Black masculinity in Boyz N the Hood is articulated through the use of idealized images that help to protect an adaptive sense of African-American identity in the framework of certain cultural norms and a class position. Black masculinity in the movie is reinforced through the harsh depiction of social realities in which it has been modified and adopted. Racially and ethnically homogenous culture of African-American neighbourhoods serves as a backdrop for the socially constructed notion of black male identity. Boyz N the Hood is a debut of a black film director, screenwriter, and producer John Singleton. Interestingly enough, even though he is widely recognized for directing the movie and has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, he has yet to win the Oscar (Bradshaw 2016). Even a quarter of a century after the movie was shot it is still perceived as “a study of what amounts to life during wartime, with people grimly used to gunfire and helicopters thudding overhead” (Bradshaw 2016, para. 1).
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The aim of this paper is to explore the articulation of black masculinity in Boyz N the Hood. It will also examine sociopsychological factors contributing to the formation of the modern hyper-masculine image of African Americans.
The movie follows the life of Tre Styles who lives with his divorced single mother in South Central Los Angeles. The mother of the boy, Reva, is well-educated and steadfastly devoted to raising him as a good man and an upright citizen. The powerful opening scene shows Tre starting a fight at school over a minor insult. When Reva talks with Tre’s teacher, she gets informed that even though the boy is extremely intelligent, he has problems with discipline and cannot control his volatile temper. The mother understands that exposure to troublesome peer behaviour could negatively influence her bright son and decides that it is best for him to spend some time with his father in the Crenshaw neighbourhood of South Los Angeles.
The boy’s father, Furious Styles, is a mortgage broker who is fond of discipline. Even though he tries to teach Tre the rules of proper conduct, “out in the streets of South Central Los Angeles, the son learns other rules” (Ebert 1991, para. 2). The boy is friends with his half-brothers and other youth from the neighbourhood who try to steer clear of the violence and gangs on the streets. However, taking into consideration the fact that Los Angeles is inundated with weapons, there is always a danger of getting killed over a failed attempt to “prove manhood” (Boyz N The Hood 1991).
Tre’s father spends quality time with him trying to provide the son with valuable life lessons one of which is “don’t ever go in the Army, Tre—black man ain’t got no place in the Army” (Boyz N The Hood 1991). Shortly after being provided with advice, Tre witnesses his friends, Doughboy and Chris, getting arrested for shoplifting. The movie then skips forward several years and shows a backyard picnic party celebrating their release from jail. Unlike his friends, one of which is incapacitated by a gunshot wound, Tre works at a local store and has high hopes of enrolling in college. He does not want to deal crack like Doughboy, nor do he wants to be an athlete like Ricky. Rather, Tre aspires to have a happy relationship with his sweetheart Brandi.
The dangerous reality of life in the crime-ridden neighbourhood becomes truly evident when Ricky gets killed by one of the members of the Bloods gang over a minor argument that happened a night before. After seeing the dead boy’s body, Brandi disavows Doughboy because she believes that the incident was entirely his fault. At night when Ricky was shot, Tre’s girlfriend discovers that he could have qualified for scholarship in the USC (Boyz N The Hood 1991). Doughboy and his group vow vengeance on Bloods gang. Even Tre wants to see the murderer dead but gets convinced by Furious to stop seeking revenge and returns home in the middle of an attempt to kill Ricky’s murderer. However, Doughboy and two other boys proceed with their vengeance mission and gun down those responsible for their friend’s death. The story ends with a conversation between Tre and Doughboy who realizes that he is now in the middle of an unending cycle of violence and has to face consequences of his actions (Boyz N The Hood 1991).
Formation of Black Masculinity
In order to understand the articulation of masculinity in Boyz N The Hood, it is necessary to analyse it from different perspectives. According to Nadell (1995), the didactic value of the movie could be significantly enhanced if it is viewed through the psychological, political, economic, and cultural matrix. He believes that a crisis portrayed in Boyz N The Hood is caused by the following factors: the harmful influence of Euro-American capitalism on the economic and psychosocial state of the African Americans, the active suppression of the Black liberation movement, and substance abuse in African-American communities (Nadell 1995).
The 2010 US Census suggests that African-Americans represent 13.6 percent of the country’s population (Hoston 2014). It means that only five percent of US citizens are African-American males (Hoston 2014). Nonetheless, their struggle has been extremely noticeable to the whole country during the last several decades. The minority has been discriminated against for hundreds of years. Recently the media has helped to highlight the struggles African-American males are facing today: they are policed at an alarming rates, the percentage of their incarceration is highly disproportionate, many of them are being “disenfranchised by partial voting rights” and often have to overcome “institutional and systemic barriers that at times deny equal access to employment, job promotion, and formal education” (Hoston 2014, p. 3).
