Before I can even pose my first question to Kojo Lewis, a black Ford Mustang pulls up outside the aging, bungalow-style house where we’re meeting. The windows roll down and the two women inside the car inquire about the houses from Boyz N the Hood. They’re thrilled to hear that they’ve arrived at their destination, and stunned when they learn that Lewis was the location manager on the film.
Joi, 42, and Jaspanique, 26, first met a few minutes before turning on Cimarron Street and rolling up to Furious and Tre Styles’s sky blue, stucco house from John Singleton’s powerhouse 1991 directorial debut. Joi tells me she was selling Crenshaw T-shirts at nearby Nipsey Hussle Square when she met Jaspanique, a fellow Louisiana native who said she wanted to see the locations from the film.
“I was asking my friends up there, where they sell the shirts, ‘Where did they shoot Boyz N the Hood? I know it’s local,’” says Joi. “They said, ‘Go on Cimarron.’”
“It was one of my favorite childhood movies,” says Jaspanique, who remembers first seeing the film at the age of 11. “Where I’m from, it’s very different. We don’t have this opportunity. It’s new to me to be on a movie scene,” she says with a sense of awe. “To be in the same spot where Ice Cube was, I was like, ‘Oh my god.’”
To fans of Boyz N the Hood, the location manager might as well be another star of the film. Jaspanique asks Lewis if she can take a photo with him.
“As long as your old man isn’t going to hunt me down from Baton Rouge, Louisiana,” Lewis jovially responds.
For Joi, who’s lived in L.A. since 2003, it’s especially poignant to be standing at the main location from Boyz N the Hood considering some of the film’s sobering subject matter. Last November, her only son was shot and killed at the age of 19. She took him to Louisiana to bury him.
While not everyone who visits Cimarron Street has a story like Joi’s, everyone who visits has one thing in common: they’ve been deeply affected by Singleton’s timely tale of Black teenage life in South Central Los Angeles.
Valerie Wilson—a resident of Cimarron Street since she was born in 1959—lives next door to the Styles house and acts as a sort of an unofficial, one-person welcoming committee. She and Lewis strike up a conversation as though a day hasn’t passed since the film was made. Valerie is happy to play the role of tour guide to fans from all over the world who visit on a daily basis.
“I’ll bet you today, if we knocked on every one of these doors going down the street, we would be welcome,” says Lewis. “Somebody would even say, ‘Hey, have you guys eaten? I’m just cooking.’”
Returning to Cimarron Street is bittersweet for Lewis, who’s been location managing for 40 years. He remembers that the neighborhood was welcoming and excited about the prospect of a Hollywood movie shooting on their street. They observed filming all the time, he says. Then he reflects on the reason we’re here at all: “We just lost John. That in itself is major.”
In 2019, a massive stroke killed Singleton when he was just 51 years old, taking from Hollywood the pioneering cinematic voice that also gave us Poetic Justice (1993), Higher Learning (1995), Rosewood (1997), and Baby Boy (2001). His unflinching, dynamic body of work in film and television spanned almost 30 years.
Lewis met Singleton when the budding filmmaker was a student at USC. He visited a film set where Lewis was working and the two struck up a conversation.
“I’m going to be a filmmaker,” Lewis recalls Singleton saying. “I said, ‘Yeah, I bet you are.’” There was just something about him, says Lewis. “There’s an extreme difference between wanting to be and going to be. … John wasn’t talking about what he wanted to be, he was telling me what he was going to be.” Lewis, who says he deals with a “higher authority” for guidance, gave Singleton a business card and they parted ways. About three years later, Lewis got a call at 11 o’clock at night. It was Singleton telling Lewis that he had to read a script right away. Lewis read the screenplay for Boyz N the Hood into the early morning hours.
“When I finished the script, I said to John, ‘You realize that you have a script here which is going to go beyond you, beyond the film. This is something that is about people, and it’s about our people. Where we live. How things go on. The love, the struggles, the whole bit.’” Production began shortly thereafter.
The making of Boyz N the Hood is a singular Hollywood success story. Singleton was accepted into USC’s Filmic Writing program and wrote Boyz N the Hood in the university’s computer lab. He wrote about what he knew; it was a cathartic exercise. Singleton told me in a 2014 interview, “I thought about how my life changed from living with my mother in one part of South L.A. to living with my father in another part of South L.A., which weren’t too dissimilar.” When the top brass at Columbia Pictures got wind of Boyz N the Hood, they met with Singleton and discussed buying the script. Though Singleton had no experience shooting film other than some silent Super 8 movies, he wouldn’t sell unless he could direct the movie too. The studio reconsidered their offer and Singleton was given a $6 million budget to shoot Boyz N the Hood.
