Boyz N Culver City: Columbia’s Lot

(Originally published 15 May 2015 at


On Thursday, January 29, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were shooting footage that would be used in the trailer for the upcoming NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, Universal, 2015). Death Row records founder Suge Knight paid an unwelcome visit. Knight had most recently been in the news when he was shot six times outside the MTV Video Music Awards. Cube and Dre wanted nothing to do with Knight. Denied entry by Dre’s security, Knight allegedly argued with Cle “Bone” Sloan, left the scene, returned, fought with Sloan again, and backed his pickup over both Sloan and Terry Carter, killing the latter. After turning himself in the next day, he was charged with murder and attempted murder, and held without bail. By Saturday, the Los Angeles Times had already processed the event. Writing for Pop & Hiss, the paper’s music blog, August Brown and Gerrick Kennedy argued that, “While the L.A. hip-hop world has largely left the overt, glamorized violence of the ’90s far behind, the one-time hip-hop mogul appears drawn to it.”1

After starring in a number of successful comedies, by 2011 Cube had become the poster dad for the mammoth retrospective of postwar SoCal art, Pacific Standard Time.

The spokes-dad for Los Angeles modernism: Ice Cube

He appeared in a short video touting the Eameses and made the case for a transracial LA modernism. More commercially-minded Dre and his partner Jimmy Iovine went into the headphone business, becoming a dominant player by 2012 before cashing out when Apple purchased Beats by Dre for $3 billion in 2014. After Knight’s arrest, Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, offered the Times metro reporters a story of media-driven racial uplift: “The acts of one man do not derail the movement we are doing here in Compton,” she said. “Thank you to Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Universal Studios, and the Grammys for telling the story of what Compton was and is becoming.”2

No one wanted to be part of Knight’s worldneither the city of Compton, nor up and coming hip-hop artists like Schoolboy Q or Kendrick Lamar, nor survivors of the gangsta rap era riding a comfortable wave of turn-of-the-nineties nostalgia. As Nina Bahdreshwar, former editor of Death Row Uncut, told the Times, “He has lost a lot of friends. He lost his business. A lot of stuff has happened to him. It’s a tragedy, but it’s always down to the people around you.” Knight’s tale may seem personal (“the acts of one man”), but Bahdreshwar’s sense that his story is more general (“always down to”) points up one of the crucial distinctions of ’90s nostalgia: It is haunted by an unresolved tragedy still rolling out across the culture, particularly in the wake of the police killings and popular protests in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and Baltimore. Yet Knight is clearly not just “one man” nor just a metonym for the pasthe is an allegorical figure, and as a figureas a source of storyhe is attractive and hard to ignore. Hollywood’s fascination with gangsters and vice versa routinely results in such reality crossoversthat is essential to the genre. Even during the redemptive filming of Straight Outta Compton, there was a drive-by shooting on set. Yet as the Times would have it, that shooting was an aberration, a holdover, an unwelcome throwback. Straight Outta Compton is “a document of a bygone era.”

Still, every document needs to be read, and every reading relies on protocols of intelligibility. Those protocols are what the real-world story of Knight’s vehicular manslaughter (lavishly covered by and its fictional analogues share. Knight’s attempts to reinsert himself in a corporate-cultural scene that had passed him by may be pathetic, but they bear more than a passing resemblance to the plot of Empire, the Fox network series that premiered to great acclaim and solid ratings early in January. Empire filters some elements of the Death Row “tragedy” through King Lear, but the crucial bridge to the allegorical Knight is Cookie Lyon. Cookie has been in prison for 17 years and is only now being released as part of a complex sting operation. Her symbolic role is easier to parse: she is the avatar of the ’90s, held in abeyance long enough that her return to the record label she co-founded functions as a kind of corporate time-travel. She comes demanding what is rightfully hers, but also to remind her ex-husband of his proper calling. Her astonishing wardrobe demands attention, but she seizes that attention in order to perform her Cordelia-esque role. She is the one who reads her ex-husband, her family, the corporation, the culture, refusing to behave as though the tragedies of the past are irrelevant to the unfolding tragedies of the present. For her, as for Knight, the era is not bygone.