It is important to keep in mind that the 300-year captivity of African-American males still has relevance to the way they are treated in modern society (Hoston 2014). According to Hoston (2014), male slaves were forced to perform harder labour than female slaves did, and they also were subjected to harsher physical punishment. Moreover, they were prohibited the privilege of establishing their own identity on plantations. Therefore, it could be argued that strict mental control reduced many African-American slaves to “a mere shell of themselves” (Hoston 2014, p. 3). According to Blauner, black males were a subordinate group that was shaped by dominant patriarchy of the United States (cited in Lemelle 2011). Therefore, their assimilation significantly differed from that of other ethnic groups that were not subjugated by slave-owners.
It is clear that slavery was a starting point in the formation of the identity of African-American males. However, in order to better understand how black masculinity has been formed, it necessary to look at other dimensions of the issue. The patriarchal organization of modern societies “expects males to marry and function as the breadwinner and head of household” (Lemelle 2011, p. 20). Even though the majority of black males between 25 and 45 years of age could play this role, as much as 45 percent of them reported never being married (Lemelle 2011). Moreover, out of 55 percent of males who have been married, nineteen percent experienced a divorce (Lemelle 2011). Taking into consideration the fact that family plays an important role in the formation of black masculinity, it should be mentioned that the main character of Boyz N The Hood is a child of divorce.
There is ample evidence suggesting that socio-psychological factors have more influence on marriage decisions than economic factors do (Lemelle. 2011). According to Lemelle (2011), African-American women often say that African-American men tend to spend leisure time with their male friends. This trait of black masculinity is particularly evident in Singleton’s movie. Interestingly enough, while describing sociopsychological factors contributing to the marriage decisions of African Americans, Lemelle fails to mention economic and political conditions that have created this particular behavioural trait. It could be argued that the desire of African-American males to form groups with their male friends that is so beautifully portrayed in the movie stems from their inability to overcome poverty. The hyper-masculine men in Boyz N The Hood are frustrated due to the lack of opportunity to achieve economic success. It is clear that this frustration results in intra-group violence depicted in the movie. It is exacerbated by men’s willingness to seek dominant places within their social hierarchies (Chan 1998).
According to Nadell (1995, p. 456), Boyz N The Hood portrays “the psychological, political, economic, and cultural oppression suffered by African Americans.” It is clear that this statement has genuine merit that nobody could deny. It could be argued that the masculine nature of African Americans compelled them to resist oppression by escaping it by means of mind altering substances. However, in an attempt to escape, they pushed themselves further into dependence on the illicit economy owned by political elites (Nadell 1995). African-American men played the role of low-end distributors while white politicians controlled the financial stream of drug trafficking.
In his analysis of Boyz N The Hood Nadell (1995, p. 452) concludes that the illicit narcotics trade was “a driving force of the within-group violence.” He also stresses that American security state went to great lengths to promote international narcotics trade in order to wage a low-intensity warfare against blacks. Nadell (1995) argues that Black libertarian struggle has been suppressed by facilitation of the movement of opiates into neighbourhoods of colour by the CIA. The writer believes that black on black violence masterfully portrayed in the movie is not a pernicious result of African-American masculinity but rather it stems from numerous factors. Some of them include “instrumental and strategic motives mostly connected to the narcotics trade, competition for limited resources, and racially based self-alienation” (Nadell 1995, p. 461).
Articulation of Black Masculinity
Katherine Ford (2011) in her article “Doing fake masculinity, being real men: present and future constructions of self among black college men” argues that black masculinity is affirmed through discourse within African-American social spaces. The writer agrees with other scholars that slavery is a starting point in understanding how black masculinity is portrayed in the media. She argues that civil rights movement has led to the elimination of the “happy-go-lucky black Sambo” image (Ford 2011 p. 39). According to the writer, modern media eschews the representation of African-American men as docile and Sambo-like that was popular in the post-slavery era.
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Instead, contemporary news outlets, movies, and other media portray black males as “hyper-masculine, hyper-(hetero) sexual, emotionally inexpressive, and (sometimes) violent criminals, thugs, super athletes, or entertainers—Cool Cats” (Ford 2011 p. 39). If one were to look at Boyz N the Hood through the lens of Ford’s statement, they would understand that it has genuine merit. For example, black males depicted in the movie live in the dangerous neighbourhood which they navigate with the help of sex and violence. Even when Tre’s father tries to persuade him to denounce harmful features of black masculinity by teaching him the importance of rules and respect, he remains emotionally inexpressive thereby reinforcing a traditional role of a masculine figure.
