How to Survive in South Central

South Los Angeles – or South Central, as it used to be known: Where even today the overall crime rate is 23% higher than the national average,*  while at the same time average school test scores are 36% lower, over 40% of all kids don’t even complete high school; and the income per capita is 51% lower than the national average, the median household income is 40% lower, and  the unemployment rate is 39% higher than the national average.  Where decades after the Bloods and the Crips  turned city streets into a blood-soaked battlefield (and although the neighborhhood’s violent crime statistics had seen a considerable decline in recent years), as of September 2015, 80% of the area’s homicides were again related to gang violence, with a lack of employment opportunities constituting a significant  contributing factor, making for a 31% increase of people shot in the LAPD’s 77th Street Division alone the first half of 2015, and a city-wide 26% increase of shootings as well as a city-wide 18% increase of overall gang-related crimes.

South Central L.A.: Where “I’ll have my brother shoot you” isn’t just an empty threat, and guns are passed from one sibling to another when an older brother goes away to “do time.” Where owning a gun is a means of self-protection even for those who have always stayed clear of gangs. Where “where ya’ from?” is an inquiry about gang membership, not geographic origin, and wearing the wrong colors can cause you to be “hit up;” resulting in violence, and more violence by way of retaliation. Where kids learn early that a bullet doesn’t come with a name attached; and those who know the killer generally stay mum, either fearing reprisal or preferring to take care of their own, rather than leave justice to a police and a court system they’ve learned to mistrust equally early. And where crimes like burglary for the longest time only merited police attention if something actually was stolen, and were quickly sidelined upon the officers’ summons to another murder scene.

South Los Angeles
Map of South Los Angeles (source: Los Angeles Times)

South Central L.A. is the home of Tré Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his friends, Darren (aka “Doughboy”) and Ricky Baker (Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut). We first meet them at age ten, when Tré’s mother (Angela Bassett) sends him to live with his father Jason, a/k/a “Furious” (Laurence Fishburne), who seems better equipped to raise a son in a neighborhood like this. When we see them again they’re seventeen, Tré and Ricky about to graduate from high school, while Doughboy has already graduated – from shoplifting to guns and small-time drug deals. And while Furious guides Tré towards moral choices, responsibility and (self-)respect, Doughboy and Ricky are raised by a mother (Tyra Ferrell) who lacks the wherewithal to steer them out of the ghetto. Yet, Ricky in particular is naively, fiercely resolved to make it out of there; with a football scholarship (provided his SAT scores are high enough) or if that fails, by joining the army. And in a poignant, spot-on conclusion it is ultimately Ricky who forces Tré and Doughboy to choose their own paths in life, to either be drawn into the ghetto’s spiral of violence, or conquer their inner demons and extricate themselves from that vicious circle.

Upon this movie’s 1991 release, several Los Angeles cinemas either refused to show it at all or hired extra security guards: That big, in a city that had recently seen the Rodney King beating, was about to be rocked by the Christopher Commission’s scathing indictment of its police department, and was gearing up to the riots that would ravage its inner city the following spring, were fears of the reaction to John Singleton’s partly autobiographical film. Yet, while Boyz N the Hood paints a starkly accurate picture of inner city life’s daily realities, it in no way encourages violence – much to the contrary. That it is told from a profoundly “black” perspective is a given; and with that come charges that those of us with a more fortunate childhood often dismiss as the “chip” on many black people’s shoulders (e.g. the notion that drugs, liquor and guns in the ghetto are tacitly encouraged by society’s white-dominated ruling circles to keep inner-city minorities subdued). But while neither such charges nor their typically “white” response are the be-all and end-all of the problem, there is no question that drugs, alcoholism and guns are major issues in the ‘hood, as are teen pregnancies and unemployment; and Singleton intelligently weaves all of these elements into a compelling picture.