Every nostalgic text is to be set off against an origin, and for the Los Angeles Timesindeed, for Cubethat origin is Boyz N the Hood. Nostalgia nearly always uncomplicates the original, and in this case the Times writers contend that Boyz was “a real-time howl of despair from South L.A. gang culture.” Boyz was far more than that, as Brown and Kennedy doubtless know. Among other things, it was a necessarily a primer for the reading of South L.A. gang culture. Powerful representations of social conflict suppose and attempt to instantiate their own protocols for reading. Some of those are generic“tragedy” and racial uplift are master plots with more distant origins and with continuing purchasebut other protocols work at a smaller scale, recasting the world as a collection of signs to be read. What Cookie brings to Empire is, I am saying, what Boyz brought to the New Jack cinema moment and the culture more broadly. Just as Cookie’s power stems from her ability to control readings across multiple levels of siginificancefrom the personal to the corporate to the culturalso Boyz N the Hood, insists on a reading of similar capacity. What is more, that combination of hermeneutic insight and excessive display owed as much to the structure of the Hollywood motion picture industry in 1990 as it did to the City of Quartz-era Los Angeles of Crips, Bloods, and militarized policing.

In Boyz N the Hood nearly every beat of the story, element of the mise-en-scène, or character trait insists that we read it as both itself and a sign of itself. From its opening shot to its climactic pietà, it insistently declares its meaning.

Two versions of the pietà after Ricky is shot

Figure Three

Some of this is genericmelodrama calls out for such heightened displayssome is more individualdirector John Singleton’s particular sincerities and his youthsome institutionalthe prominence of semiotics in American universities in the late 1980sand some is native to the materialurban life turns on the reading, and misreading, of signs. Yet when it comes to gangs, the film tempers its general insistence. Boyz explicitly refers to Los Angeles street gangs only twice. How should we understand this uncharacteristic reticence?

On the one hand, many popular press reactions saw it as Singleton and his producers’ attempt to smuggle in dangerous content.3 For although the film does not dwell on gang life, it is nevertheless replete with gang symbolism. During preview screenings, dutifully reported in the Times, “some counselors” wondered “whether the movie’s identification of certain gangs by name and the subtle use of hand signals, trademark colors and attire to denote others will encourage” aggression.4 Mike Salgado, “president of an Orange County gang counseling organization” thought that “it will definitely push the rivalry between what is known as the red and the blue,” and that the summer release would be particularly dangerous. The marketing was even more contentious. One commercial referred Los Angeles as “the gang capital of the nation,” and another noted “There’s a war going on, and the news isn’t covering it.” The owners of the Baldwin Theater, “the nation’s only African-American owned first run movie theater,” and one located just blocks from much of the film’s action, “criticized TV commercials that show[ed] a young man wearing a red baseball cap sticking a sawed-off shotgun out of a [red] car windowan image that would suggest street gangs.” 5

The offending image in the trailer: Red on red

The Wall Street Journal noted that box office forecaster CinemaScore decided not to send its market researchers out to gauge audience reactions after seeing the trailer.6 As at other “hood” movies, there was sporadic violence on the opening weekendtwo died, 30 were injured. Singleton and Columbia were called to account.

While the studio defended its marketing as simply a matter of course, Singleton justified the gunplay in the trailer as part of a bait-and-switch strategy. “If I would have said: ‘Boyz N the Hood: A father. A son. A mission.’ Nobody would have come to see it.”7 In the wake of the opening night violence, David Mills, then a Washington Post writer, now better known as the writer who, with David Simon, created landmark television series The Corner, The Wire, and Treme, interviewed Singleton. Mills had picked up on most of the color coding of the filmthat the bad guys’ car was red while Tre’s VW was dark blue, for example. “That’s just coincidence,” Singleton said. Mills seemed to understand: “Perhaps last week was the wrong time to try getting honest answers out of Singleton about this. But the color-coding is there. And that too reflects hip-hopthe coded language, arcane meanings, defining an in-group.”8

On the other hand, academic criticism has been far more willing to accept the film’s self-representation. The film’s sociological aphasia is less a matter of coding, or signifying, than it is part of an argument: gangs go unmentioned because they are epiphenomena of the real economic and social forces that shape the lives on display, and in order to get at these forces, the film must leave a gap between the boyz’ ordinary experience (which surely would have included references to gang life) and those causes. The best interpreters of the film have been quick to step into this gap, but in a complicated way. Critics such as Manthia Diawara, Paula Massood, and Ed Guerrero have agreed, more or less, with Singleton’s decision to softpedal the influence of gangs in South Central Los Angeles, while at the same time they have teased out the significance of other bits of the semiotic and social backdrop.9 The “STOP” and “Exit” signs are fair game for reading, but the rigorous division between blue and red is less important. If popular readings have been reductive, academic interpretations have had the unfortunate consequence of denying what is plainly visible in the film.