West and Zimmerman argue that black masculinity could be defined as “an ongoing accomplishment that is maintained partly through group policing and audience accountability” (cited in Ford 2011 p. 39). It means that identity norms existing within a particular social group could be responsible for the manifestation of certain behavioural traits. According to Collins, physical, identity, and psychological norms that are often connected to the perception of racial authenticity are responsible for the creation of the Cool Cat image (cited in Ford 2011). This notion could help to understand why black masculinity was articulated in Boyz N The Hood mainly through the depiction of the network of social connections of the movie’s protagonist. It could be argued that heteronormative worldview adopted by the majority of neighbourhoods of colour has significantly contributed to the depiction of black masculinity in Singleton’s work.
Its manifestation is evident from the way the movie heroes walk, talk, stand, make gestures, wear clothes, and wear their hair. However, it is important to realize that black masculinity is inextricably intertwined with the racially marginalized position of African-American males. Therefore, its articulation in Boyz N The Hood was partly a result of director’s desire to “index important socioeconomic differences within Black America” (Ford 2011 p. 40). The same argument could be made about the depiction of black masculinity in Spike Lee’s comedy-drama Do the Right Thing. The two directors explore the theme of black masculinity by using similar artistic instruments. However, unlike Do the Right Thing, Boyz N The Hood has a more grim undertone to it (Do the Right Thing 1989).
Therefore, the costume palette in Singleton’s movie lacks a diversity of colour scheme that was employed by Spike Lee. A darker image helps to accentuate harmful results of hyper-masculine neighbourhoods depicted in the movie. Moreover, it could be said that choice of closing brings more authenticity to the manly community of Boyz N The Hood. In terms of language, it is evident that black masculinity is articulated in the movie through the use of lingo that that helps to establish peer approval in African-American neighbourhoods of South Los Angeles. According to Majors and Billson, black middle-class youth often adopts “a self-protective interactional style that allows black men to project a confident public image when navigating various social contexts” (cited in Ford 2011 p. 41). This adaptive social mechanism of constructing one’s identity (especially masculinity) according to the demands of an individual’s milieu is evident in almost every scene of Boyz N The Hood.
Black masculinity in Boyz N the Hood is masterfully articulated through the use of idealized images that help to protect an adaptive sense of African-American identity in the framework of certain cultural norms and a class position. The stark image of black manliness in the movie is strengthened through the harsh depiction of social realities in which it has been modified and adopted. Racially and ethnically homogenous culture of African-American neighbourhoods serves as a backdrop for the socially constructed notion of hyper-masculinized black male identity. The following factors contributed to its development: the harmful influence of Euro-American capitalism on the economic and psychosocial state of the African Americans, the active suppression of the Black liberation movement, and substance abuse in African-American communities (Nadell 1995).
It could be said that heteronormative worldview that is undoubtedly adopted by the majority of neighbourhoods of colour has significantly contributed to the depiction of black masculinity in Singleton’s work. Its manifestation is evident from the way the movie heroes walk, talk, stand, make gestures, wear clothes, and wear their hair. However, it is important to realize that black masculinity is inextricably intertwined with the racially marginalized position of African-American males. Therefore, its articulation in Boyz N The Hood was partly a result of director’s desire to portray important socioeconomic differences within American society. It could be argued that black masculinity is a manifestation of a self-protective communicational style; therefore, the adaptive social mechanism of constructing one’s identity according to the demands of an individual’s milieu is evident in almost every scene of the movie.
Bradshaw, P 2016, ‘Boyz N the Hood review – a blistering humanitarian classic that has not dated’, The Guardian, Web.
Chan, K 1998 ‘The construction of black male identity in black action films of the nineties’, Cinema Journal, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 35-48.
Ebert, R 1991, Boyz N The Hood. Web.
Ford, K 2011, ‘Doing fake masculinity, being real men: present and future constructions of self among black college men’, Symbolic Interaction, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 38-62.
Hoston, W 2014, Black masculinity in the Obama era, Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Lemelle, A 2011, Black masculinity and sexual politics, Routledge, New York.
Nadell, J 1995, ‘Boyz N The Hood – a colonial analysis’, Journal of Black Studies, vol 25, no. 4, pp. 447-464.
Boyz N The Hood 1991, motion picture, Columbia Pictures, Culver City.
Do the Right Thing 1989, motion picture, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, New York.