There’s a haunting moment in John Singleton’s Boyz n The Hood when a blood-soaked Doughboy (Ice Cube) and Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) drag the lifeless body of Ricky (Morris Chestnut) into his mama’s living room.
Ricky’s been shot, and his mother Brenda, played brilliantly by Tyra Ferrell, can’t fathom the loss. Ricky was the “good” son, and Ricky’s half-brother, Doughboy, is the one who "should’ve" suffered this fate — at least that how the scene reads when Brenda begins attacking a stunned Doughboy, as tortured cries leave her lips. The scene — graphic, authentic, aching, and profoundly sad— encompasses the heart of the Singleton's Oscar-nominated movie. Steven Spielberg told the writer/director later that that moment was one of the most powerful he’d ever seen on film.
“She steals the movie,” Steve Nicolaides, the film’s producer, told Vanity Fair of Ferrell’s performance.
While Ice Cube’s acting debut as Doughboy was celebrated — as were star-making turns for Gooding Jr. and Chestnut, and the pivotal performance from the only veteran actor on set, Laurence Fishburne — the women of Boyz N The Hood grounded the film, bringing dimension and heart to the story-telling.
Take newcomer Alysia Rogers, who’s small role as Shanice, Ricky’s girlfriend and mother of his child, was natural and magnetic, and eventually led to a starring role in 1992’s Class Act.
Or look at three of the film’s biggest stories: Regina King, Angela Bassett, and Nia Long.
Prior to 1991, King was still known as Brenda, the sharp-tongued teenager from the hit sitcom, 227. Bassett was a mostly unknown actress who’d done bit roles in films, and a made-for-tv movie. Long was considering skipping acting altogether. But all of that changed with the film's game-shifting, standard-setting release.
“It was my first film … it was the film that people realized I could be more than Brenda, Mary’s daughter,” King told WSJ Magazine in 2020. “I would say it changed my life.”
King is now an Oscar, Golden Globe, and Emmy winner, and is lauded as one of the best actors of our time, a classification that hinges on the diversity of her roles -- from Watchmen, to Ray, to If Beale Street Could Talk. In Boyz she plays Shalika, a girl from around-the-way who has her eyes on the neighborhood good boy, Tre. It’s not a huge role, but King emerged as a standout in the film, even though it was her first time in a movie. Her performance was grounded and animated, prickly but sensitive, and it was the first time audiences had a chance to see the depth of her range. She’d go on to immediately star in two more Singleton films, Poetic Justice (1993) and Higher Learning (1995), before re-establishing herself once more when she again linked with Gooding Jr. as his wife in the Tom Cruise flick Jerry MaGuire in 1996.
The film also changed the trajectory of Bassett’s career.
Now widely known as one of the most talented actresses working today, prior to landing the role of Reva Styles, Tre’s brilliant, no-nonsense mom, she hadn’t been able to show the enormity of her skill. She’d taken a bit roles in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarten Cop, Critters 4, and F/X.
It’s fair to say that Bassett's dynamic turn in Boyz n the Hood launched her career, which isn’t surprising because Bassett says she grew up in the projects, and knew the Reva Styles character intimately. Following her performance in Singleton’s debut, she starred in Spike Lee’s 1992 biographical film Malcolm X as Betty Shabazz. After that, she turned in what should’ve been an Academy Award-winning performance as rock icon Tina Turner in 1993s What’s Love Got To Do With It, which found her starring alongside her Boyz... co-star Laurence Fishburne once more. The pair would also go on to later co-star in 2006s Akeelah and The Bee.
For Nia Long, who plays Brandy, Tre’s innocent, occasionally feisty, next door neighbor and girlfriend, the role almost didn’t even happen.
“I didn’t want to be there [auditioning],” she told Vanity Fair. “I barely believed that I would make it as an actress, so when John Singleton saw me in that hallway [before the audition], that was the moment that changed my life. When I saw the script that said Boyz n the Hood, my attitude came from protecting what I knew I was a part of. If you’re going to show this, it better be right, because even though it’s a world of less—a world of drugs, violence, poverty—it was still my world.”
Long quickly became Black Hollywood’s “it girl” after the movie, and kicked off her dominant 90s run that led to her occupying space as one of the coveted Black actresses of our time. After Boyz n The Hood, she starred with Ice Cube again in Friday, followed by the romantic drama, Love Jones, family drama, Soul Food, and romantic comedy The Best Man.
As for Ferrell, (who initially read for the role of Reva Styles before learning it was already taken by Bassett), she not only stole the movie in that heartbreaking moment --- a scene that likely would’ve landed her at least an Oscar nomination in today’s more deliberately diverse times-- but solidified her spot as a go-to character actor. She starred alongside Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson and Rosie Perez in 1992s basketball comedy White Men Can't Jump, and re-teamed with Singleton for a memorable turn in 1993's Poetic Justice. Ferrell also became a fixture on major television shows, making guest appearances on the medical drama E.R., Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and on the hit FOX soap Empire.
Boyz N The Hood was a groundbreaking film on many levels, launching the careers of some of the most celebrated actors and actresses of our time. And decades after its release, it’s women continue to break new ground, showcasing the same depth of skill they did when the film debuted 30 years ago.