Friday is still one of the most important films ever made about “the ‘hood.” As a straight white female born with the privilege of never knowing what it’s like to grow up there (or in the British equivalent), you’re probably thinking, who the hell am I to make such a statement? And yes, I can see why you might disagree. Films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace to Society have far more to say, politically speaking. On the surface, that is.
Friday and Withnail and I are two of my favourite films ever, and while they couldn’t be further apart in terms of style and content, they have many similarities. Plotwise, Two male friends get high and watch the days go by, painting a social commentary of the world on their doorstep. Nothing much happens, yet everything happens. They’re both hilarious snapshots of different lives to mine, yet ones that are so relatable (it also helps that both of them are endlessly quotable).
You see, “relatable” doesn’t mean you have to be like the characters in appearance or background. Relatability is human nature; it doesn’t care what your skin colour is, your gender, or your age. Sure, sometimes it helps, but for example, I am not a thirtysomething male living in London, 1969, but I relate to Marwood and his friendship with Withnail deeply. Likewise, I am not a twentysomething male living in South Central LA in 1995, but I can still relate to Craig and his friendship with Smokey in Friday. Friendship is the key feature here—it’s a universal human concept.
Luckily for me, Friday arrived when I was 16 years old, as I was growing into a young woman and opening my mind, which is vital to my relationship with the movie. I grew up in a Welsh city which is now pretty multicultural, but 25 years ago, it wasn’t. All I knew about black culture came from what I saw on TV and in Film. We were never taught about important history at school, other than of course WWII (we won, you know!). No, it was mostly motte-and-bailey castles and Sutton Hoo, and we were absolutely definitely not taught about how white men had kept slaves in the not too distant past or about the atrocities of what we had done to black people across the world for centuries.
Films such a Malcolm X, American History X, and Boyz n The Hood shaped my knowledge of black history, white supremacy, and gang culture. Each of them painted a different but terrifying picture of what it is like to live as an African American. It was so far removed from my life of white privilege that even though I knew these films were brilliant and vital, I couldn’t relate to the characters at all. And of course I couldn’t; that is the very definition of white privilege—I would never and probably won’t ever be treated the way black people have been treated in my lifetime.
This is a white problem, not a black problem. People of colour get the fallout from our problem, but it’s our problem to fix. Ask any white person if they’d want to be black- or brown-skinned in America or the UK, and they’d say no—they know, even if it’s just subconsciously, that their lives would be made far more difficult since we live in fundamentally racist nations.
But let us finally get to Friday.
Ice Cube had made his acting debut four years earlier with Boyz n the Hood, set in a South Central LA that was wholly inspired by the music of his rap group, NWA, who told the tales of the streets—of police brutality, censorship, and gang violence. But Friday was a laugh-out-loud comedy and a world away from the work Ice Cube had done before. It was his passion project; he even reportedly paid the cast from his own pocket ($5,000 apiece), because he wanted to make this film and show people what a real day in South Central was like. He wrote the film with his good friend DJ Pooh, who plays Red in the movie, and Cube himself plays the lead role of Craig Jones. Chris Tucker was an up-and-coming star on the comedy circuit brought in to play the role of Craig’s best friend, Smokey. Much of the script was improvised—with so many comedy actors in the cast, some stuff just couldn’t have been planned. It’s the one-liners that make Friday timeless and give it a cult following.
People thought how we grew up was like growing up in a war zone. After movies like Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, and South Central came out, everybody thought the way we grew up was the worst thing ever in life. I didn’t see it that way. Of course it was rough, but we had fun with everything. We tried to laugh at things that most people would cry at. —Ice Cube in an interview with Buzzfeed News, April 20, 2015
As I said earlier, it’s the friendship between Craig and Smokey that makes the film so powerful. Craig is straightlaced and doesn’t (usually) smoke weed. He would have a job if he hadn’t been fired on his day off for allegedly stealing boxes, though he didn’t take any boxes (this may be a prime example of prejudice due to his appearance, but it’s not focused on too deeply). Whatever the case, Craig seems to act like being accused of a crime isn’t unusual. He is very laidback, charming, and calm. Smokey is the opposite. He’s loud, crazy, and lazy, a smalltime weed dealer who doesn’t so much as deal as smoke it all himself, which leads to trouble all Friday long. He owes money to Big Worm (Faizon Love), his weed supplier who deals from an icecream truck and wears his hair in curlers. While Big Worm doesn’t appear scary to look at, he is a real threat to Smokey and Craig. If Smokey doesn’t either have the cash for the weed or the weed itself to return by 10 p.m., Big Worm is coming to kill them.
If that isn’t enough, Craig has a crazy girlfriend, Joi (Paula Jay Parker), in whom he is not interested at all, as she is way too in-your-face, precious, and jealous for him to deal with. He has his eye on Debbie (Nia Long), a pretty, smart, and cool girl from across the street. What is pretty unusual in the film is that Craig lives with both his parents, who are still happily married, and his sister Dana (Regina King), with whom he has a typical sibling relationship—they squabble and mock each other, but they ultimately love each other. In the more serious movies, the dad is usually nowhere to be found, and the mum is struggling to make ends meet, leaving her kids to fend for themselves for the most part—which is pretty much the life Smokey has. In stark contrast, Friday shows Craig’s dad, played by the brilliant and sorely missed John Witherspoon, as a man who truly loves his kids. Yes, he lambasts Craig for eating all the food in the house and tells him to go out and get a job (and teases him about getting fired on his day off), but everything he does and says is out of love.