Equally well-deserved as the praise for Singleton, who garnered “best director” and “best screenplay” Oscar nominations and several other distinctions, are the kudos to the movie’s outstanding actors. Then-23-year-old Cuba Gooding Jr. came practically out of nowhere to give a fully accomplished, emphatic portrayal as Tré, caught between the lessons of ghetto life and those of his father. (Although this wasn’t his first movie, he had never before appeared in a remotely as prominent role.) Morris Chestnut’s naively determined football hero-to-be Ricky is similarly compelling; and Laurence Fishburne noticeably didn’t have to reach far for his “Furious” Styles: While based on Singleton’s father, the role was created specifically with him in mind. So, reportedly, was Ice Cube’s Doughboy; and he, too, is a perfect match, giving the teenage trio’s most troubled member a depth clearly informed by his own South Central boyhood (although despite his songs’ inflammatory lyrics, he himself stayed clear of gangs). Angela Bassett finally is the perfect foil for the movie’s male characters, exemplifying a woman who through hard work gets as far out of the ghetto as conceivable and unlike her ex-husband doesn’t avoid the moneyed upper-crust, but doesn’t forget her origins, either, and is still perfectly capable of talking tough when challenged.

The movie’s last words are Ice Cube’s, both spoken as Doughboy and rapped in How to Survive in South Central, underlying the closing credits. “Either they don’t know, don’t show or don’t care what’s going on [here],” Doughboy comments on a TV program about exotic faraway places he’s seen shortly after experiencing the kind of violence that he knows will haunt him forever. And in his rap song, sarcastically premised on a guided tour to the “concrete Vietnam” South Central L.A. (“Have you witnessed a drive-by? Okay, make sure you have your camcorder ready!”), Ice Cube warns: “Rule number one: get yourself a gun … ’cause jackers … love to start shit. Now, if you’re white you can trust the police; but if you’re black they ain’t nothin but beasts. … So don’t take your life for granted, ’cause it’s the craziest place on the planet … This is Los Angeles.”

Boyz N the Hood was released 25 years ago. It is as topical as ever.

*And if you think today’s figures are bad, let me just mention that some ten years ago, murder rates were five times the nationwide average, or in absolute figures, double the entire U.S.’s death rate for breast cancer (L.A. Times, January 1, 2004.)  At the time, over the period of the preceding 15 years the LAPD had accumulated a staggering backlog of 4,400 unsolved homicides: roughly 3/4 of the city’s total. – In the early 1990s, when this movie was released, the murder rate was triple that of today.



Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia Pictures (1991)
  • Director: John Singleton
  • Producer: Steve Nicolaides
  • Screenplay: John Singleton
  • Music: Stanley Clarke
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Charles Mills
  • Cuba Gooding Jr.: Tré Styles
  • Ice Cube: Doughboy / Darren
  • Morris Chestnut: Ricky Baker
  • Laurence Fishburne: Furious Styles
  • Angela Bassett: Reva Styles
  • Tyra Ferrell: Mrs. Baker
  • Nia Long: Brandi
  • Regi Green: Chris
  • Dedrick D. Gobert: Dooky
  • Tammy Hanson: Rosa
  • Darneicea Corley: Keisha
  • Na’Blonka Durden: Trina
  • Susan Falcon: Mrs. Olaf
  • Jessie Lawrence Ferguson: Officer Coffey
  • John Cothran: Lewis Crump


Major Awards and Honors

American Political Film Society Awards (1992)
  • Peace Award
NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Image Awards (USA) (1993)
  • Outstanding Motion Picture
National Board of Review Awards (1991)
  • Top 10 Films of 1991 – No. 7
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1991)
  • New Generation Award: John Singleton
New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1991)
  • Best New Director: John Singleton
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards (1992)
  • Most Promising Actor: Ice Cube
Young Artist Awards (1992)
  • Outstanding Young Ensemble Cast in a Motion Picture: Desi Arnez Hines, Baha Jackson and Donovan McCrary
MTV Movie Awards (1992)
  • Best New Filmmaker: John Singleton
BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) Film & TV Awards (USA) (1992)
  • BMI Film Music Award: Stanley Clarke




The “inofficial” soundtrack of Boyz N the Hood


Unit – Corps – God – Country

How much critical thought can the military allow its rank and file? Certainly most orders must be followed unquestioningly; otherwise ultimately the entire Armed Services would collapse. But where do you draw the line? Does it matter how well soldiers know not only their military but also their civic duties? Does it matter whether trials against members of the military are handled by way of court-martials, or before a country’s ordinary (civil) courts?

I first saw A Few Good Men as an in-flight movie, and after the first couple of scenes I thought that for once they’d really picked the right kind of flick: A bit clichéd (yet another idle, unengaged lawyer being dragged into vigorously pursuing a case against his will), but good actors, a good director and a promising storyline.

