With Girlhood, Dope and Baz Luhrmann’s new Netflix series The Get Down, we’re witnessing a renaissance of the 90s genre
At the turn of the 90s, films like Do the Right Thing, Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society were everywhere you looked on the big screen. They even sparked their own epoch-making genre: the hood film. These gritty tales of urban dysfunction, while undoubtedly playing on stereotypes of how black people lived (and more often than not, died) in the projects, offered black filmmakers the opportunity to take control of their own narratives, adding depth to the often lop-sided representation of people of colour in film.
Save for a paltry handful, not even these kinds of films were being made prior to the late 80s: what broke down the door for this new genre of ‘place-based identity’ films was the entrance of hip hop into the mainstream. A 1993 article in Marketing Week declared, “Marketers Tap into Rap as Hip Hop Becomes ‘Safe’”. Safe being the operative word, here meaning ‘white’.
“With the exception of a few plot twists, New Jack City, Boyz N The Hood, Juice, Menace II Society, Straight out of Brooklyn and South Central are all basically the same movie” – Sun Sentinel columnist in 1993
This is a legitimate quote from the piece: “While hip hop started out primarily as ‘a black thing’, marketers are realising they can use the culture to mo’ better target youth of any color.” Eyebrow-raising word choice aside, the article goes on to describe how Coca-Cola became one of the first mainstream companies to use rappers like Heavy D, Curtis Blow and Run DMC for its ads, ‘safely’ bringing black culture into white suburban households and effectively capitalising on the cultural customs of an ethnic group.
This quavering excitement at discovering a new demographic translated into the kinds of films someone thought white people wanted to see about black people being greenlit in the early 90s. Rather predictably, many black filmmakers who didn't want to be lumped into the genre had to fight hard to break free of these often formula-based flicks about urban shoot-ups and drug-trafficking despair, with varying degrees of success. Wildly popular for almost two decades, each new entry into the genre effectively became a variation on the last.
“With the exception of a few plot twists, New Jack City, Boyz N The Hood, Juice, Menace II Society, Straight out of Brooklyn and South Central are all basically the same movie,” a columnist for the Sun Sentinel put it bluntly in 1993. “Poor young black man, trapped in the hood and ignored by society, dodges urban pitfalls and tries to escape his pitiful existence by turning to (drug dealing, robbery, murder, gang banging, etc. Choose one.)”
With the arrival of parodies like Fear of a Black Hat (tagline: “the first drive-by comedy”) and Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood and the decline of gangster rap as a pop-cultural force, the torrent of hood films unleashed over the 90s had turned into a trickle by the turn of the millennium, with 8 Mile (2002), Hustle & Flow (2005) and Barbershop (2002) being the last few drops out of a tap running dry.
But just as the hood film was seemingly struggling on life support, a spate of new hood-centric films have burst forth, reviving the genre in one fell swoop. This year we’ve seen Girlhood, Dope, Straight Outta Compton, the iPhone-shot Tangerine and the announcement of Baz Luhrmann’s hip hop drama The Get Down.
While these films incorporate recognisable tropes from their kin – drug trafficking, shoplifting, street parties etc – they rebuke the motifs that were so central to so many of their forebears. Instead, they’re taking a stab at rewriting this formula for a new generation that cannot be defined by one shared experience. These films cut across age, class and sexuality, serving up a more rounded portrayal of urban black life. We’ve come a long way from poppin’ glocks and shifting rocks.
“There are some gangsters, but (Dope) wasn’t shot from the perspective of a gangster. It homes in on the mentality of someone who’s from there but not of there. And it doesn’t exclude the hood — it includes the hood” – Pharrell Williams
In Dope, one of the main characters, Diggy, is a lesbian drummer in a punk band. She shares a mutual love of “white boy shit” (read: Game of Thrones, BMX biking) with her bandmates and BFFs Malcolm and Jib. The trio cleverly send up white culture while simultaneously enjoying it. Together, they shuffle around their crime-ridden neighbourhood The Bottoms, but Malcolm’s dreams are not confined to merely escaping hood life – he wants to attend Harvard. There is still that familiar reaching beyond circumstance, but now the sky is truly the limit. Gangsters and drug dealers abound, but the film subverts expectations and its characters struggle together while each stands in for a different, unique experience.
“There are some gangsters, but it wasn’t shot from the perspective of a gangster,” says Pharrell Williams, who exec-produced the film and contributed to its soundtrack, in an interview with The New York Times. “It homes in on the mentality of someone who’s from there but not of there. And it doesn’t exclude the hood — it includes the hood. It’s encouraging.”
Likewise, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood is a simple story of female bonding. That’s it. Granted, the females in question may bond over things like shoplifting and beating up other girls, but that’s irrelevant: the message is transmitted loud and clear. A girls-only hood film would have been a rare sight in the male-driven industry in the 90s.
Shot exclusively on an iPhone 5s, Tangerine tracks a prostitute through the rough streets of LA as she searches for the pimp who broke her heart. Instead of framing her as a victim, however, we empathise with her frustration, admire her nerve. As an added bonus, the film champions diversity in ways that don’t make it spectacle: the powerful lead is played by trans actress Kiki Kitana Rodriguez.
Luhrmann’s Netflix series The Get Down, slated to air next year, will shift its focus to 1970s New York – a zenith in the city’s crime timeline. According to The Hollywood Reporter, it plans to tell the “mythic saga of how New York at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to hip hop, punk and disco – told through the lives and music of the South Bronx kids who changed the city, and the world... forever”. This time, though, the South Bronx teens are armed with cans of spraypaint instead of handguns. The musical (yes, it’s a musical) will tell the story of how these kids are born into boxed-in circumstances, but through the art they create.
So the hood film is here to stay, just not how we remember it. And that’s a good thing. The drugs, drive-bys and baby daddies might remain in the background, but black filmmakers are finding fresh ways to make their stories resonate and explore, rather than exploit, black culture.