Film: THE WOOD
Starring: Taye Diggs, Omar Epps, and Richard T. Jones
Released in 1999, The Wood is the first addition to the Southern Eccentrik’s club of Black movie classics. Set in Inglewood, CA, it’s the story of three men who have been friends since junior high school. Taye Diggs plays the charming but self-styled ladies’ man, Roland, while Omar Epps and Richard T. Jones portray the characters of the level-headed Mike and the quick-witted Slim respectively. The film opens with Roland having a serious case of cold feet as he disappears on his wedding day. To that end, his buddies find him and then help him sort out his fear of taking the final step into manhood by reminiscing about their boyhood antics; which all occurred during the late eighties. The fact that writer/director, Rick Famuwiya, set the timeframe of the story during the height of gang activity in Cali, The Wood can be easily considered as the alternative to John Singleton’s Boyz in Da Hood and answers the question, ‘If not all young Black boys were banging, what were they doing?’
Apparently, they were trying to grow up, become men, and have a lot of fun while doing it. The actors who played the younger versions of the main characters did a great job at conveying the youthful dispositions of black boys during that era. Sean Nelson (Young Mike), Trent Cameron (Young Roland), and Duane Finley (Young Slim) were all complete crack ups, showcasing the cute and clumsy moments that denote coming of age. In everything from the Phone Number Contest to their Pussy Pot caper, I saw so much of my childhood male friends in each one of them. In my little hometown in Mississippi, I had my own versions of Mike, Roland, and Slim.
I even had my own version of Stacy. He was actually my first boyfriend (I’m saving that story for the biopic). Stacy, portrayed by De’Aundre Bonds, was the Blood-affiliated older brother of Mike’s object of affection, Alicia. While the entire movie brightens up my mood every time I watch it, there is one particular scene that does it for me every time and Bonds’ character is at the center.
All of the elements that were incorporated into the film (the music, the clothes, the language) points out that Famuwiya wanted a relatable story; so he had to deal with the phenomenon of gangs, which is where Stacy comes into play. Instead of building Stacy as a one-dimensional character, Famuwiya brilliantly constructs him with depth, showing different sides of Stacy as he was essentially just a misguided youngster who needed a swift kick in the right direction. Famuwiya’s development and Bonds’ performance made Stacy likeable and left the audience with a good impression. This was not an easy task, considering that Hollywood historically generalizes Black men as innate criminals or dumb, subservient individuals with little worth to society. Famuwiya even spoofed the O-Dog persona (Menace II Society) with the goofy hold up scene in which Mike, Roland, and Slim technically become accessories to a felony.
Not only does Stacy trip in the doorway as he enters to rob the store, but he also incriminates himself when Mike calls out his name. If that’s not funny enough, he has time to have a moment about his pre-gangster days when he used to attend the school dances and to explain to his homie that Mike has ‘heart’ because of how he handled an ass whopping after violating Alicia (grabbing her booty at school). As an act of courtesy, he tells his younger counterparts to grab something from the store, if they wanted it, and offered a ride to the dance. Now, for the most part, Stacy is clearly a gangster in training, but he must have been paying attention in his Armed Robbery classes because taking the boys to the dance could serve as a great alibi.
Of course, everything doesn’t go as planned and Stacy gets pulled over by the trigger-happy lot known as the LAPD, and for all things, a busted tail light. When it comes to young Black men, random traffic stops often become an opportunity to investigate any inkling of suspicion that a police officer could get. Here, Famuwiya visually presents a bit of social commentary about racial profiling and how Black men can acquire a criminal record with relative ease. So when the boys are spread eagled against the wall, Mike observes that the gun used in the store robbery is in plain view on the floor in the low-rider’s backseat. Distracting the officers, Mike earns the immediate respect of Stacy who blesses him four times; once by demoting his Blood homie to the backseat with his ‘cry baby ass’ and giving Mike the coveted spot. The second time, Stacy apologizes for the ass whooping, third, he christens Mike as Big Mike because of his ‘heart’ or courage and finally, by dropping a dime on how to win Alicia over.
There’s so many takeaways from this scene alone. As a soul deep lover of Black men, this film helped me with understanding how much they revere their friendships. Also, I got a glimpse at how hard it is for them to earn and keep each other’s respect. It’s also nice to have a movie in the Black Experience where Black men were portrayed without any pretenses. Famuwiya stayed away from the overused clichés that seem to follow Black men; no prison scenes, no blood spilling, no ‘the block is hot but I’m selling these rocks’ mentality, no high speed car chases, no over exaggerated cool pose expressions that have trapped Black men in a never-ending maze of lazy strolls, chin up, tilted heads, and thugged-out simplicity.
In a word, classic.