It’s easy to take a look at my iTunes and stereotype me as a typical white country-boy with delusions of the ghetto. Whether it’s the frequency of seeing artists with “Young” in the name (Young Thug, Young Gangsta, Young Jeezy, Young Dro, Young Roddy) or the overwhelming prevalence of ebonics in the song titles (“Mo Money Mo Problems,” “Ova Da Wudz,” “Workin Em”) or perhaps it’s just the effortlessness at finding numerals in the album titles (Dedication 2, Thug Motivation 103: Hustlerz Ambition, Hunger for More 2, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx), it’s clear I have a deep well of interest in hip-hop culture and music.
But it’s an odd situation to be within because I – sitting in my upper middle class house in the middle a swath of horse farms and hay fields – am quite removed from being involved in the lifestyle most frequently described in hip-hop music. It doesn’t give me any pause or desire to change my listening habits; instead, it allows me to keep one eye open on the events of two worlds. I hop back and forth from inner-city shootings and gangland violence to the experimental explorations of indie and foreign films. I hear about the struggle of countless young men and women stuck in endless cycles of poverty, I see existential questions floating up from the lower consciousness of auteur directors, and the whole mess smashes into my brain in new and wonderful and exciting combinations.
I value all voices that are able to examine their lives through music, film, the written word, or whatever other form of creative magic is their preference, and I seek to understand their perspectives as objectively as possible. But, of course, it is impossible to analyze anything without placing my own ideas and opinions and personal history into the mix.
So, I find myself transported to an oppressive world of non-choices and bad choices and worse choices when I watch early ’90s South Los Angeles “hood” films such as Boyz N the Hood and Friday. Boyz N the Hood, John Singleton’s masterful directorial debut (he was the first African-American to be nominated for Best Director and remains, at 24, the youngest person to ever receive an Academy directorial nomination) is an unromanticized view of the lives of gang-affiliated and gang-affected youths. It is a grim tale, a cautionary journey from which anyone can see there will be no happy ending. It’s the feeling of danger and oppression and hopelessness that really grinds into you – feelings which are extremely far from the wide-open expanses, grassy hills, and college degrees which surround my day-to-day existence.
Boys N the Hood is a drama, sure, so one would typically presume to experience such feelings while watching the film. But what about Friday?
Both films star seminal West Coast rapper (and early N.W.A. member) Ice Cube, and both take place in South Los Angles amidst addicts, dealers, and gangbangers. But Friday is, ostensibly, a comedy, and as such we’re expected to laugh at the situations that make us grimace in Boyz N the Hood. Friday may be a bit more comically outlandish, but it takes a certain perspective to see the predicaments as hilarious in one film and realistically grim in the second.
In Friday, the local crackhead is treated as a part of the community, or, at worst, a slight nuisance. He attempts to clean cars or do small labor jobs for a few bucks, all while holding a large smile upon his face. At one point he even steals someone’s shoes (which, incidentally, belong to the neighborhood bully), and the whole thing is treated as a joke. In Boyz N the Hood a crackhead runs past the boys and snatches a chain off one young man’s neck. The boys easily run him down and kick, pummel, and toss a garbage can onto his back until they determine justice has been given. Two similar portrayals of drug addicts, but one is supposed to be funny and one isn’t.
And then there are the depictions of parole and jail in both films. In Friday, it’s a running joke that Smokey (Chris Tucker) can’t go very far from his house because he is still on parole. He’s still dealing drugs and breaking into houses, but now it’s supposed to be funnier since the penalties for his actions would be much worse. Likewise, in Boyz N the Hood, characters continue to take part in criminal activities while on parole, but that fact only becomes relevant to them when they are in the course of explaining why they should quickly leave the scene of a crime. “God damn man, and I’m on parole!” one man says as Ice Cube heads to the bodies of the rival gang in order to make sure they are dead. We’re expected to laugh at Smokey’s legal troubles, but we’re also supposed to be uncomfortable with the violations in Boyz N the Hood and the deepening hole the characters find themselves in.
Another example: in both films Ice Cube and his friends run into trouble with a rival gang of youths. In both the comedy and the drama we find Ice Cube and his friends running from gunfire, taking part in stand-offs with weapons, and constantly hearing the explosive sounds of disagreements throughout their neighborhoods. And yet, again, we are supposed to laugh in one instance and respect the other for truly, “telling it how it is.”
When we see the a gang using an AK-47 automatic rifle in Boyz N the Hood it’s seen as outlandishly bizarre; a military weapon has no place in the hands of youths running around the streets, and we are shocked at its inclusion. When we see a gang using an AK-47 in Friday, the event is outlandishly comic. We are expected to laugh at the usage of the weapon because it is completely crazy to see such a thing on the streets in the hands of youths.
Friday wants us to laugh with the situation, but when the grim events that are being depicted actually are true, it really makes it hard to see the film as a comedy.
Whether it’s due to my background as someone far, far, far away from gangland violence in sunny South Los Angeles or due to some other factor, but I do not easily distinguish between the events of these two films. I find myself feeling anxious and uncomfortable to see the violence that simmers just below the surface (and often violently explodes). I find myself to feel sad and depressed for the poverty and hopelessness that is depicted onscreen. While Friday may be a comedy, it really doesn’t feel very funny to me. I watch it and I just wish a thousand things were different.
Sure, both Friday and Boyz N the Hood were created to focus a magnifying glass on a situation and they are (at least attempting) to approach it from two different perspectives. Unfortunately, Boyz N the Hood succeeds for the very reason Friday fails. The former presents its brutally depicted realism within the confines of a drama; the latter shows us the same realism and wants us to laugh.
Other people may see the comedy in a family not being able to afford milk, but it really doesn’t put me in a laughing kind of mood. Other people may find neighbors stealing from neighbors and a threat of violence hanging over the heads of an entire community to be funny, but not me.
It just makes me wish things were different. It just makes me wish things were better.