Whatever Singleton’s intent, though, the achievement of the film relies on an ability to control the moments when it becomes semiotically obtrusive. Just as Jaws enacts the story of its own constrained obviousness, so Boyz plays out as a set of leaps from the obvious to the coded and back.10 The film turns on knowing how to recognize signs as signs and how to read them. The project of converting its viewers into intense readers begins with the opening credits. Gang-style violence first erupts sonically, with angry young men’s voices shouting out, “Hey man, fuck that, man, them niggas around the corner are tripped out, man,” and other bits of posturing. A car alarm beeps as it is deactivated, the engine turns over, guns are cocked. “Get your shit ready,” says the driver. They find their targets; they shoot. Screams follow and the LAPD dispatcher sends a car to the corner of Crenshaw and Century. A girl cries, “They shot my brother,” over a siren and a helicopter. In this opening minute, the sonic space has shifted dramatically, if conventionally, from inside a car, to a street, to a dispatch center and back to the street. “A symphony of street noise,” the screenplay calls it. The title card that appears after the drive-by shooting remains particularly baffling in its tortured Hollywood grammar and its odd statistic: “‘One out of every twenty-one Black American males will be murdered in their lifetime ‘ [Dissolve to:] ‘Most will die at the hands of another Black male.'” (The screenplay was more grammatical, but less accurate, when it opened, “One out of every twenty-two Black American males will be murdered each year.” 11 ) From the beginning, the film struggles to find the form that will allow it to translate story into statistic, example into discourse. And the reason it strugglesthe reason it remains powerfulis that the gap it must bridge is so broad. The tacit, pervasive presence of gang colors in the film is the privileged instance of this struggle.

One of the two explicit references to gangs comes early, when a young version of Doughboy (Cube’s character) proclaims his origins: “I ain’t from Africa. I’m from Crenshaw Mafia.” 12 An hour later, Coffey, a self-hating African-American cop, will ask Tre whether he is “one of them Crenshaw Mafia muthafuckas” or “one of them Rolling Sixties.” But he won’t call them “gangs”: “What ‘set’ you from?!” (The scare quotes are from the screenplay.13 ) The point of both references is that the boys are not part of any gang at allone is too young, the other has avoided gang lifebut that the question of gang membership still permeates their world.

Even if Tre were a gang member, it should have been obvious to the cop, given Tre’s navy VW bug, that he was not Crenshaw Mafia. On the street and on the screen, LA gang life was red for Bloods, blue for Crips. Dennis Hopper’s Colors (Orion 1988) took that basic opposition and ran with it, creating a largely sympathetic portrait of the embattled, undermanned LAPD gang unit in its struggle to contain the violence on the street. (Every aspect of that characterization was debatable. Boyz N the Hood, Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1990), and the Rodney King beating, trial, and riots [March 1991-April 1992], constituted an extended refutation of Colors‘ worldview.) What Hopper contributed to the iconography of the LA gang war was his simultaneous commitment to a sort of documentary realismHaskell Wexler shot it and, more notoriously, members of opposing gangs were encouraged to fight for the camerasalongside an even more powerful commitment to formal logic. The multiethnic gang that the film turns to as its peacemaker finds itself squeezed territorially and conceptually between the Crips and the Bloods.

Boyz retained the formal architecture of Hopper’s film but essentially de-branded it. The gang valences slipped by producer Steve Nicolaides: “John told me that colors was dead, that there was no more blue and red, so I said, okay, and I didn’t really pay attention to the fact that the bad guys drove a red Hyundai, and had a red Chicago Bulls hat and jerseys on.” The confrontation, never named, becomes only color war: red on one side, blue on the other.

When Doughboy spots the red Hyundai in his neighborhood, he displays his Crips blue.