For instance, when Willie discovers that Craig has a gun, he calmly talks to him about why he doesn’t need it to be a man. In a prophetic scene, Willie tells Craig that all he needs to fight is his hands. He will win and lose some fights, but he will live to see another day. When it comes to gunfights, there’s a good chance that he will get killed. He is absolutely right, too, as, at the end of the movie, Craig defeats the neighbourhood bully, Deebo (Tiny Lister Jr.) with his bare hands.
Craig and Smokey spend the day on the porch, watching the folk of the neighbourhood do their thing. Friends come by for a chat, or to score, or to borrow stuff. The foxy housewife across the street deliberately waters her lawn in a sexually suggestive manner. Pastor Clever (the late, great Bernie Mac) comes by to score some weed and spies Mrs. Parker, and the pair end up in bed just seconds later (praise the Lord, indeed). The Lord does not have mercy, though, as her husband arrives home, catches them mid-thrust (I imagine), and boots both of them out of the house. It’s all going on today.
Deebo comes by to take their money and belongings every chance he gets. Felisha, Debbie’s sister, comes by regularly to beg for free stuff. It is where one of the most famous memes/quotes of all time, “Bye, Felicia,” comes from. The line in itself is not that funny; it is Ice Cube’s deadpan delivery that makes it so great.
Deebo is gigantic and terrifying. He takes what he wants through violence, either by threatening it or actually delivering it. Red (DJ Pooh) sports a ‘“daaaaaaaammmmnnn” black eye when he comes by that was planted on him the day before by Deebo when Red dared to ask for his bike back. Smokey is coaxed into breaking into a house to steal stuff for Deebo. It’s a comical but poignant look at how peer pressure (and outright bullying) leads these guys down the wrong path.
Unlike Smokey, who never stops smoking weed for the entire duration of the film, Craig does not smoke the herb. Craig doesn’t want to become just another crime statistic in South Central. He tries his best not to get on the wrong side of the law or become the victim of police brutality, which of course is still very much prevalent today in Trump’s America. But on this Friday, Craig gives in to Smokey’s persuasion: “I know you don’t smoke weed, I know this, but I’m gonna get you high today, ’cause it’s Friday; you ain’t got no job… and you ain’t got sh*t to do.” Craig foolishly doesn’t obey the “puff, puff, give” rule of joint smoking and starts tripping. Of course, it would be now that Debbie calls over Craig’s house, but despite him being incredibly high, you can tell she’s into him.
We all need friends like Smokey. Sure, he might be high-energy and hard work, but he is able to lift up Craig and expose him to new experiences, and through those, we are able to see the real Craig, one who overcomes adversity for the first time.
You know those people. You are those people. And I think that as great as Boyz in the Hood was, and Menace II Society was, they only reference a small part of neighborhood life. “I don’t want to say ‘hood.’ I want to say ‘neighborhood.’ Because there’s a difference. When you reference the hood, it sounds like it’s something that people that are not black or Latino don’t experience. People that are white look at that movie and know those characters. They have an Asian Smokey. There is a white Craig. That exists. — Regina King, who played Craig’s sister, Dana (and who also costarred in Boyz n The Hood), in an interview with Buzzfeed News.
Toward the end of the movie, things take a dark turn. With Smokey not having the cash or weed to give to Big Worm, he and his gang arrive at 10 p.m., just like he promised, armed with machine guns for a drive-by shooting. They tear up the neighbourhood with bullets, narrowly missing Craig and Smokey, who leg it through the suburban alleyways, eventually to safety. Again, my white privilege allows me to be shocked about this kind of thing happening regularly. It’s tough for me as a Brit to understand why guns are allowed to be owned by civilians in America; I just don’t see any positives to it at all. Life seems to be worth so little because it can be taken so easily with a bullet.
Deebo regularly has sex with Felisha but uses her as a punching bag, too. It is the violence toward her sister that leads Debbie to stand up to him, and what has been pretty much played for laughs up to this point becomes deadly serious when Deebo strikes Debbie, knocking her to the ground. Craig takes out his gun and threatens to shoot Deebo but is persuaded by his Dad not to go down that road. Instead, they have a fistfight on the grass, with the street watching. Craig, with all that passion in his heart for Debbie, is the victor. This scene is so vital because, yes, Deebo is a bully in the strongest terms, but also because Craig listens to his father’s wise words and put the gun away. For all his faults, did Deebo deserve to die that day? Craig and Smokey almost lose their lives in a gun battle over money/weed, but they won’t go out like that—what a waste of life that would be.
Ice Cube probably didn’t even realise the effect that Friday would have on the film industry. It was the first time that people of colour from the inner city were depicted in a beautiful light. Gritty and rugged, yes, yet hilarious and suspenseful, too. It’s a coming-of-age story that teaches us to stand up for what we believe in, care for our friends, and always have our family’s back.
The themes of the film are just as vital 25 years after its release. Gun control is still a huge problem in America. Systematic racism causes crime and poverty in African American communities. Police brutality towards people of colour is rife, as the protests across the world have highlighted in the aftermath of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s horrific murders. But the potential for change remains—as Craig says, “After this Friday, the neighbourhood will never be the same.”
Friday broke the mould, and many more urban youth comedies arrived on the scene after its surprise success and subsequent cult following. Yet none really hit the notes that Friday did—they just didn’t have the charm, the wit, or the warmth. There are just a few films that I can watch over and over and never get bored, and Friday is one of them (Withnail & I and Fire Walk With Me are the other two if you’re wondering). The soundtrack alone stirs up pleasant memories. It’s easy to forget what the good times were like now, but we are reminded by films, music, tv, and games—Friday captures a particular space and time for me, yet it feels timeless. This is a friendship that will last forever. At least until Next Friday.