Then the movie cut from the introductory scenes in Washington, D.C. to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Jack Nicholson (Colonel Nathan Jessup) inquired: “Who the fuck is PFC William T. Santiago?”

And suddenly I was all eyes and ears.

Director Rob Reiner and Nicholson’s costars describe on the movie’s DVD how from the first time Nicholson spoke this (his very first) line in rehearsal he had everybody’s attention; and the overall bar for a good performance immediately rose to new heights. Based on my own reaction, I believe them sight unseen. Or actually, not really “unseen,” as the result of Nicholson’s influence is there for everybody to watch: Never mind that he doesn’t actually have all that much screen time, his intensity as an actor and the personality of his character, Colonel Jessup, dominate this movie more than anything else; far beyond the now-famous final showdown with Tom Cruise’s Lieutenant Kaffee. Nobody could have brought more power to the role of Jessup than Nicholson, no other actor made him a more complex figure, and nobody delivered his final speech so as to force you to think about the issues he (and this film) addresses; and that despite all the movie’s clichés: The reluctant lawyer turning out a courtroom genius (as lead counsel in a murder trial, barely a year out of law school and without any prior trial experience, no less), the son fighting to rid himself of a deceased superstar-father’s overbearing shadow, and the “redneck” background of the victim’s superior officer Lieutenant Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland, who nevertheless milks the role for all it’s worth).

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who adapted his own play, reportedly based the story’s premise – the attempted cover-up of a death resulting from an illegal pseudo-disciplinary action – on a real-life case that his sister, a lawyer, had come across in the JAG Corps. (Although even if I take his assertion at face value that assigning the matter to a junior lawyer without trial experience was part of the cover-up, I still don’t believe the real case continued the way it does here. But be that as it may.) Worse, the victim is a marine serving at “Gitmo,” the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, where any kind of tension assumes an entirely different dimension than in virtually any other location. In come Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and co-counsels Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollack) and Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), assigned to defend the two marines held responsible for Santiago’s death; Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and PFC Louden Downey (James Marshall), who claim to have acted on Kendrick’s orders to subject Santiago to a “code red,” an act of humiliating peer-punishment, after Santiago had gone outside the chain of command to rat on a fellow marine (none other than Dawson), attempting to obtain a transfer out of “Gitmo.” But while Kendrick sternly denies having given any such order and prosecuting attorney Captain Ross (Kevin Bacon) is ready to have the defendants’ entire company swear that Kendrick actually ordered them to leave Santiago alone, Kaffee and Co. believe their clients’ story – which ultimately leads them to Jessup himself, as it is unthinkable that the event should have occurred without his knowledge or even at his specific orders.

By the time of this movie’s production, Tom Cruise had made the part of the shallow youngster suddenly propelled into manhood one of his trademark characters (see, e.g., The Color of Money, Top Gun and Rain Man); nevertheless, he manages to (mostly) elevate Kaffee’s part above cardboard level. Demi Moore gives one of her strongest-ever performances as Commander Galloway, who would love to be lead counsel herself in accordance with the entitlements of her rank, but overcomes her disappointment to push Kaffee to a top-notch performance instead. Kevin Pollack’s, Kevin Bacon’s and J.T. Walsh (Jessup’s deputy Lt.Col. Markinson)’s performances are straight-laced enough to easily be overlooked, but they’re fine throughout and absolutely crucial foils for Kaffee, Galloway and Jessup; and so, vis-à-vis Dawson, is James Marshall’s shy, scared Downey, who is clearly in way over his head. The movie’s greatest surprise, however, is Wolfgang Bodison, who, although otherwise involved with the production, had never acted before being drafted by Rob Reiner solely on the basis of his physical appearance, which matched Dawson’s better than any established actor’s; and who gives a stunning performance as the young Lance Corporal who will rather be convicted of murder than take an unhonorable plea bargain, yet comes to understand the full complexity of his actions upon hearing the jury’s verdict.

“Unit – corps – God – country” is the code of honor according to which, Dawson tells Kaffee, the marines at “Gitmo” live their lives; and Colonel Jessup declares that under his command orders are followed “or people die,” and words like “honor,” “code” and “loyalty” to him are the backbone of a life spent defending freedom. Proud words for sure: But for the “code red,” but for the trespass over that invisible line between a legal and an immoral, illegal order they might well be justified. That line, however, exists, and is drawn even in a non-public court-martial. I’d like to believe that insofar at least, this movie gets it completely right.



Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia Pictures (1992)
  • Director: Rob Reiner
  • Executive Producers: William S. Gilmore & Rachel Pfeffer
  • Producers: Rob Reiner / Andrew Scheinman / David Brown
  • Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin
  • Based on a play by: Aaron Sorkin
  • Music: Marc Shaiman
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Robert Richardson
  • Jack Nicholson: Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, USMC
  • Tom Cruise: Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, USN JAG Corps
  • Demi Moore: Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway, USN JAG Corps
  • Kevin Bacon: Captain Jack Ross, USMC, Judge Advocate Division
  • Kiefer Sutherland: Lieutenant Jonathan Kendrick, USMC
  • Kevin Pollak: Lieutenant Sam Weinberg, USN JAG Corps
  • Wolfgang Bodison: Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson, USMC
  • James Marshall: PFC Louden Downey, USMC
  • J.T. Walsh: Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Andrew Markinson, USMC
  • J.A. Preston: Judge (Colonel) Randolph, USMC
  • Noah Wyle: Corporal Jeffrey Owen Barnes, USMC
  • Cuba Gooding Jr.: Corporal Carl Hammaker, USMC
  • Matt Craven: Lieutenant Dave Spradling, USN JAG Corps
  • John M. Jackson: Captain West, USN, JAG Corps
  • Christopher Guest: Dr. (Commander) Stone, USN MC
  • Michael DeLorenzo: PFC William T. Santiago, USMC


Major Awards and Honors

American Film Institute (AFI)
  • 10 Top 10 (10 greatest US films in 10 classic genres) – Courtroom Dramas: No. 5
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 29th: “You can’t handle the truth!” (Colonel Nathan R. Jessup)
National Board of Review Awards (1992)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Jack Nicholson
ASCAP Awards (1994)
  • Top Box Office Films: Marc Shaiman
MTV Movie Awards (1993)
  • Best Movie




Casualties of War

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” – Aischylos.


In 1989, a secret U.S. Army SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team was called in after an Ebola outbreak among monkeys in a Reston, VA lab; a mere ten miles from Washington, D.C. They eventually determined that this particular strain wasn’t contagious for humans – others, however, are; capable of producing a 90% mortality rate within a matter of days. The Reston incident produced Richard Preston’s bestselling book The Hot Zone, on which this movie is loosely based (another project involving Robert Redford and Jodie Foster eventually folded).

Like the Reston Ebola strain, the (fictitious) Motaba virus at the center of Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak is brought to the U.S. by an infected monkey, caught near a village in the Zairean (now: Congolese) Motaba Valley. Unlike the Reston Ebola it is contagious for humans, with a 100% mortality rate within a single day. And, again unlike the Reston strain, it is airborne, i.e., not only transmitted by direct human-to-human contact.

Officially nobody has any prior knowledge of the virus at the time of its apparent first hit. In fact, once they’ve overcome their shock about its gruesome effects, USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and his assistants, Majors Schuler and Salt (Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr.) – in Zaire to provide medical assistance – are downright ecstatic to have discovered a new virus; a once-in-a-lifetime event for most scientists, if it happens at all. What they don’t know is that their own superiors, Brigadier General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman) and Major General Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland) have encountered this virus before, albeit non-airborne, in a mercenary camp in 1967 … and on McClintock’s orders, firebombed the camp to secretly develop a biological weapon. Now McClintock insists that their knowledge remain secret even after a first Motaba outbreak in Boston, brought about by the Californian animal lab worker (Patrick Dempsey) who has unwittingly smuggled the carrier monkey out to sell it to a pet store; and after another outbreak in Cedar Creek, CA, transmitted through the pet store owner and a lab technician infected by his blood. McClintock’s solution is the same as 30 years earlier: Firebomb the contaminated area and everybody in it, keep your weapon and be done with it.

