The studio exec who green-lit the influential inner-city film looks back
The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that if you want to have a film about minorities, there need to be white actors in the lead roles. Just look at the current box office success The Help—Emma Stone, a white actress, stars in the film about the black experience during the Jim Crow era in the South. The picture, as many have noted, fits into a mold that critics label a "white savior" film, the kind of movie where white stars appear to help the black characters do something they might not otherwise do on their own. Many find it patronizing.
But 20 years ago this summer, director John Singleton—who returns to theaters in September with Abduction—defied that wisdom. He proved that a movie with no white faces as major characters, about the dicey topic of black-on-black crime, could win over critics and audiences of all colors.
The film was Boyz n the Hood. Press coverage of violence attributed to its opening made it controversial, while rave reviews made it one of the most critically acclaimed of the year. Later, the Motion Picture Academy nominated Singleton for writing and directing Oscars, making him not only the youngest filmmaker nominated for directing but also the first African American. The film is now considered one of the centerpieces of modern black cinema for its realistic portrayal of life in the inner city. Boyz n the Hood also introduced a national conversation about inner-city gang violence, a subject that until then had been mostly a local urban issue.
The story behind its making is one of a young, talented screenwriter and a studio executive who took a chance on him.
"I said, 'A-ha, it's contemporary, it's not period. It's a black story, but I believe there's a chance to pull in a white audience, too,'" Price remembers
That executive, Frank Price, was chairman of Columbia Pictures, responsible for developing and green-lighting hits like Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, Gandhi, Ghostbusters, and Out of Africa. Late one Friday afternoon in March 1990, Amy Pascal, who was then a production vice-president at Columbia (she now heads Sony's Columbia Pictures), asked to see Price to discuss a unique script that she wanted him to include in the usual weekend reading he would do at his house in the Malibu Colony.
"Normally anything to be given to me for weekend reading would have been brought up in the regular Friday morning staff meeting," Price said. "This script was not presented in that meeting. I suspect Amy feared that the project would be shot down by other staffers' comments, which is why she asked to see me in a separate meeting late that afternoon."
The script was about life in South Central Los Angeles, and its author was a USC film school student, John Singleton. Price agreed to read it, and he immediately recognized that Singleton had written something unique.
"I was profoundly moved by his portrayal of the lives of three young men in South Central L.A.," said Price. "His script gave me insight into their hopes and dreams that they clung to as they faced the often grim events of life around them." Price said it reminded him of one of his favorite movies, the Italian film The Bicycle Thief, which he saw when he was 18 years old and living in Flint, Michigan. "It made me identify with an Italian family struggling against poverty in post-World War II Italy," he said. "Why wouldn't enough of the American public identify with the story of an inner-city family told in such a compelling, insightful way?"
The Boyz n the Hood script had been read by filmmakers all over Hollywood, Price said. But without major stars or directors attached, it hadn't gotten any traction. "Those are the projects with the greatest risk," Price said. "If they don't work, they're a total loss. People in the industry ask, 'What idiot made that movie?' Those are the pictures for which they can throw you out of the studio."
Nonetheless, Price allocated $6 million of Columbia's money for the rookie to make it.
The film has grossed $60 million. No one is calling Frank Price an idiot.
As a studio chief who started in the business as a writer, he says his philosophy is, In the beginning was the word.
"You can have a lot of good actors and a good director, but if the movie is about something we don't care about, nobody's going to go see it," he said. "Probably more than anybody else, I emphasize the script."
An additional selling point was that Boyz n the Hood dealt with a segment of the population—young black males—who were underrepresented in film. Price had tried to draw them to theaters in 1980 with the comedy hit Stir Crazy, starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder and directed by Sidney Poitier. "When we had a preview in San Francisco, half the audience was white, and half the audience was black," Price said. "Everybody laughed. The only problem we had was people couldn't hear the lines, the laughter was so loud."
Price expected success with A Soldier's Story, as well. The 1984 film starring Howard Rollins and Denzel Washington tells the story of an African-American attorney investigating the murder of a black soldier killed in the Deep South. It was intended to appeal to black and white moviegoers equally. "But we didn't draw young black males," Price said. "A Soldier's Story would have entertained a young black audience. They just didn't come."