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Morris Chestnut reflects on why 'Boyz n the Hood' still resonates 30 years later

The actor, who played doomed football star Ricky Baker, shared how the classic film about growing up in South Central Los Angeles has "crossed generations."
/ Source: TODAY

When Morris Chestnut landed a lead role in "Boyz n the Hood," his excitement was more for practical reasons than any notion that he was about to be part of a classic film that still resonates three decades later.

“I was there because I liked the script, but I was just happy to get a job as an actor,” Chestnut told TODAY. “I can't imagine anyone would've thought the film would be around to this magnitude today.”

As part of Black History Month, Chestnut, 52, spoke with TODAY about the classic 1991 film whose themes continue to be relevant as the movie gets set to mark its 30th anniversary in July.

According to Morris Chestnut, "Boyz n the Hood" still resonates today because it has "crossed generations, it’s crossed the racial lines, and it’s definitely something a lot of people have seen and responded to.”

The coming-of-age story about a group of Black friends growing up in South Central Los Angeles amid gang violence, poverty and police harassment was the debut film by acclaimed director John Singleton. Many of the issues depicted in the movie remain frustratingly persistent 30 years later, as evidenced by the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer against racial injustice and police brutality.

The younger versions of Tre, Doughboy, Ricky and Chris in "Boyz n the Hood."

“I think first and foremost, it still resonates today because some of the issues still exist that we experienced in that movie,” Chestnut said. “I think John Singleton wrote a very timeless script. In addition to that, I think John had a great eye for talent, where many of us that were in the movie are still working pretty much on a regular basis to this very day.

“So I think that, combined with the themes of the movie still being relevant today, and obviously John doing a great job with the execution of the script and directing, I think that is why it’s prevailed.”

Chestnut played Ricky Baker, a high school football star tragically killed in a drive-by shooting. The themes embodied by Chestnut’s character, including life as a teen father, young Black athletes using sports as a means of escape from poverty through a college scholarship, and Black athletes being senselessly killed in violent communities before they make it to college, all continue to exist.

Tre holds the body of his friend Ricky, who was tragically killed in a drive-by shooting. This moment would go down as a very memorable and emotional scene from the film.

The film also gives a rounded portrayal of the lives of the teen friends, which include Ricky’s brother Darrin “Doughboy” Baker (Ice Cube) and Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.). “Boyz n the Hood” was the rare movie at the time that showed what it was like to grow up Black in the inner city, giving a nuanced portrait of life from the joy of cookouts with family and friends to the everyday danger of gun violence.

(There is profanity in the clip below.)

“At that time in my acting career, a lot of parts were, like, ‘Gang Member 1’ or ‘Gang Member 2,’’’ Chestnut said. “The gang type of themes were very prevalent. I don’t know about the studio, but I would feel very comfortable in saying that I think that ‘Boyz n the Hood’ got made because it centered around gangs. What it truly was, though, was a coming-of-age movie.”

Chestnut, who grew up in Cerritos, California, and had family who lived in South Central Los Angeles, felt there was a fascination at that time with gang life in LA not only by white audiences, but also many Black communities around the country.

"I just took it for granted because I grew up there," he said. "Once the movie was released, people would always ask me questions about what it’s like in LA. ‘Can you really walk down the street wearing red, and someone else has on blue, and they shoot you?’ It was like, ‘Yeah!’”

One of the most devastating scenes in the movie comes when Ricky is shot in the back and killed in a drive-by as he tries to run to safety. During the filming of that scene, Chestnut was more caught up in the practical aspects.

(There is profanity in the clip below.)

“I was just basically nervous,” he said. “It was my first time, and I had these squibs on my chest, trying to be technical. They were telling me, ‘When you run, make sure you don’t put your head down because the explosives are gonna be coming out of your chest.’ That’s what I was mainly thinking about.”

It wasn’t until he sneaked into the screening of the film at a Los Angeles movie theater that he realized the scene’s impact.

“The audience was really quiet,” he said. “Some people gasped, some people said, ‘Ohhhh!’ so it was kind of interesting to see that. My sister actually cried when she saw it.”

The emotional power of the movie was achieved by Singleton when he was just 22 years old. While his youth may have been a question mark for the movie studio, Chestnut felt it actually helped curb his nervousness on the set.

(There is profanity in the clip below.)

“It made it less daunting because I could relate to (Singleton),” he said. “I was the absolute greenest of all the leads. John was basically my age. We just had a good relationship.”

Not only did the movie launch Singleton’s career, it featured a cast of actors who are now some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, most of whom were unknowns at the time. In addition to Chestnut, it also marked the first acting role for Ice Cube, who was then known for his rap career as part of N.W.A. and as a solo artist. Singleton told Vanity Fair in 2016 that he wrote the part of Doughboy specifically for the rapper.

Not only did "Boyz n the Hood" launch Singleton's career, it also launched many others who starred in the film. Singleton, who was only 22 at the time, specifically cast Ice Cube in his first role. This also marked the rise of the acting careers of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morris Chestnut.

Chestnut, Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Regina King, Nia Long and Tyra Ferrell all went on to commercial and critical success that continues to this day, with the Oscar-winning King most recently having been nominated for a Golden Globe for her feature film directorial debut, “One Night in Miami.”

Long and Chestnut also have fans excited as part of the cast from “The Best Man” movies that is reuniting for “The Best Man: Final Chapters,” an upcoming 10-episode streaming series on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service.

However, the man who helped propel them to stardom had his life tragically cut short. The cast collectively mourned the loss of Singleton in 2019 after he died at 51 from a stroke.

“It was tough because obviously John had been a good friend throughout the years,” Chestnut said. “Not only a friend, but someone who took a chance on me and gave me an opportunity to launch a career.”

Singleton did not just empower a group of stars on the screen, either. Many of those who worked behind the scenes have also gone on to further success, like director Peter Ramsey, who worked as a storyboard artist on “Boyz n the Hood.” He directed the Oscar-winning 2018 movie “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

“You talk about his legacy, people see us in front of the camera who are continuing to work to this day, but John, he was mentoring and developing a lot of writers behind the camera as well,” Chestnut said. “So you combine all that, and his legacy will live on.”

The movie’s legacy also continues to live on, even among those who didn’t grow up in the ‘80s and ‘90s when it became an instant classic.

“I hear from parents saying they’ve shown their kids the movie, and I’ve heard from kids who buy the sweatshirts or the T-shirts,” Chestnut said. “I heard from someone in France who said that he learned English watching ‘Boyz n the Hood.’ It’s crossed generations, it’s crossed the racial lines, and it’s definitely something a lot of people have seen and responded to.”