While Hopper turned to an imaginary unaffiliated gang to mediate the Crips/Bloods opposition, Singleton turned to a mediating color. In an early barbeque scene, Tre wears a yellow shirt that became iconic enough to later appear in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas 14

Tre's cautious, mediating yellow and his virtual avatar

Figure Seven

His mother wears a yellow blouse when she meets her ex for coffee. Ricky and his mother wear yellow during his meeting with a USC recruiter. (Indeed, the only red the “good guys” wear is Ricky’s USC football jersey.). As far as possible, colors are pure signs, not signs of institutional membership, but how far is that?

As a mediating figure, Tre finds himself among the Crips but not of thembarely. His father’s VW was red in 1984, but at some point Tre has repainted it dark blue. Midway through the film, he has traded his yellow and black shirt for the blue and gray of the Georgetown Hoyas. On the street this makes him a target for Blood-affiliated gangbangers from Compton and for officer Coffey. They are mistaken, as it happens, but if blue does not make him a Crip, what does it mean? When Tre drops by his girlfriend Brandi’s seeking solace, we see that his shirt marks him as a potential Catholic, or as good as. (Still, he is decidedly not wearing St. John’s red.) Brandi, who has up to now refused to have sex with him, relents. The narrative makes it clear that she changes her mind because she has seen the pain behind his bluster; the design (his shirt, her gold cross) makes it clear that they finally “match” (spiritually wedded if not actually so).

Tre and Brandi in matching Catholic regalia.

Tre’s blue comes closest to a declaration of gang membership the day Ricky dies. He begins the day wearing a blue workshirt and jeans, the same outfit Doughboy wore at the barbeque, and he is still wearing those clothes, saturated with darkening blood, when he joins Doughboy on a search for Ricky’s killers that night. While Tre is riding around the city looking for vengeance, his father sits on the couch at home, twirling Baoding balls, a copy of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October prominently displayed on the end table.15 Tre thinks better of revenge and returns home, but Doughboy and his gang discover Ferris at a local fast food restaurant still wearing his Bulls cap. Nighttime has dimmed the color palate, but there, among the burgers and the ketchup on the table are three bright red Coca-Cola cups.

Red October: Bulls caps, ketchup, and Coke.

The ersatz Bloods run for it, but they are doomed, as the prominent Exit sign makes clear. Their car, clothes, ketchup, and Cokes have marked them for death.

At Columbia in 1990, a Coke wasn’t just a Coke. The soft drink company had been the floundering studio’s white knight in 1982. Columbia had struggled in the early 1980s, rocked by an embezzlement scandal and besieged by corporate raiders such as Kirk Kerkorian. When Coke bought Columbia for $750m in 1982, it was, they said the result of a “careful search for a high-growth business…compatible with the central strengths of the Company.” More fancifullybut also typically for a conglomerate of the eraCEO Robert Goizueta proclaimed: “We believe that the thirst we quench (with soft drinks) is no greater than the thirst for entertainment.”16 The synergies never materialized, and in 1987 Coke  began to make its exit. It prepared Columbia for sale by cleaning up its balance sheet, spinning off half the studio to shareholders, and converting its remaining ownership into an equity stake.17 Finally, in September 1989, in a deal brokered by Japanophile Mike Ovitz, Sony agreed to buy quasi-stand-alone Columbia Pictures Entertainment. To run the new studio, they hired Peter Guber and Jon Peters, producers who were coming off remarkable success with Batman. The deal was immense: $3.4 billion for the studio and $200 million for the Guber/Peters production company. Beyond that, Sony quickly found itself in an expensive contract dispute with Warner Bros., who had the rights to Guber and Peters’s services. To escape from that lawsuit, they gave Warner half the lucrative Columbia Record House mail-order business and agreed to depart the Burbank lot the studios shared. In exchange, they were given the old MGM lot in Culver City, which Warner had acquired when it bought Lorimar Pictures the year before. The facilities desperately needed renovation. In all, Sony’s settlement with Warner added an estimated $500 million to the bill, not including the expensive upgrades the new lot would require. 18 Executive reshuffling began almost immediately. Peters and studio head Dawn Steel clashed over her slate of films and she left in January 1990. Frank Price, who had been in charge of Columbia when Coke bought it in 1982 only to be pushed out the next year, returned to the studio in March; Mike Medavoy would run sister studio Tri-Star. This new, uneasy hierarchy was in place when Boyz was greenlit late that summer. Under Sony America president Mickey Schulhof, the plan was to “jump-start the studio, filling the pipeline and boosting market share as soon as possible.”19 Guber and Peters wanted to effectively double the number of films the studio released, and yet, as was typically the case after a change in control, they had eliminated whatever remained of Steel’s development slate. Despite the pressures from above, though, Price did not say “yes enough.”20 “I think Frank became extremely exacting about his tastes,” one executive said.21 By the middle of the summer, he had approved only Return to the Blue Lagoon, a production he brought with him when he was signed. Boyz was the first native-Columbia film to be greenlit.22 Despite its small size and modest budget ($6 million), the film was something of a landmark for the new studio, an ideal site to register the change in control.

