"Hanging with the Homeboys" is a somewhat impressive "coming of age movie" in the vein of "American Graffiti", "The Last Detail" etc, in which a gang of youths get together for a night out and, over the span of a few hours, learn "something about themselves" which will "change the course of their lives". To say more about the plot would be to spoil the film.
Directed by the young Joseph B. Vasquez, "Homeboys" was part of a wave of "African American Movies" released in the early 90s ("Jungle Fever", "Up Against the Wall", "Straight Out of Brooklyn", "Boyz N the Hood", "Menace II Society", "Juice", "Clockers", "Dead Presidents", "South Central", New Jack City", "Livin' Large" etc). It was well received by critics but went largely unseen thanks to a terrible title, a lack of big name stars and a relatively mundane plot which eschews the deaths, violence, swearing and flourishes typical of such young, black, urban movies. It's arguably better than the aforementioned films.
Unfolding like a stage-play, "Homeboys" watches as four guys hang out and chat over the course a day. They're Willie (Doug E. Doug), Tom (Mario Joyner), Johnny (John Leguizamo) and Vinny (Nestor Serrano), all down on their luck, young, lower class New Yorkers. By the film's end, each will have at least one of their illusions shattered.
But what's most interesting about "Homeboys" is the way Vasquez shatters his own audience's illusions. For example, when we're first introduced to our four heroes, who are all black or Puerto Rican, they're terrorizing white travellers, engaging in a bit of role playing in which they pretend to be young hoodlums. It's only when the boys reveal that "you've just been watching another performance of ghetto street theatre!" that the rug is pulled from out beneath our feet.
And so as the film unfolds, ethnic stereotypes are complicated, humanized, undermined and collided with one another. As most of the cast are comedians - Doug, Joyner, and Leguizamo – all this character peeling feels fresh, funny and spontaneous, rather than stilted or pretentious. The writing of the film's women – often misogynistic in such "night out with the guys" movies – is also well done. They exist as real characters outside the vision of the men, though too often the script paints them as deceptive and soiled (though no worse than the guys).
The film is more touching if you know a little about the director's life. Vasquez, himself half black and half Puerto Rican, was quite young when he directed "Hanging". He came from a poor, drug addicted family, and seemed destined for misfortune until hard-work, drive and ambition pulled him out of the slums. The success of his early films, however, proved too much of a burden, and the combination of quick money, huge responsibility and Hollywood pressures forced Vasquez to turn to drugs and become increasingly self-destructive. He then got AIDS from a bad needle and quite literally went insane, until he died of AIDS related afflictions in the mid 1990s.
The young Vasquez saw each of his film's characters as both a part of himself and representative of a particular trait he saw in many people around him when growing up. One character, for example, lives on welfare, constantly borrows money and doesn't try to help himself because he believes "a racist and rigged world" is continually standing in his way. Another character is ashamed of his Puerto Rican roots, perceiving himself to be unworthy of being loved, whilst another toils and works hard at acting but finds himself unable to score a job. Contrasted with this trio is Johnny, who brushes past the problems, grievances and obstacles of his friends – grievances which are not made light of, which are shown to be valid, which are understood to be real and constrictive – and resolves to lift himself out the Bronx. Like most "coming of age" tales, the film then ends on a note of ambiguity: will Johnny make it to the world outside his world, or is he destined, like so many others, for suffocation?
Johnny, of course, is Joseph B.Vasquez's surrogate. The character is the director's view of himself: one of the few kids from the Bronx who got out, who rose above the swirling pool of personal and external baggage which holds so many marginalized folk back. What Vasquez didn't cater for was that he would not be equipped to handle the world outside the one he escaped. So watching "Hanging With The Homeboys", you're always aware that the Johnny character, blinded by the director's own hopes, aspirations, dreams and optimism, represents a larger off screen tragedy. Vasquez doesn't intend this, of course, but we know that when the credits roll our hero dies months later. How can he not, when the man who tells us to believe in him, who stakes his life on what this kid represents, is himself crushed?
"Homeboys" was shot on a low budget with a small crew of young actors. Amongst its cast, the always underrated John Leguizamo stands out. Like most early 1990s, urban African American movies, "Homeboy" posses a certain tacky, distinctly "90s" feel.
8.5/10 – Makes a good companion pierce to "American Graffiti" and "The Last Detail". Worth one viewing.
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