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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In the early 1990s, South Central Los Angeles had become synonymous with gang violence, drive-by shootings and crack cocaine. In March 1991, the videotaped beating of Rodney King showed a city whose police force seemed out of control.

In this environment, 20 years ago this month, the movie "Boyz N The Hood" exploded off the screen. It was the work of a young director just out of film school.

(Soundbite of movie trailer)

Unidentified Man: It's hard to be a saint in South Central L.A.

(Soundbite of rap music)

MONTAGNE: MORNING EDITION commentator John Ridley has this look back.

JOHN RIDLEY: In 1990, Stephanie Allain was one of the few female, and very few executives of color at a major Hollywood studio - Columbia Pictures. In May of that year, Stephanie was busy looking for someone to fill her old job of reading scripts for the studio.

Ms. STEPHANIE ALLAIN (Movie Producer): And I heard about a kid, who was still in school, who was interested in the job. So I called him up. Little John shows up in my office. And he starts telling me about the script that he wrote. And he's telling me how he's going to direct it, and this and that, and he's not even out of school but he has an agent. And I'm thinking, OK, this kid is not really a reader. He's a writer, let me read the script.

RIDLEY: The kid was 22-year-old John Singleton. John had a script called "Boyz N The Hood" that told the story of Tre, Ricky and Doughboy; three friends growing up with dreams of one day moving beyond their violent circumstances in South Central.

(Soundbite of movie, "Boyz N The Hood")

Unidentified Child #1: Y'all want to see a dead body?

Unidentified Child #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Child #3: Tre's daddy blasted at somebody last night.

Unidentified Child #1: Really? What kind of gun your daddy got?

RIDLEY: The script focused on the relationship of Tre Styles and his father, Furious, a single parent trying to instill values in his troubled son contrary to the pressures and temptations of his environment.

(Soundbite of movie, "Boyz N The Hood")

Mr. LAURENCE FISHBURNE (Actor): (as Furious Styles) You know, Tre, you may think I'm being hard on you right now, but I'm not. What I'm doing is I'm trying to teach you how to be responsible. Like your little friends across the street, they don't have anybody to show them how to do that. They don't. You going to see how they end up, too.

Mr. JOHN SINGLETON (Writer/Director, "Boyz N The Hood"): It's the story that a lot of those cats used to make in the '80s in the suburbs, but made in the hood.

RIDLEY: The film's writer and director, John Singleton.

Mr. SINGLETON: I loved those pictures of that time, but I also felt alienated because but none of those people looked like me. So me and my friends would catch the bus up to Hollywood and we'd go see the movies. And then we spent the whole time going down Vermont talking about what movies we would make. It would always be something like what I did with "Boyz N The Hood."

RIDLEY: The script was written with a power and immediacy that absolutely floored Stephanie Allain.

Ms. ALLAIN: It was one of those moments where I closed my door. I sat and I read it in one sitting, and I was devastated. And I closed it and I thought, okay. This is what I'm here to do.

(Soundbite of movie, "Boyz N The Hood")

Mr. FISHBURNE: (as Furious Styles) You bad. You got to shoot somebody now, huh? Look, I'm sorry about your friend. My heart goes out to his mother and his family. But that's their problem, Tre. You my son. You my problem.

Mr. SINGLETON: A lot of people don't really understand what it is to be young, black and male and grow up in L.A. It's like you - you're taught to have the potential to explode. You know, it's like if a person looks at you wrong, or a certain slight could turn into like, you know - you know, boom.

RIDLEY: It's that perspective that John wanted to put on screen. Never mind he'd never done a feature film before. John was determined to direct the script himself.

Stephanie Allain recalls at one point, the studio tried to bribe John into letting someone else direct the movie.

Ms. ALLAIN: He was offered like $100,000 just to walk away. You know? What would you say if we gave you $100,000? And John was so cool. I was so proud of him. He was like, I'd say this conversation is over.

RIDLEY: John began casting the film focusing on the lead role, Tre Styles. Eventually the part went to a very pre-Oscar-winning Cuba Gooding, Jr., still just a kid himself on the hustle for his next gig.

Mr. CUBA GOODING, JR. (Actor): You got to remember this was early in my career. I didn't know what stage direction was. I didn't know what EXT, INT-period. I didn't know that meant exterior, interior. I didn't know we were outdoors or indoors. I just knew my lines - I knew Tre's lines. I knew his father, Furious, is mad at him and I knew that emotion. That's how I came to this story.

RIDLEY: Singleton went on to fill out the cast with established veteran Laurence Fishburne, as well as what would become a who's-who of actors: Angela Bassett, Regina King, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long; and in his first role as an actor, rapper Ice Cube.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. remembers the relative inexperience of the cast didn't keep them from sensing that something special was happening.

Mr. GOODING, JR.: None of us knew what we were involved with. We just knew that we had nothing to lose to put our whole body, heart and soul into these roles, and that's exactly what we were looking to do.

(Soundbite of movie, "Boyz N The Hood")

Ms. NIA LONG (Actor): (as Brandi) Tre, what happened? Tre, what happened? Talk to me. What happened?

Mr. GOODING, JR.: (as Tre Styles) Go home.

Ms. LONG: (as Brandi) What happened to Ricky?

Mr. GOODING, JR.: (as Tre Styles) Go home.

Unidentified Man: Tre. Tre.

Ms. LONG: (as Brandi) Talk to him. Something has happened to Rick. I don't know. He just got shot. Something happened to Rick.

Unidentified Man: Wait now. Brandi...

RIDLEY: In watching the film, it's truly amazing that the 22-year-old Singleton was able to coax such mature performances from his cast. It helped that John was able to take directing lessons from Francis Ford Coppola by way of Laurence Fishburne, who'd previously worked with Coppola on "Apocalypse Now."

Mr. SINGLETON: Just before we even started, I said I need to know everything. Tell me everything you did that Francis taught you as an actor. And we sat in my little apartment and everything, he'd say they would read the script and they would do improvisations that had to do with the characters, and nothing to do with the script - to flesh out the characters. He says and then we'd eat a lot of pasta and drink some wine and stuff. Right?

RIDLEY: Once completed, the film was instantly recognized as being extraordinary. It became an official selection in the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. And on July 12th, "Boyz N The Hood" opened nationally to both critical and financial success. It took in nearly $60 million at the box office. And "Boyz" earned Singleton an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. He was both the youngest and the first black American to be nominated in the director category.

In the two decades since, John Singleton has gone on to write, direct and produce films that have earned nearly half a billion dollars at the box office, including "Shaft" and "2 Fast 2 Furious."

But "Boyz N The Hood" remains his signature piece. Stephanie Allain.

Ms. ALLAIN: After 20 years and having seen the movie so many times, I still cry. It's still very powerful.

RIDLEY: In 1991, John Singleton just wanted to make a movie with characters that look like him. Twenty years later, it's clear that he's left us with a powerful documentation of the pains and hopes and dreams of an entire city.

(Soundbite of song, "Ooh Ooh Child")

THE 5 STAIRSTEPS (Band): (Singing) Ooh ooh, child. Things are going to get easier. Ooh ooh, child...

MONTAGNE: MORNING EDITION's John Ridley is an author and screenwriter.

The anniversary edition Blu-ray of "Boyz N The Hood" is out this month. And you can see the cast on set then and see where they are now at NPR.org.

This MORNING EDITION. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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