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Writer-director John Singleton doesn't like his lunch. "Is salmon the only thing you got?" he politely asks the waiter who presented him with the beautifully-prepared dish. Singleton's taste for the Hollywood-financed high life of the press luncheon is still slightly unsophisticated, admits the 23-year-old former USC film student. And Singleton's casual clothes, highlighted by a black baseball cap emblazoned with "South Central LA" across the front and leather jacket stating "Black Cinema in Effect," brand him a newcomer to the world of elegant dining rooms and heavily-primped reporters. Yet this neophyte is already a veteran in many respects, having written and shot his first feature film, Boyz N The Hood, (which refers to Los Angeles' drug-torn neighborhoods), opening tomorrow in Philadelphia theaters. · Following the path laid down by Spike Lee, who Singleton recognizes for pioneering the current popular emergence of black filmmaking, Boyz N the Hood carves its own identity as a stunning first feature, made with emotion and conviction. Boyz tells a classic coming-of-age story, jarringly strewn across the turbulent background of urban decay in South Central LA. In Boyz, three black teenagers struggle to lift themselves out of their self-destructing environment, one through sports, one through studying and one through dealing crack. But they are ultimately entangled in and forced to confront the mindless violence which drags them down to the level of blind, murdering marauders. This strightforward and moral story forms a staggering microcosm for the problems of black urban America, as Singleton sees them . . . and has lived them. "Everything in the film has happened to me and my friends," he states bluntly. Like Tre, the film's studious protagonist, (newcomer Cuba Gooding, Jr.) Singleton went to live with his father in the Englewood section of South Central LA when he was 12 years old. He calls that decision "a catalyst for change in his life." Singleton's father inspired the character of Furious Styles, (played forcefully by skilled character actor Larry Fishburne, whose insight and power drives the film). He was a strong-willed man, both hard and compassionate, who takes the responsibility to forge his son into a mature adult, a duty which many black men fail to fulfill, says Singleton. "The only way to make a change [in society] is for the black man to be responsible," he says, summing up the central message of his film. "Hopefully, this movie will provoke thought as to the state of black men in America and the need for black men to raise their children." Singleton straightforwardly states that without the guiding role his father played during his adolescence, he would have turned out just like Doughboy, (played by rapper Ice Cube) the character in Boyz who does nothing but sell drugs and hang out on his front porch drinking malt liquor. The dearth of strong, positive black male role models for developing children is seen in many levels of urban society, elaborates Singleton. Singleton cites in his film and in person the frighteningly high levels of black-on-black crime and failure by black members of the police to fulfill their vital responsibility to the community, a problem he refers to as "dangerous Uncle Tomism." One of the most powerful moments in "Boyz" comes when Tre and his football-playing friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut) are randomly stopped on the street and viciously manhandled by a violent, gun-wielding black police officer -- solely because they themselves are black. Boyz has many densely emotional moments. One of the film's greatest strengths lies in the many powerful slices of life, ranging from an entire scene to a short glance, which intertwine to viscerally convey the neighborhood's despair and the decay of human emotion and values. When Tre finds and returns a neglected child to its drug-addict mother, the pathetic woman offers to have sex with him in exchange for money to buy crack. Or when Tre's girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long) is studying in her room and she winces and breaks down into tears at the sound of automatic machine gun fire and screaming outside. Solid acting by these film newcomers combined with Singleton's up close and personal style of direction sews the poingant vignettes into a patchwork quilt which brings the "hood" to life. With police helicopters constantly zooming overhead, evoking sounds and images of Vietnam, the grim reality of Singleton's "hood" is juxtaposed with the mundane activities of ordinary people trying to live in a warlike environment. The violence in Boyz N the Hood is not taken to an adventurous extreme like in New Jack City, which also depicted the conflicting lives of inner-city youths, and the characters are not exaggerated. When they extract revenge for one amoral shooting with another, it is tragic, not heroic. These are real people trying to persist with dignity and strength while the world is collapsing around them. Boyz N the Hood slams the plight of the urban poor in the face of a shocked and disbelieving audience. But, Singleton's film cannot be ignored or dismissed -- it is reality. · Singleton's inspiration to become a filmmaker did not come from the "hood" which gave him his subject matter, but from quite a different source -- outer space. George Lucas' Star Wars, "a damn good movie" which he says he saw twelve times in the theater, so impressed young Singleton that he devoted his time in high school to writing screenplays. This led him to USC's Filmic Writing Program, in which he won top awards; and while still a student in 1990 he was signed by the prestigious Creative Artists Agency. Singleton appreciates his opportunity to make films, and is thankful that he has a medium to speak his many opinions, which provide a creative outlet -- "if you don't have one, you are at conflict with yourself." Indeed, if Boyz has a major flaw it is that so many ideas and emotions are crammed into one movie that some of them are underdeveloped and flat. From sexual politics to the role of the armed services, this film touches upon an extremely diverse range of themes. Perhaps Singleton's microcosm is too complete. · When dessert finally rolls around at the press luncheon, Singleton receives a fruit custard pastry, surrounded with delicately arranged swirls of cream and raspberry syrup. But the young man in the wire-rimmed glasses cannot bring himself to eat the exquisite creation. Instead he pushes it aside, claiming it's "so pretty, I don't wan't to eat it." Despite all his recent Hollywood accomplishments, at heart, John Singleton remains a boy from the hood.

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