living in economically disadvantaged areas. The sheer fact that this blatant geographical separation is still present today, has not only become a constant controversial topic for the government and in politics, but also produces material for various media outlets such as television, literature, music and film. These media outlets are virtually the only way to show outsiders, who are reluctant or not able to visit the ghetto, the conditions that poor African Americans must live under.
One of the first films that gave a vivid insight into black poverty was Boyz n the Hood. Set and filmed in South Central Los Angeles, California, the 1991 drama film depicts many negative stereotypes that surround – mostly young males – blacks in the U.S., as well as the extreme conditions of the ghetto. Boyz n the Hood quickly became a success. It nearly decupled its budget and the writer and director, John Singleton, became the youngest person ever and first African American to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar. When considering Singleton’s ethnicity, the question arises, why a young black director would portray his own race in a predominantly negative way, in a semi-autobiographic film. What also adds to the importance of this question, is that Singleton was part of the “early 1990s wave of African-American cinema”. This means that the number of African American film makers at the time was very low. Hence, he was one of the few, who had the opportunity to make a film about his own race. So, how and why did a young minority with the potential influence, that Singleton had, not use his first film to show his race in a better and more advantageous way?
In order to answer this question, this paper will give a detailed insight into the actual film, with consideration of statistics and events from the time of its release and today. This will be necessary, to analyze how realistic the content of the film is. First, this paper will give a brief characterization of the four protagonists – Tre, Ricky, Doughboy and Furious. These characters each have a specific function. Moreover, the chapter will be clarifying, when referring to the characters throughout the paper. In chapter three, I will discuss the criminal stereotypes surrounding African Americans that are depicted so elaborately and also examine how justifiable they are with regard to different statistics. Next, the focus will shift to the actual ghetto and how it is still so persistent, although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Here, the personal factors shown in the film that put African Americans at a disadvantage, will be discussed. Furthermore, potentially remaining institutional factors that contribute to the persistence of the ghetto will be examined. Chapter five will deal with the film’s portrayal of possibilities that young black men have, to leave the ghetto and possibly live a decent life. The conclusion will sum up the findings and give an answer to the question, why an African American film maker would use his privilege to make a film in which his own race and their living conditions are shown in such a negative way.
2. Main Characters and their Functions
2.1 Tre Styles
Tre Styles, a young African American male living in South Central, is the film’s protagonist. In the 1984 segment of the film, he is shown as a 10 year-old boy who is highly intelligent – as stated by his teacher – but is also vicious and lacks respect (0:05h). Fearing that Tre’s positive development might be in jeopardy due to his behavior and surroundings, his mother sends him to live with his father.
In the 1991 segment Tre has become a young man, who is educated, responsible, good-hearted and is striving to live a better life. However, he still lives in the same neighborhood and is surrounded by numerous negative influences that shape and sometimes even dictate his everyday life.
In the film Tre functions as a symbol for young black men who have a lot of potential to pursue a better life due to their character and intelligence, but are surrounded by circumstances and people that limit them. His desire to go to college shows that he is aware of how important an education is for his future. Furthermore he extensively resists the temptations of the ghetto such as alcohol abuse, drug trafficking, dropping out of school and gang affiliation. An important factor in Tre’s life that also sets him apart from his peers, is that he has a father, to whom he looks up to and is able to advise him. His father also attempts to prevent Tre from making mistakes and bad decisions.
2.2 Ricky Baker
Tre’s best friend and fellow young black male is Ricky Baker. He also grew up with Tre and is introduced in the 1984 segment of the film, in which he, as a child, has already developed a strong interest in football. In 1991, he has become a sympathetic, but also naive jock, who is a football standout and is eventually offered a scholarship due to his athletic abilities. Thus, he also has the potential to eventually live a better life and is in a similar situation as Tre. He is also widely disinterested in the street life but is constantly surrounded by it, since he is a resident of South Central as well.
Ricky lives in an impoverished household with his single mother and half-brother (on the maternal side) Doughboy. Although he and Doughboy share a friendly relationship, there is also tension between them due to differing lifestyles and Ricky receiving affection and approval from his mother, while Doughboy is neglected and disliked by her. The character, Ricky is accompanied by a pressing issue among African American teenagers living in poverty: being a parent as an adolescent.
At the age of 17, Ricky has already fathered a child with his teenage girlfriend, although he has not finished high school yet and neither Ricky nor his girlfriend have the financial means to support the child on their own.
Functioning as the complete opposite to Tre and Ricky, is Ricky’s brother Darrin, better known as “Doughboy”, who has fully accepted the street life and poverty. From an early age on Doughboy is portrayed as the most troubled of the boys. In the 1984 segment he gets into a fight with an older teenager in attempt to get his brother’s football back. Later in the segment he is arrested presumably for shoplifting (since he had mentioned he was going to the store but did not have any money) and is driven off in police car. In 1991 Doughboy is released from prison (after an undisclosed crime) and is now a gang member of the Crips.
Doughboy reinforces many of the prejudice surrounding black people. Despite of being released from Jail, he shows no attempt to change his life or to leave his neighborhood. He mostly spends his time drinking and hanging out with his friends/gang. In addition to that he is also a drug dealer. He carries a gun and gets into various physical altercations throughout the film. Needless to say, he does not have an education and does not show any desire to go to college or pursue a career. Hence, he has no chance of overcoming poverty. In spite of being a gang member and a criminal, he is a close friend of Tre and has a predominantly good relationship with his brother.