The film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 1991. It premiered in L.A. on July 2, 1991, at the Century Plaza Cinemas and went into wide release ten days later, making almost $60 million at the domestic box office. At the age of 24, Singleton was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. He was the first African American filmmaker to be nominated in the directing category, and he remains the youngest person nominated for Best Director. In 2002, the Library of Congress selected Boyz N the Hood for the National Film Registry.
“I think what we got to do was show the country our neighborhoods as they really are, not the way they’ve been presented and isolated.” —Kojo Lewis
At that early morning script meeting, Lewis talked at length with Singleton about the main neighborhood of Boyz N the Hood.
“John wanted it to represent where we live,” says Lewis. “There’s an importance to reality and there’s a reality to our neighborhoods that was never explored [in film]. … I think what we got to do was show the country our neighborhoods as they really are, not the way they’ve been presented and isolated.”
Despite Chesterfield Square having seen its fair share of violent crime, Valerie tells me that her block of Cimarron Street has always been quiet, and neighbors look out for one another like they do in Boyz N the Hood.
“At that time, when you crossed Olympic Boulevard, the white film industry thought that you were already in Compton,” Lewis adds. “I had people call me in to find out, ‘Is it OK if we shoot [there]?’ I said, ‘Can you say good morning? Can you say hi? Then you’re fine.’ Twelve percent within our entire race within this town is what they call the gangs. Twelve percent does not represent a hundred percent nation of people of color,” says Lewis. “It’s like, why don’t you come into the neighborhood and see that there are people here, not whatever misconceptions or newspaper stories you’ve read about.”
At the center of Boyz N the Hood is a coming-of-age story of three friends who grew up on the same South Central L.A. block. Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a bright student who lives with his sagely father, Furious (Laurence Fishburne), and struggles with being consumed by the vicious, cyclical teenage mold of his community. Ricky (Morris Chestnut) is a teen father and Crenshaw High School football star with a chance at a scholarship to USC. Ricky’s embittered and confrontational half brother Doughboy (Ice Cube) is heading down a path that will likely lead to his untimely demise.
Lewis says he didn’t scout many streets, and felt that the film would be centered somewhere in the Chesterfield Square neighborhood. He says, frankly, that Cimarron Street between 59th Street and 60th Street was “the street.” Lewis remembers driving with Singleton on Cimarron Street and stopping in front the house where we met Joi and Jaspanique.
“John said, ‘That’s what I want for Tre.’”
Monica Sandoval joins us outside of Tre’s house and tells us that her mom, who still lives in the house, was about to move in when Lewis and the production team came knocking over 30 years ago. The house had just closed escrow, so there was no furniture in it—the perfect blank canvas for filming.
As we talk, Lewis notices a silver Dodge Charger with Colorado plates slowing down outside of Tre’s house. “He’s looking at the house too,” says Lewis, and he goes over to say hi. Skye, 30, Ajee, 28, and Nick, 23, just got off a plane from Chicago. Their first stop was Ice Cube’s house from Friday (1995), which Lewis also location managed. But before grabbing lunch they had to stop on Cimarron Street. All three feel a connection with the film and the neighborhood.
“It’s an emotional connection, there’s a lot of different connections,” adds Ajee. “When it comes to how they was living with the drive-by shootings and senseless murders, it’s a big connection.”
Skye says, “I think it’s for seeing Black film artists come up… Back then, they was really part of the struggle trying to make it, and that’s where we’re from, from the struggle trying to make it. So, to come here, it’s like anybody can do anything. Inspiration.” She feels like crying when she imagines the characters living here 30 years later.
Monica says that weekends are particularly busy with fans visiting the street. “It’s like a freeway,” she says. For the most part people are considerate, but owning a famous movie house often comes with certain burdens.
“Sometimes [they’re disrespectful] for the fact that they stand on the porch and they want to smoke there.” In the film, Furious smokes a cigarette on the porch with young Tre at his side. “We have to tell them, ‘Please don’t smoke around here,’” says Monica. “There’s been a few, they want to see the inside, but we don’t allow it.”
Before departing, Skye and Ajee also grab photos with Lewis and ask about the alley location where Ricky is tragically gunned down. It’s a scene that still packs an emotional gut punch 30 years later.
