When I was 11 years old, a woman in New York City named Eleanor Bumpurs died when a police officer shot and killed her with a shotgun. She was 66 years old. The police were sent in to evict her after four months of not paying her $98 monthly rent.
Bumpurs had been recently diagnosed with mental health problems and, just four days before, a psychiatrist recommended that she be hospitalized. Clearly, the officers didn’t know that. Because when they came to evict her, she was shot twice by one of the officers.
I was petrified when I watched the news with my parents. Until then, in my mind, the police officers were always the good guys going after the bad guys.
I saw how my parents reacted — that thin-lipped nostril-flare with clenched teeth that grownups do when they don't want you to see how upset they are.
It didn’t work. I knew they were afraid. For me and my sister, for themselves — and especially for my 14-year-old brother.
My 11-year-old self thought: "Well, this will probably never happen again. I bet cops all over the world are gonna have to take classes so they can try not to shoot people they shouldn't shoot.”
(I swear, I really thought that.)
I also wondered: “What if the cops are SO careful that they don’t shoot the people that SHOULD be shot?”
By July 12, 1991, when I sat down to watch Boyz n the Hood with my college roommate on opening night, I knew better. I’d watched the news and heard the stories of dozens of instances of police brutality in the New York area since Eleanor Bumpurs. And I developed a more cynical view of the police.
But Boyz n the Hood still blew me away. Of course I knew about Compton and gang culture from NWA’s music. But groups like NWA weren’t played much on New York radio stations and it was only the hardcore hip-hop fans who watched their videos.
Boyz n the Hood hit me in my gut. I knew it wasn’t fiction. And I then fully understood what was happening around the entire country for young Black men and women.
I was still idealistic. I still thought these were isolated incidents. I still blamed gang bangers for bringing these conflicts on themselves. I still believe that “good” Black folks were safe. I didn’t see danger for myself in the film. I wasn’t any of those characters. I was going to college. I was going to be a teacher. I was going to live in a good town. Like Tré and Brandi, I was going to have a different life.
So why haven’t things changed in 2016? Why was 12-year-old Tamir Rice shot in two seconds for playing with a fake gun in a playground by an officer who was cited for having a dangerous loss of composure in the police academy?
The only thing that’s changed is that I was wrong about escaping the fear shown in the film.
I fear for my nine-year-old daughter. I recently tackled her to the ground because she had a pink play gun from a birthday party. I fear for my 19-year-old daughter who was surrounded by police officers in the driveway of our home because she stayed in the car to finish listening to a podcast on NPR. (They told her because it was April 20, they thought she was smoking weed.)
I fear for myself, a 42-year-old writer who lives in a leafy suburb. I got pulled over recently for a broken taillight. The officer was friendly and let me off without a ticket. So why was I drenched with sweat and my hands shaking so violently that I couldn’t drive away?
At the end of Boyz n the Hood, Doughboy, played by Ice Cube, says that in America, people “don't know, don't show or don't care about what's going on in the 'hood…”
Do people know now? Do people show now? Do people care about what’s going on in the ‘hood? Doughboy’s answer would probably be the same as it was in ’91.
Take the clip of the film when Tré and Ricky are accosted by a violent police officer.
In 1991, moviegoers watched Tré let a single tear fall as the officer pulled a gun on him.
In 2016, We’ve watched as a sickening number of Black lives are snuffed out at the hands of police officers.
In 1991, Doughboy’s football-playing brother Ricky was shot and then brought into the home. His mother, girlfriend and small child shriek and wail as they run to Ricky’s blood-soaked body.
In 2016, just one week ago, the world saw Diamond Reynolds keep her composure and not shed a single tear while she watched her boyfriend die after being shot and killed by a police officer as her young child watched it all from the backseat. It was all live — reaching more people than Boyz n the Hood did on opening night.
Before Facebook Live and Twitter allowed us to see other cities and communities immediately, it took entertainment to show us the realities of American urban life. Films like Boyz n the Hood and albums like Straight Outta Compton brought their lives to us.
Today? Films like 2015’s Straight Outta Compton are for entertainment. Real life is not entertainment. It’s now the portal to the ills of society. With a palm-sized camera and no script, we have a front seat. Are we watching so we can just shake our heads like we’re in a theater? Or are we watching so we can take action in real life?
Twenty-five years after the release of Boyz n the Hood, we have choices to make in deciding to know, show and care about every ‘hood.
(Photo: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock/Columbia Pictures)