Apologies fellow lost and founders, it has been awhile since we have delved into the dark realms of unknown films but thankfully we are back on schedule for another fun cinematic exploration. During the late eighties and early nineties something that would become known as ‘hood films’ started to emerge. Some readers may remember Chapter 6’s film Uptown Saturday Night where the short lived blaxpoitation sub-genre was explored, hood films are a newer broader version of the blaxpoitation film that want to give a voice to those that would usually go unheard to those that come from ghettos and are usually unfairly represented in mainstream Hollywood films. It mainly focuses on African-American and Hispanic cultures as black men struggle to regain their definition of manhood while living in a sense of danger due to their hostile surroundings.
After the success of the genres archetypal films such as Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society the popularity of hood films grew at a rapid pace, but many black filmmakers felt the need to stray away from the genre as it started to create a negative portrayal of the very same people it was trying to shed light on. Parodies and subversive hood films were made to dismiss these stereotypes with some eventually causing the same amount of damage the more serious hood films did. However some were lost in the mix of Hollywood attempting to churn out the conveyor belt hood comedy films, as a handful really deserve more praise for their original approach and much needed dose of fresh ideas. One of these films was Hangin’ With the Homeboys.
Film: Hangin’ With the Homeboys
Cast: John Leguizamo, Doug E. Doug, Mario Joyner, Nester Serrano and Mary B. Ward
Director and Writer: Joseph B. Vasquez
In 1991 promising writer, actor and director Joseph B. Vasquez took his sophomore effort to the Sundance Film Festival where it premiered successfully. It was a hit with the festival filmgoers and Vasquez struck a distribution deal with indie film giants New Line Cinema, but the question still remained, were audiences ready for a friendly and funny misadventure that went against the hood movie grain?
The film follows a day in the life of Tom (Mario Joyner), Willie (Doug E. Doug), Fernando a.k.a. Vinny (Nester Serrano) and Johnny (John Leguizamo). A close-knit group of friends in the South Bronx during a long summer night where all they want to do is go out and have a good time like they usually do at the weekends. However, everything seems to be against them as they encounter hostile police officers, mysterious clubs, car trouble, women trouble, mean doormen and a mysterious Rasta with a terrible Jamaican accent. They also have to battle personal frustrations and strained friendships as the night goes on and the four friends come to the harsh realisation that they might be outgrowing one another.
What makes Hangin’ With the Homeboys a very good film is its unique approach to embrace some of the very ‘hood’ elements it is against yet turn them on their head, not for cheap laughs but rather for insightful sharp observations about young black and Puerto Rican men regaining their own ideas of manhood in such hostile environments. The film is very aware of its surroundings but does not limit itself to them. The cast are thankfully aware of this too and it shows in the performances. The problem with some of the ‘hood’ films at the time were characters written as if they were living in the film version of a ghetto so everything reeks of overt self-righteousness and rather cheesy messages, like an outsider’s view of a world they know nothing about misinformed by hearsay stories and sensationalised news reports. The difference with Vasquez is he uses his own experiences and knowledge to give some hope to his characters and chooses to do it through comedy, something that was very in most ‘hood films’.
For example some of the best highlights include Tom, a hard working actor, and Willie, an unemployed bum that blames everything on everybody but himself, who are both black but total opposites. Vasquez refuses to rely on the lazy stereotype that due to their skin colour both will get on no matter what but instead they have hilarious exchanges where Tom gets fed up of Willie consistently scrounging off him. A similar dynamic is used for Johnny, he’s more ambitious than the others yet frustratingly naive and self-proclaimed ladies man Fernando who is ashamed of his heritage so prefers to go by Vinny and pretends to be Italian. Johnny hates the fact that Fernando is not proud of his heritage and Fernando has never really liked Johnny due to his pessimistic outlook on life and the effect it has on the group as a whole.
There is a lot more to enjoy than just the chemistry of the actors though. What begins as a straight-forward commentary with some social commentary and interesting perspectives on what viewers may think happens in ghettos does not end how many would expect it to. The audience starts to see the closeness of the group crumble more and more as they start to realise they all want different things in life and that maybe remaining friends will not help them move on and ultimately grow up. One of the drawbacks however, is a surprisingly underwritten and miscalculated Rastafarian character that is knowledgeable about how to get into some of the most sought-after spots in South Bronx. He serves no real purpose and has a ridiculous stereotypical superstitious sense of things that is rather underwhelming and disappointing, especially when one considers how successful and understanding Vasquez was when it came to the representation of cultures rarely seen on screen. However, the flaw is not enough to tarnish the overall success of the film. Vasquez would go on to make more films but sadly passed away in 1995 due to AIDS related complications. Hopefully audiences today are made aware of his work, this great film and him flipping the script on ‘hood films’.