South Central as a Prison in “Boyz N the Hood”

Confined in the streets of South Central Los Angeles, Tre Styles navigates the ghetto sufficiently to the point of liberation by the end of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991). The location is a prison of death for those that willingly assume roles within the system (the Baker half-brothers) instead of those breaking free to find a heterotopic site of resistance (Tre). Michel Foucault describes heterotopias as being “something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.”[1] The problem with where Tre lives (with his father) is that it acts completely opposite of a heterotopia. There is neither hope nor safe futures for Tre and his friends because of their limited resistance in the confines of authority. This paper will examine the various signs, including the heterotopic site of Furious’s house, to show the control of the white hegemonic authority over non-white residents of South Central Los Angeles.

In theorizing the city, Paula J. Massood tries to “reveal it as both utopia and dystopia and as a primary metaphor for the African American experience.”[2] She explores the varied signs that draw Los Angeles as a place “both real and imaginary,” and finds “the cityscape of the hood film is largely determined by and firmly entrenched in this multilayered historical and cultural legacy.”[3] In an essay similar to and drawing on Massood, Andrés Bartolomé Leal finds that “the inability of the ‘hood residents to escape the geographical and social constraints of their environments is a direct outcome of the long-distance control that the mainly white dominant elites exert over their existence.”[4] Both Massood and Leal point toward the historic and economic control the hegemony has over the “‘hood residents” and their power to achieve agency through “geographical, social, and linguistic mobility.”[5] Taking a more personal approach to the home and hometown space, James P. Morris-Knower explores “the ways the home broadly considered is represented as the primary site for the political struggles over the places of identity and the sense of place in [Boyz N the Hood].”[6] Morris-Knower ends his examination of the city by exploring Tre’s father, Furious whose “lesson here is that the voice of gentrification is the voice of the commercial vernacular, which is the voice of the dominant spatial ideology . . .”[7]

Starting from the beginning, the first shot of the film features a forward dolly move to a stop sign with a jet flying overhead; the world of the film is immediately set up without any explanation of time or place. The stop sign, which signifies stagnancy, shows the limitation of the space in the film, and moments later reveals in subtitles: SOUTH CENTRAL LOS ANGELES, 1984. This limitation is supported by the dolly move, which abruptly ends when the stop sign is filling the frame, further signifying the failed mobility of moving out of the space. Furthermore, the jet overhead, a form of mobility extending beyond the stop sign, flies until out of the frame; this escape shows the ease to which the dominant ideology of those not stuck who control the mobility within the city, whites, are able to freely move without hindrance. It also signifies the ease to which that dominant group can watch from afar without having to be directly involved. The next frame in which the time and place are given, a one-way street sign can be seen above young Tre, and the group of kids follow the sign as if unknowingly controlled by those in power. Within the same introductory sequence, various traffic signals litter the frame, guiding the society of the film’s location: the ‘hood. The group that controls the mobility within Los Angeles, the white hegemony, assumes their dominance in keeping the non-whites submissive by confining their location with traffic signals, which limits their space from a distance. More personally, Leal suggests this opening sequence “reveal[s] the film’s vision of this enclosed trapping environment as a definitory element in the formation of the ‘hood individuals present and future identities.”[8] Those identities are of ten year olds without an understanding of power dynamics and spatial equality, which further problematizes their development into a world with limited space to explore their identities. Without explicitly telling the viewer the socio-economic situation of South Central, one can assume an inherently trapped individuality within this space caused by the hegemony’s desire to stay powerful.

Following in the discussion of authority, Massood finds the LAPD’s presence an extension of the controlling group, which shows “the limitation of movement and the power relations inherent in that delineation.”[9] Throughout the film, sounds of police helicopter and sirens prove the constant surveillance over the ‘hood “to take agency away from people in the community.”[10] Space is defined by the culture that historically controls it, but the hegemony of Los Angeles dismantles this assertion with their watchful eye to make sure nothing is awry. Instead of a place to foster the youth, the ‘hood in Boyz is more prison than home.

Tre moves in with his father, as some punishment, at a young age after getting into a fight with a kid at school while living with this mother. This punishment turns fruitful because of the values Furious and his home bestow upon Tre. Morris-Knower chimes in by stating, “the struggle for place [as an African American adolescent] is doubly a struggle for the (spatial) power to affirm and define one’s homeplace(s) of identity.”[11] The viewer experiences this dilemma through the actions of the measured and sympathetic teenager Tre. At the crux of manhood and committing oneself down a life path, Tre and his friends struggle in finding one.

By the end, Tre makes it out of the hood (individuality) while his best friend and half-brother are murdered (containment). The reason being is because of Furious’s home as being a heterotopic site of resistance against the dominant ideology. In a noble attempt at educating Tre and Ricky about the real estate industry, Furious finds himself giving a harrowing message about the importance of owning one’s own home in an effort to stop outside forces, the hegemony, from making a profit of the real estate in their own town. He calls for black owned everything so that the people in South Central can control South Central. This address becomes philosophically relevant to all communities in which the power of the hegemony is crushing the culture and confining their space as if it was a prison. Furious owns his house and therefore owns his life; his house therefore experiences a deconstructive effort at achieving an agency within South Central. He lives in the community, but outside the constraints that hold all others back. Tre grows up in this way, but eventually moves out; Leal points out “this escape from the neighborhood’s constraints . . . implies that, as long as things do not change, there is no real future for the people remaining in the ‘hood for good.”[12] This film preaches for individuality in the face of opposition from a controlling power; the right to function with an agency afforded to all, but those stuck in South Central unfortunately fail to reach these goals; their lives fixed in an arrested development.

There is hardly a vision of hope within South Central for the youth growing up and experiencing the world (or rather the limits of the ‘hood). Their rental-home becomes a prison and the LAPD become their prison guards. The one message of freedom comes from Furious, Tre’s father, who owns his house and owns a business that helps others like him finance their houses. He becomes the un-caped crusader in a world where individuality is banned; failure to follow in his path results in life behind bars or in the ground.

[1] Michel Foucault and Jay Miskowiec, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986): 24.

[2] Paula J. Massood, “Mapping the Hood: The Genealogy of City Space in Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society,” in Cinema Journal 35, no. 2 (1996): 85.

[3] Ibid, 88.

[4] Andrés Bartolomé Leal, “Boyz out the Hood? Geographical, Linguistic and Social Mobility in John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood,” Journal of English Studies 11 (2013): 27.

[5] Ibid, 38.

[6] James P. Morris-Knower, “Homeboys and Homeplace: The Geography of Adolescence in Straight out of Brooklyn and Boyz N the Hood,” Michigan Academician 29 (1997): 186.

[7] Ibid, 195.

[8] Leal, “Boyz out the Hood,” 30.

[9] Massood, “Mapping the Hood,” 90.

[10] Ibid, 91.

[11] Morris-Knower, “Home and Place,” 189.

[12] Leal, “Boyz out the Hood,” 37.

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