While Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope is poised to blow up megaplexes nationwide, it might be a good time to look back at the generation of urban dramas that inspired Famyiwa’s slick, 21st-century homage. Yet while references to Boyz n the Hood, and Menace II Society abound — and Famuyiwa himself has listed them as direct influences — there is something fundamentally different about Dope. Sure, it shares the wide, palm-tree lined avenues and abundant sunshine of its Southern California location, but Dope is not about individuals caught up in the tragic cycle of gang life. It’s about everyday teenagers –”ghetto nerds,” if you will — just trying to get by, have some fun, meet some girls, and maybe get into college.
Nor is Dope strictly a “black” film, as many have qualified its early-90s forebears. Famuyiwa may be African-American (Quite literally: his father is Nigerian), but his Inglewood is a multicultural place where black and brown are essentially one in the same. So, while Dope may be self-consciously dialoguing with the SoCal gangster films of a generation past, we may actually find a more direct spiritual forefather in a small, unpretentious 1991 East Coast indie called Hangin’ with the Homeboys.
Directed by a 28-year-old Bronx-born Puerto Rican named Joseph Vásquez, Hangin’ with the Homeboys was something like the Bad Boy Records to Boyz n the Hood’s Deathrow. Like Dope, it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim, and like Dope it caught people’s attention for its unsensationalized portrayal of everyday life in the hood. Plus, Vásquez brought us an uncharacteristic vision of inner city life where black and brown stand side-by-side despite underlying racial tensions.
Starring John Leguizamo, Doug E. Doug, Nestor Serrano, and Mario Joyner, the film portrayed a Friday night in the life of a group of multicultural friends through the language of a typical Hollywood coming-of-age film, eschewing the clichéd representations of crime and urban blight that were generally expected of this sort of feature. Indeed, just like Dope invokes the stylish teen comedies of John Hughes, Hangin’ with the Homeboys played like a South Bronx version of 1982’s Diner or 1979’s Breaking Away — which took place in a much more palatable Bloomington, Indiana. The four homies in question aren’t gangbangers or drug addicts, but identifiable “everymen” with differing personalities and ideas about the future that will ultimately break them apart.
In a 1991 interview with the New York Times, Vasquez drove home the point saying, “[Hangin] could have been about anybody. What I wanted to say by making them black and Hispanic is that you expect certain things of us that are sometimes negative, but it doesn’t have to be that way.” Even so, Hangin’ with the Homeboys was still very much rooted in early-90s South Bronx, with all of the difficulty that implied. It was so real, in fact, that Vásquez himself was knifed in a subway car on his way to the shoot one day, leaving him scarred from his forehead down to his nose. With a rash of muggings and the perpetual specter of crackheads orbiting the shoot, even Bronx-native Nestor Serrano was uncomfortable with their 4am call times in some of the borough’s more infamous intersections.
Ultimately, Hangin’ with the Homeboys found the universal and fundamentally human element in this story of four friends who have quite simply outgrown one another, and it has turned into a unique touchstone of Hollywood’s early-90s urban “boom.” Unfortunately, Vásquez’s contribution to American cinema didn’t go much further than Hangin, despite his unique vision and early comparisons to Spike Lee. The cause of his demise was a previously undiagnosed mental illness that complicated his relationship with producers and studios, and finally, his death from AIDS in 1995.
But while we can lament the early loss of such a fresh, independent voice from the American scene, we can also celebrate the fact that the child of two heroin addicts, abandoned by his parents and raised on the mean streets of the Bronx, was able to make his voice heard. And more importantly, the film’s impact still resonates today in works like Dope.