The alley is supposed to be part of the same neighborhood, but most of the streets surrounding Cimarron don’t have back alleys; the ones that do have phone and electrical wires running across them, which would have made it hard to insert the equipment needed for the scene, says Lewis. Trying to get the omniscient, overhead shot on the aftermath of Ricky’s murder would have been difficult, too. Instead, the filmmakers chose an alley about three miles north at West 30th Street between 4th Avenue and 5th Avenue. Singleton ties the two locations together with a red Hyundai Excel occupied by gang members that are senselessly at odds with Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy.
With the exception of a single two-story house that was built in 2006, many of the Spanish-style and Craftsman homes on the block, including Tre’s house and Doughboy’s house—both of which are marked on Google maps—were built as tract houses in 1923. A 1913 advertisement in the Los Angeles Times boasts the “swell, new modern bungalow, built of the best materials” in “Beautiful Chesterfield Square.” The area was once predominantly white, later becoming mostly Black and Latino.
A number of the houses on Cimarron Street are still painted in the pastel colors seen in Boyz N the Hood. The vibrant brownstones of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) come to mind. Some of the photography in Boyz n the Hood even has a touch of the work of David Hockney in terms of color, composition, and the painter’s use of mid-afternoon sunlight. When I compare the street to the vivid suburban neighborhood seen from the point of view of the highly imaginative, socially inept title character of Edward Scissorhands (1990), Lewis doesn’t think the colors reflect a particular psychology in Boyz n the Hood other than to say that “colors are calming.” He calls the tones basic, but adds that they are part of the identity and culture of the people who live here.
“People of color anywhere in this world have a sense and a flavor, if you will, of what they’re about, how they feel, their rhythm,” says Lewis.
Today, Doughboy and Ricky’s house is painted seafoam green with white trim—more vibrant even than the orange, pink, and beige tones seen in the film. The house was chosen for the openness of its front porch, says Lewis, as there’s a constant influx of foot traffic at the house—characters entering and exiting while Doughboy and his friends hang out on the porch.
Cimarron Street wasn’t chosen simply because of its housing stock, however.
“You always have to connect certain things, so that we’re within a neighborhood and we establish that neighborhood. There are several things around the corner, down and around the street that work,” says Lewis.
The train tracks just beyond the south end of Cimarron Street were a fortunate visual discovery for scene in which young Tre, Ricky, Doughboy, and their mutual friend Chris talk about going to see a dead body, a moment that is unmistakably reminiscent of Stand by Me (1986), also produced by Columbia Pictures.
Lewis says, “Tracks have separated—in this country—cultures of people for years. ‘Where does he live? Oh, he lives on the other side of the tracks.’”
Singleton also liked that the flight path of LAX was within eyesight, says Lewis.
“The beautiful thing about [Cimarron Street] is that this is simply a neighborhood. People live here,” says Lewis, and adds that the media has been detrimental to the character of neighborhoods like this. “Twenty-five years ago, 30 years ago, we had gang elements that were in the paper every day. They did as much to destruct as construct,” says Lewis. “There were some really great people that I met on this street that lived here,” says Lewis. “Everyone was like, ‘Great, bring it on. We’re doing a film.’”
Seven years ago, Singleton told me about a test screening that Columbia Pictures hosted at the studio, and many of the neighborhood residents attended.
“When they saw the locations in the picture, all the different places, people cheered the locations,” Singleton recalled at the time. “They had never seen their neighborhood in a film before.”
Valerie says that “it’s a joyful thing” when fans visit. “Sometimes they ask to take a picture [with me]. I take a picture with them and they say, ‘I’m going to take this picture back to my family and my friends and tell them I met the Boyz N the Hood tour lady, Valerie.’” Then she shows Lewis and me a handful of thank you cards and photos sent from visitors from all over the country.
Just as Lewis and I are about to part ways, another car drives slowly down the street. Lewis walks over to the car as it parks in the shadow of a newly planted tree. The trio of visitors is from Dallas, and one of them says that Boyz N the Hood is his favorite film.
Lewis looks at me with that same affecting glance as when he mentioned Singleton’s passing. “I know that John wanted a place that every neighborhood could connect with. Black, white, people from France, people from Italy have come down this street wanting to see this street,” says Lewis. “People want to connect with something that was real, something that happened, and it’s there and it never goes away.”
Follow Jared on Twitter at @JaredCowan1.
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