But unlike 1967, complete secrecy is no longer an option, as not only Colonel Daniels’s team but also his ex-wife Robby (Rene Russo), who is now with the CDC and has helped contain the Boston outbreak, is aware of the virus’s presence. Thus, McClintock opts for the reverse strategy, obtains a presidential OK for his “Operation Clean Sweep” – after a dramatic presentation to the assembled cabinet resulting in the conclusion that the “bug” is capable of spreading to the entire country, including D.C., within a mere 48 hours; and the admonishment “Be compassionate, but be compassionate globally” – and orders Ford to get Daniels out of the way and keep him “in line.”

Daniels, however, who has long earned a reputation for following orders rather selectively, rushes to Cedar Creek, to work alongside Robby and her team trying to contain the virus. In short order Ford and McClintock show up as well, and soon the town is crawling with soldiers, who seal it off to the outside world and implement a curfew, to prevent a further spread of the virus but also in preparation of “Operation Clean Sweep.” A frantic race ensues; pitting Daniels and Salt, who set out to search for the host animal to develop an antiserum, against their own comrades.

The premise of Outbreak is entirely believable; as evidenced not only by the 1989 Virginia incident – after all, it was mere luck that the Reston strain didn’t prove contagious for humans –, but even more so, by the mid-2010 years’ severe Ebola crisis in several West African countries, which claimed the lives of thousands of Africans and also those of a number of North Americans and Europeans who had traveled to the countries struck by the disease.  Moreover, it has long been public knowledge that various kinds of viral strains do exist in the U.S. and other countries; at the very least for experimental purposes. While their military use is banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, there still is no functioning control mechanism in place (which was also a factor in the Iraq weapons of mass destruction debate). And although the U.S. is a signatory to both aforementioned instruments and has previously stated its non-use policy, the Bush government abandoned international discussions on the issue in 2001.

So, Outbreak addresses enormously important concerns; and it does so compellingly and with a stellar cast. Dustin Hoffman imbues his Colonel Daniels with tremendous compassion but also a great sense of humor; and his snappy exchanges with Russo’s Robby Keough and his team are a delight, especially those with Kevin Spacey, who in 1995 burst into movie audiences’ collective awareness with this film, the Oscar-winning The Usual Suspects, and Se7en. Morgan Freeman brings all his sensitivity to the movie’s most intricate role, General Ford, who is caught between being party to McClintock’s scheme and realizing its profound immorality. Then-27-year-old Cuba Gooding Jr. may have been a bit young to play a Major, but he certainly stands his ground; and few actors can portray a villain as menacingly as Donald Sutherland, although the script gives him little opportunity for true complexity.

Unfortunately, Outbreak gets the full “Hollywood thriller” treatment, complete with dramatic score, two-dimensional villain, clichéd ending and reliance on a few coincidences too many. This (and some plot inconsistencies) somewhat reduces its effect, preventing a good movie from becoming a truly great one – although its ‘copter chases are pure eye candy; and it certainly helps that they were shot by Michael Ballhaus, arguably the business’s best cameraman. But for the importance of its subject alone, and its outstanding cast, Outbreak is worth all the notice it has received.


“[The Cedar Creek population] are casualties of war. … I’d give them all a medal if I could. But they are casualties of war.” “Outbreak,” Maj.Gen. Donald McClintock

“[N]o massacre has occurred … no further action is warranted.” Department of the Army: initial investigation report on the March 16, 1968 My Lai incident (Vietnam)


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Bros. (1995)
  • Director: Wolfgang Petersen
  • Executive Producers: Duncan Henderson & Anne Kopelson
  • Producers: Wolfgang Petersen / Arnold Kopelson / Gail Katz
  • Screenplay: Laurence Dworet & Robert Roy Pool
  • Music: James Newton Howard
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
  • Dustin Hoffman: Sam Daniels
  • Rene Russo: Roberta “Robby” Keough
  • Morgan Freeman: Brigadier General Billy Ford
  • Kevin Spacey: Major Casey Schuler
  • Cuba Gooding Jr.: Major Salt
  • Donald Sutherland: Major General Donald McClintock
  • Patrick Dempsey: James “Jimbo” Scott
  • Zakes Mokae: Dr. Benjamin Iwabi
  • Malick Bowens: Dr. Raswani
  • J.T. Walsh: White House Chief of Staff (uncredited)


Major Awards

New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1995)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for Swimming with Sharks, The Usual Suspects, and Se7en
Seattle International Film Festival (1995)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for The Usual Suspects and Se7en
ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Awards (1996)
  • Top Box Office Films: James Newton Howard