Singleton was more knowledgeable than even most sophisticated newcomers would have been because his fledgling career had been uniquely bound to the studio. Where other African-American directors in the early-’90s wave had roots in varieties of the independent scene (Spike Lee, Mario Van Peebles, Matty Rich), Singleton was a studio native. He had been interning at Columbia in 1989 while a student in Filmic Writing at USC’s School of Cinema Television. He signed with CAA even before finishing his degree. Stephanie Allain, a recently promoted executive at Columbia and one of very few women of color in the ranks, wanted to read Boyz, but Singleton was wary. He hoped to direct it, and he knew “The studio system will just snap it up and put another director on it.”23

After acquiring it from Singleton’s agent, she became the film’s champion. As she took Boyz up the studio hierarchy hoping to get it greenlit, “It was a tough sell. It was a really tough sell,” she said. “We got around to everybody. Various people said various things, you know, good and bad about the script, and then we got to Frank Price and he just said, ‘Well I think it’s great. I think we should make it.'”24

Whatever the project’s meritsand they were substantial, not least of which was strong support within the executive corps from Allain and Mark Gill, then a vice president in marketingdirector and studio head could come together in a shared hyperawareness of the film’s symbolic context. In Singleton’s case, his professional preparation dovetailed neatly with broader sources of cinematic authenticity. Writing about Boyz and Menace II Society, Massood lays out the particular office of the “hood” film: They “are self-reflexive discourses about the exclusions of representation and image manufacture. They expose African American identification and cinematic production as at once inside mainstream American experience and, at the same time, liminal [to] and critical of that experience.”25 Inside and just outside mainstream experience, inside and just outside and mainstream Hollywood, inside and just outside membership in the Crips, Boyz is, at times, understandably nervous. The sort of wariness Tre and Ricky show when Tre’s father, Furious Styles, takes them on a field trip to Compton is precisely Singleton’s unwillingness to show Allain the script for Boyz.

Like Singleton, Price was acutely aware of the importance of the symbolic. At moments of corporate crisis, studio branding becomes central to the effective management of relations between studio and staff, studio and ownership. As mentioned, Price had been in charge of Columbia when Coke purchased it. In the summer of 1982, a micromanaging memo went out under his name, making clear that the new corporate order had consequences. Pepsi and 7-Up were to be avoided; only Coke and Minute Maid were to remain. (“When Minute Maid products are not available, orange juice and other juices should be put into a carafe.”26 ) It was all in keeping with Coke’s intense corporate culture: “One of the first questions asked by Coca-Cola representatives when booking a property is whether or not it carries their soft drinks…There are many times when Coca-Cola has found it necessary to convert a hotel from competitive products to its products for the duration of the meeting.” At Columbia, that “conversion” was to extend all the way to design: “Whenever possible, we are urged not to use Pepsi blue colors in meetings or in decorating for social functions.”27 Price blamed the memo on a staffer, but the meaning was clear: The color war was on.

A decade later, Coke was out and the studio’s color allegiance had flipped. Just before Price returned in March, “a COLUMBIA STUDIOS sign in big blue letters had been mounted over the main Madison Avenue gate” at the old MGM.28 Boyz was to make that big blue sign meaningful. The opening sonic drive-by now appears as yet another instance of corporate logorrhea. “Hey man, fuck that,” coincides with the appearance of the Columbia logo; “Get your shit ready” with the credit reading “Columbia Pictures Presents.” The gap between story and statistic that the opening struggles to bridge is also the gap between story and backstory. This twilight intercorporate violence will finally pay off in the parking lot when Doughboy gets his revenge.

