The Death of the Hood Classic
Issue 3, Volume 112
By Asa Muhammad
The hood classic is dying, and I don’t know how to feel. In order to address this death, we should first define the relatively vague term of “the hood classic.” What’s so hood about the movie? What makes it classic? The hood classic really only has three parameters, two of which regard the production of a film:
I. The hood classic must be made for the hood.
II. The hood classic must be made by the hood (or at least have authentic ties to it).
III. The hood classic must be embraced by the hood.
A movie must meet all three of the requirements in order to be considered a hood classic, so movies like “Scarface” (1983) and “Dragon Ball Super: Broly” (2018) that have entered hood canon don’t count because they were made neither by the hood nor for the hood. Movies like any of the “Friday” sequels don’t count simply because the hood didn’t embrace them (for good reason).
While it’s difficult to define the hood in concrete socioeconomic terms, you can imagine any traditionally underserved neighborhood that has multiple bodega-adjacent establishments with either plexiglass or barred windows. These establishments are rarely Black-owned (see “Menace II Society” (1993), “Do the Right Thing” (1989)). The distinction between the hood as a community and the Black community is important because the death of the hood classic seems to come at the heels of the golden age of Black cinema.
The nineties were a particularly good era for hood film. John Singleton perfected the formula with his 1991 hit “Boyz in the Hood,” which addressed the primary demographic for what would become known as hood films in an original way. Singleton proved stories of inner-city violence could be portrayed on screen with a sense of nuance and tragedy and still be commercially viable. In the same year, “New Jack City” was released, chronicling the rise of the crack epidemic through the lens of an entrepreneurial drug dealer. While it did not serve as a glorification of the crack era, “New Jack City” represents the genesis of another hood classic formula: the Black mafia movie. These two developments galvanized the golden age of hood cinema (1991-2002), and subsequent movies generally fluctuated somewhere between these two archetypes, producing films like Tupac Shakur’s breakout acting role “Juice” (1992), the Hughes Brothers’ directorial debut “Menace II Society,” and rap album turned feature film “Paid in Full” (2002), which bookended the era.
While John Singleton was able to pave the way for hood crime dramas, there were still stories of hood domesticity to be told, and so Singleton once again attempted to break barriers with his 1993 film, “Poetic Justice,” following a romance between Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. By 1995, the hood movie had solidified itself with gritty depictions of life in American ghettos, and so the ensemble comedy “Friday” was born as a much needed reprieve from the angst.
While known for having launched Ice Cube’s controversial acting career, “Friday” also marks a turning point in film history. The hood movie could now be about anything, which led to more diverse offerings. “The Wood” (1999), directed by Rick Famuyiwa became a coming-of-age hood wedding movie, and Eminem’s “8 Mile” (2002) became the first white hood movie.
The diversification of the hood movie is what ultimately led to its death. The 2000s bore a tragic-many hood movies, whilst yielding very few hood classics, but this diversification also led to new kinds of Black stories being told, and it was that genesis that brought us into the new age of Black film starting with “Precious” (2009). “Precious,” a film very much set in the hood, is an authentic depiction of the tragedy of a child fallen through the cracks of flawed welfare and education systems. The reason “Precious” isn’t a hood classic might just be because it’s too authentic.
“Precious” is a hard-to-watch, upsettingly tragic movie. “Precious” serves to address the failings of our government, and of the community, but it does so without the reprieve of comedic relief or the exhilaration of gun violence, and so it joins the pantheon of one of the greatest, and saddest hood films ever made, but without actually becoming a hood classic. It’s simply too inaccessible, not by virtue of any avant-garde storytelling, but by subject matter.
While “Precious” serves to demonstrate an evolution in Black storytelling, it’s not a true bookend to the genre of the hood classic. The final hood classic is “Dope” (2015). Though not a commercial success, Rick Famuyiwa’s “Dope” is a final goodbye to hood films as a genre. It hits all the beats of a hood classic but all the while deconstructing the idea of a Black monolith. The film, featuring Pharrell-authored pop-punk, centers around protagonist Malcolm who is in a band aptly named “Awwreeoh.” “Dope” was premiered in the indie movie circuit, meaning that while it is a hood classic, it marks as a departure from the formulaic hood movies of the past, not by actually departing from the formula, but by injecting it with new ideas on what the “hood” can be. Black artists notable for having pushed that boundary before join the film, including A$AP Rocky, aforementioned Pharrell Williams, and Sean Combs in his “Puff Daddy” era. The film is a love letter to the hoods of Los Angeles, but it also has white actor Blake Anderson, and that multifaceted approach is what ushered in a new era of Black filmmaking.
The following year, Barry Jenkins released “Moonlight,” which also hits every hood classic trope (drugs, crime, poverty), only now bolstered by long shots, color theory, and the overall arthouse aesthetic. It uses techniques foreign to its genre, and in doing so, alienates the hood classic demographic. That alienation in style makes it that much harder to sell the substance of the film. In a genre riddled with toxic masculinity, how can you address homosexuality and maintain the same audience? The movie is still definitely a Black coming of age story and so the question arises: who is it for?
As Black cinema evolves, it brings with it new possibilities, but as new niches are explored, old audiences are left behind. Movies like “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (2019) portray images of masculine friendship largely construed as homoerotic, and that theme of platonic intimacy is offputting for some, and through those themes a story of family and community is built. All the while, nothing really happens because it’s a character study.
This diversity in storytelling is a good thing. The expansion of what a “Black” movie can be is really what “diversity” in Hollywood should be. There’s no function in having tons of hood movies/Black movies/whatever if they’re all the same (Tyler Perry may disagree), and this evolution has led artists to explore their work outside the confines of one genre: “The Black Movie” or “The Hood Movie,” which have historically been interchangeable. As such, I haven’t found the time to mourn the death of the hood classic.