2.4 Jason “Furious” Styles
Tre’s father, Jason “Furious” Styles, functions as the middle aged moral authority that is cautious of Tre’s future. As a strict but very righteous father, he teaches Tre discipline, values and knowledge on various topics such as the importance of education, birth control and the dangers and facets of the ghetto. Furious is a Vietnam Veteran who now works in financing. Although he states that “a black man ain’t got no place in the army” (0:27h), he had a career in the military which explains his disciplined and sovereign character. Moreover, he now has a regular job which does not only demonstrate his knowledgeability but also that he is an upright citizen who has found his place in society and has consistent income. He is also very aware of his surroundings and of the problems in the impoverished black community. With his traits and persona, the character Furious stands in strong contrast with the other adults and parents of the poverty-stricken neighborhood. Ricky and Doughboy’s mother, for instance, who, as a parent, should adapt a similar guiding role does not have the qualities of Furious that are required to function as an adequate parent. Thus, Furious is a very unique character since he is the only legitimate black role model in the film and is characterized by wisdom, discipline and positivity while the other relevant African American adults have undoubtedly succumbed to the conditions in the ghetto.
3. Recurring Criminal Prejudices surrounding young African-American men in the Film
3.1 The “Violent and Menacing Street Thug”
One of the most prevalent stereotypes of the black male in the U.S. is that he is dangerous due to his aggressive behavior and violent tendencies. The picture of young African American men that is deeply ingrained in the mind of many people, is reduced to that of a “violent and menacing street thug”. Characters that strengthen this prejudice are present in the film, but Tre and Ricky are in no way depicted as “menacing street thugs”. However, they also get into fights in the film which does give strength to the stereotype of the young black male being belligerent and violent – even if it is just to a smaller degree. Fights and violence occur throughout the film in various forms very frequently. Ranging from a young Tre getting into a fight with a classmate over a minor dispute (0:05h) to an execution-style murder of a rival gang member (1:40h) violence is featured in different forms and different severity. Beginning with the sound of gunshots and two blended quotes that read “One out of every twenty-one Black American Males will be murdered in their lifetime” followed by “most will die at the hands of another black male”, violence within the black community is introduced as soon as the film starts. Hence, not only is the stereotype of violence and murder among black males in the U.S. legitimized, but it is also implied that it will be a major topic in the film.
As children in elementary school, a classmate of Tre’s leads him and two others to a crime scene, where someone has been shot, with the blood still being visible on the ground. (0:02). Their reactions illustrate the implicitness of violence in the black community. The sight of a bloody crime scene should evoke a sense of discomfort and fear within children their age. They, however, have a rather nonchalant reaction. Tre finds himself in a similar setting at the 0:21h mark, when Doughboy leads him, Ricky and another friend to an actual corpse of a murdered person. Anew, they seem unimpressed and just proceed to hold their noses because of the smell reeking from the corpse. A less severe form of violence is depicted when Tre fights the same classmate during a school lesson because of a rather inane argument (0:05h). This does not only reinforce the social stigma of African Americans – even as children in elementary school – being violent but also acting irrational and aggressive in situations that do not call for physical confrontation. Instead of discussing their differences or settling because of the futility of the argument, the two boys’ immediate instinct is to fight. The presence of violence in the early stages of the lives of African Americans is also demonstrated when Doughboy attempts to get his brother’s football back from a teenager, who is physically superior to Doughboy due to his age. The teenager does not hesitate to physically assault someone younger and clearly weaker than him. This behavior among peers eventually translates into their adolescence, as can be seen when Doughboy and Ricky get into a scuffle because of a disagreement over which one of the two should buy groceries for their mother (1:24h). In spite of sharing a rather good relationship, the disagreement of the two brothers escalates into a physical altercation in a matter of seconds.
Anew, the tendency to resort to violence – even among peers – is demonstrated.
As I mentioned, in the film violence ranges from “minor” forms all the way to murder. In the beginning, the children find a corpse. The actual perpetration of this murder is neither shown nor is the reason for the crime revealed. Later in the film, however, actual storylines leading up to the murder, as well as the characters very vividly committing the crimes are shown.
At a public gathering in which Tre, Ricky, Doughboy and their friends take part in, one of doughboy’s rival gang members bumps into Ricky, causing a dispute. After a verbal confrontation between the main characters and the rival gang, that is on the brink of escalating into a fight, Doughboy proceeds to lift his shirt, revealing that he has a handgun tucked into his pants. This forces the rival gang to retreat at first, only to return a few moments later and open gun fire, resulting in the dissolution of the gathering. None of the main characters are harmed here. It is not until the 1:28h mark, where the rival gang tracks Ricky and Tre down and eventually kill Ricky in a drive-by shooting. Shortly after, Doughboy and his gang – including the crime-resenting Tre – retaliate, as they ambush the other gang and kill the perpetrators. Here, various stereotypes of black males are enforced such as gang affiliation, irrational behavior, violence and murder. First I will focus on the latter, with regard to statistics, in order to clarify, if the blatant portrayal of murder in the impoverished black community depicted in the film, is justified.
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