One result of the film’s commitment to occult meaningfulness is that even when it attempts to grapple with vast, impersonal forces, they are channeled through symbolic (branded) incarnations. 29 Thus its most sustained explanation of the root causes of violence is also a grand lecture in social semiotics:

"A billboard"


Furious: I want you all to take a look at that sign up there. “Cash for your homes.” You know what that is?

Boys: A billboard.

Furious: What are you all, Amos and Andy? Are you Stepin and he’s Fetchit? I’m talking about the message, what it stands for. It’s called gentrification, it’s what happens when the property value of a certain area is brought down. Huh? You listening?

Tre: Yeah.

Furious: They bring the property value down, they can buy the land at a lower price. They move all the people out, raise the property value, and sell it at a profit.

The sign’s slogan is flat, and the 555- phone number is conventionally fake, but the name of the real estate company, Seoul to Seoul, is clever: it identifies the ethnicity of the capital (Korean) and the intended market (Black) while at the same time it points up just how willful and awkward this interethnic transaction is bound to seem.

Throughout his speech, Furious neglects to identify who “they” are who want the black community to kill themselves. His list of self-determining groups (“Now what we need to do is we need to keep everything, everything in our neighborhood black, black-owned, with black money, just like the Jews, the Italians, the Mexicans, and the Koreans do”) suggests some possible villains; the sign suggests one in particular. In the script, the realty company is unidentified; “Seoul to Seoul” is only the name of the grocery store where Ricky and Tre go before Ricky is killed. But while Korean grocers were easy and popular targets, as they had been in Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Ice Cube’s “Black Korea,” Korean real estate concerns were not. Just as colors stand in for gangs who stand in for corporations, so these Koreans stand in for Japanese who stand in for Sony.

Hollywood and Japan came together in the popular imaginary when Sony bought Columbia. Newsweek had redressed the Lady with the Lamp in a Kimono for its cover (“Japan Invades Hollywood”30 ); Guber had his temporary office and his Malibu house redone with authentic Japanese mudwork and shoji screens.31 Yet the cultural merger of Hollywood and Japan, Inc., two ideas forever on the verge of incarnation, took its most material form in the reconstruction of the Culver City studio lot. Peters announced his grand plans in August, as Singleton was busy revising the script (including Furious’s speech) in preparation for shooting that October-November. Peters wanted to renovate the historic Thalberg building and rebuild the soundstages. At the same time, he proposed clearing much of the lot to erect two 11-story towers to house the Columbia and Tri-Star executives. He hoped, eventually, to construct a “Sonyland” that might rival Disneyland.32 Boyz stages this economic-transaction-cum-cultural-collision affectively, in its mix of fear about straying onto the wrong turf and admiration for the successful self-determination of model minorities glazed with the sort of conspiratorial thinking that makes every sign meaningful, every action intentional. Critics considered Furious’s conspiracy theorizing an authentic expression of a certain strain of African-American political thinking.

John Singleton, the film’s 23-year-old creator, says he believes the forces that bring drugs into black neighborhoods are considerably less conspiratorial, but he wanted Furious Styles to discuss these problems the way he has heard other blacks discuss them.

He’s right. Furious’s lines could have been lifted word for word from statements I have heard numerous real-life black folks make in barbershops, at house parties and in talk-radio conversations.” >33

At least as surely, it was the native language of the Hollywood player.

Of course the negotiations between Sony and Coke (or, for that matter, Sony and TimeWarner) never really amounted to a gang war; they only took that form as long as necessary. At the end of the film, getting out of LA does not mean going to Washington (Georgetown) but to Atlanta, Coca-Cola’s world headquarters. Tre and Brandi will be attending Morehouse and Spelman, two historically black colleges. By the time Boyz debuted on video in March, 1992, Sony and Coke had become marketing partners in a campaign to raise money for the United Negro College Fund, money that would help send “real-life” Tre’s and Brandi’s to schools like Morehouse and Spelman. As part of that effort, Singleton directed a brief featurette that appeared on videocassettes of Boyz. He touted the virtues of the UNCF, and encouraged viewers to call a 1-900 number to donate. The press release telegraphically explained that “Coke will feature title [meaning Boyz] in certain of its POP [Point of Purchase displays]…parties are projecting Fund will receive at least $150,000 from PSA, which is first to be filmed in high-definition TV, with Sony donating all equipment.”34 Hardware, software, and soft drinks, in nearly perfect synergy.35

