After a day of church, emails, laundry, and cooking, I turn on the television. Spike TV is showing Boyz N The Hood, that great time capsule of the early 90s, John Singleton's story of African-American teenagers in south-central L.A.
I saw the film in Spring 92, a few weeks before graduation. I went to Seminary in rural Wisconsin, an all-boys boarding school that had made a post-Second Vatican Council broadening of its mission from training future priests to training future "active Catholics," ordained or otherwise. The school attracted an odd mix. White, black, lots of Hispanics and Vietnamese, a good number of kids from thankful, devout immigrant families who felt they had to "give back" to God (maybe by sending a son to the priesthood). The common bond was a reason and/or a willingness to leave home at fourteen. One of the populations: kids from pretty rough areas of Chicago, Detroit, and New Orleans who wanted to avoid poor schools, troubled neighborhoods.
Senior Trip meant spending a week in Chicago, mostly hanging out with Franciscans who did gang ministry and ran soup kitchens and community literacy centers. The week was kind of a cross between a sociology class and an intensive lesson in Catholic social teaching. The priests and brothers knew a lot about gentrification, violence, racism, drugs, police brutality, and such, and they all thought Boyz 'N The Hood was something we had to see, something we had to see in the hood. I was used to spending a lot of time with priests, so I probably didn't think twice about the odd site of us walking into that theater: Franciscans in their long brown robes, alongside a group of seventeen-year-olds, some of whom got their knowledge of gangsta life from NWA (on cassette!) and some of whom grew up pretty close to scenes like those on the screen in front of us.
What continues to make the film great is its ability to speak to both of those audiences and exist somewhere betwee those two modes of understanding. Watching Ice Cube on the screen wasn't all that different from listening to Ice Cube. Hell, his character in the film mirrors his persona from "Straight Outta Compton." But the film's tragic climax (Ice Cube's little brother gunned down and bleeding to death while his mom and his boys look on), even with its sentiment and heavy-handed irony (he's about to escape the hood on a football scholarship), transcends the narrative of gangsta rap, the camera lingering on the blood and the dead kid's baby boy screaming in the middle of the chaos, in a way that song lyrics (even brilliant ones written by Eazy E) can't. No gangsta rap song I know has a moment like the coda of the Boyz film. The 'Cube character, who just got revenge on the gangbangers who killed his brother and already "haunted" by his own ruthlessness, tells Tre he made the right choice not riding along during the shooting.