Looking back at the early ’90s, those promises of synergy seem as archaic as the high-top fade. The fade has returned, at least on Empire, and LA-style militarized policing is once again at the center of national debates on race. Yet Boyz remains crucial not simply because it focused and projected the defining iconography of its era, but even more powerfully, because it constructed a mode of reading that was as essential to New Jack cinema as it would be to the vertically integrated media conglomerates of its day. That day would pass as surely as Suge Knight’s, but for a moment, Boyz could stand in for the industry as a whole and Singleton could embody industrial consciousness as such. At the end of 1991, he was still at Columbia, busily preparing his followup while Peters and Price had been fired. Singleton’s self-marketing was entirely in tune with the corporation’s image of him. “I bring a street sensibility to the business,” he told People in December.36 In Fortune that same week, Singleton joined everyone from President George W. Bush and GE CEO Jack Welch to Steve Jobs and Matsushita head Akio Tanii in answering the question of what they wanted business to do in 1992. Implicitly looking ahead to the marketing campaign for Boyz on videotape, the director argued that the best long-term investment was expanding educational opportunity. The model for that sort of foresight, naturally enough, was Japan: “The reason that America is in the situation it is in right now is that they don’t think like the Japanese. When the Japanese invest in something, they think about what will happen in the long term.” 37 The LA Times’ Patrick Goldstein noted that, “Singleton’s office is on the Columbia Pictures lot, but his heart remains in South Central.”38 As Boyz makes clear, that wasn’t much of a commute.

  1. August Brown and Gerrick Kennedy, “Suge Knight Remains Stuck in a Gangsta Rap Past,” Los Angeles Times, 1/31/15, []
  2. Angel Jennings, Veronica Rocha, and Joseph Serna, “In Compton, Suge Knight Incidents Bring Dismay, Anger,” LAT, 1/31/15, []
  3. The film also downplays the connection between Furious and the Nation of Islam. He doesn’t want any “swine” from the barbeque, but a reference to Farrakhan in the screenplay has been cut. []
  4. Tammerlin Drummond, “The Early Buzz on ‘BOYZ’: It’s All Too Real,” LAT, 7/7/91 Calendar 7. []
  5. David J. Fox and Nina J. Easton, “Can Hollywood Do the Right Thing? Violence Mars Boyz N the Hood Opening, But Insiders Still See Future in Black-Themed Films,” LAT 7/13/91, F1, 3, quote on F3. []
  6. Lipman and Freedman B1 []
  7. Kathy Tyrer, “Promoting Violence to Lure Black Viewers,” Adweek, Western Advertising News 11/2/92, factiva doc. adww000020011106dob20008c, retrieved 2/4/15. []
  8. David Mills, “‘Boyz’ and the Breakthrough: The Violent Birth of Hip-Hop Cinema,” Washington Post, 7/21/91, G01. []
  9. Manthia Diawara, “Black American Cinema: The New Realism,” in Black American CiCinemCinema, Diawara, ed. (New York: Routledge, 1993) 19-23; Paula Massood, Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2003) mentions the color coding on 160, but spends far more time examining the intertextual references of the soundtrack. One of the earliest extended accounts of the film, Ed Guerrero’s Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1993) remains one of the savviest about its role in recertifying the office of the black film at a moment of industrial crisis as low budget, high-profit, with crossover potential (165-66). Guerrero notes the Crip/Blood standoff between Doughboy and the “red-coded ‘Blood’ on Crenshaw Boulevard,” only to immediately stress that “the film’s diverse points of view as rendered by its characters, the social compression of so many different outlooks and aspirations under the stresses of ghetto life, move Boyz beyond the inept essentializing of films” like Colors (185). []
  10. See my The Studios after the Studios (Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2015), ch. 2. []
  11. Boyz N the Hood, screenplay, (Hollywood, CA: Script City) 1990, cover dated “August 10, 1990: Rev Aug 31, Sept. 10, 14, 28, 1990,” 1. In an early essay on the film, Michael Eric Dyson delves further into the statistics in order to probe the film’s narrative of black male decline, “Between Apocalypse and Redemption: John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood,” in Film Theory Goes to the Movies, Jim Collins, Hilary Radner, Ava Preacher Collins, eds., (New York: Routledge, 1993) 209-26. []
  12. The screenplay includes other stray references that did not make it into the film. During Tre’s first encounter with the Bloods in the red Hyundai, the scene had “a hand come[] out the window and make[] a gang sign” before the driver said “Whatup Blood?!!” (In the film he says “Whatup, punk?” and throws no sign.) A couple of drug dealing scenes from the middle of the film are also cut. []
  13. Screenplay 86 []
  14. I owe both this insight and the screen capture to Daniel Reynolds. []
  15. Even Singleton could not disavow this bit of playfulness. In his interview with Mills, he admitted that “Some of it is; some of it isn’t.” []
  16. Stephen Prince, A New Pot of Gold (Berkeley: U California P, 2000), 51, citing Coca-Cola company letter to shareholders, Form 10-K, 1982 6 and David Fox, “Coke Holds Fiscal Court on Colpix Turf,” Variety, 11/24/82 3. []
  17. Balance sheet figures derived from Coca-Cola and Sony annual reports. []
  18. These numbers and the outlines of the Sony/Columbia story come from Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters, Hit and Run (New York: Touchstone, 1996). []
  19. Griffin and Masters 256-257 []
  20. Griffin and Masters 269 []
  21. Griffin and Masters 295 []
  22. Griffin and Masters 269 []
  23. Robert W. Welkos, “Against the Odds: Stephanie Allain is One of the Few Minorities to Crack Hollywood’s Executive Circle,” LAT 9/6/92 9, Allain is speaking as Singleton. []
  24. DVD Commentary. This is obviously Columbia’s version. On more than one occasion, Singleton has given a fuller account of the script’s progress, in which Russell Simmons, whose production deal was at Columbia; G-Peck, Guber and Peters’s own company; and Universal all express interest before Frank Price agrees. The more elaborate versions all confirm Singleton’s uniquely canny approach to the negotiation. See “AFI Harold Lloyd Master Seminar, American Film Institute, 1995,” 57-63, and “Why We Make Movies: Black Filmmakers Talk about the Magic of Cinema, George Alexander, 2003” 154-56, both in John Singleton: Interviews, Craigh Barboza, ed., (Jackson, MS: U Mississippi P, 2009). []
  25. Massood 148-9. []
  26. Steve Pond, “Coke Is It! Columbia Chief Says House Brand Only,” Washington Post, 7/28/82 B1. []
  27. Pond B1 []
  28. Griffin and Masters 278 []
  29. For Massood, culture sits atop real economic changes (deindustrialization), demographic shifts (a decline in median age), and state responses (militarized policing) that have in turn driven crucial cultural changes (gangsta rap; the hood film). Any cultural production is but “a mediated version of an already textualized and ‘discursivized’ socioideological world,” (161, here citing Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media [New York: Routledge, 1994] 180). []
  30. Newsweek, 10/9/89. The article inside is more measured, “Japan Goes Hollywood,” John Schwartz, Joshua Hammer, Michael Reese, and Bill Powell, 62-67. []
  31. Griffin and Masters 263, 4 []
  32. Griffin and Masters 274-275 []
  33. See Clarence Page, “Genocide Theories Can Blind Blacks to Real Culprits,” Chicago Tribune, 8/14/91, []. Page’s widely syndicated column tries to find just this middle ground:
    John Singleton, the film’s 23-year-old creator, says he believes the forces that bring drugs into black neighborhoods are considerably less conspiratorial, but he wanted Furious Styles to discuss these problems the way he has heard other blacks discuss them.He’s right. Furious’s lines could have been lifted word for word from statements I have heard numerous real-life black folks make in barbershops, at house parties and in talk-radio conversations. []
  34. Video Week 1/13/92, n.p. []
  35. In a more profit-driven campaign, Coke would include hundreds of thousands of Sony minidiscs in its packages, in an attempt to drive sales of the software-delivery format. New York Times, 3/6/91 D5. []
  36. “The 25 Most Intriguing People of 1991,” People, 12/30/91 80. []
  37. “What I Want U.S. Business to Do in ’92,” Fortune, 12/30/91, []
  38. Patrick Goldstein, “His New ‘Hood is Hollywood,” LAT, 7/7/91, O6, 7, 22-4, quote on 23. []
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