The telling moment happened nearly every morning of the 20-day shoot some 20 years ago.
A neighbor — unhappy in spite of the $100 he was paid daily for the inconvenience of an Ice Cube movie being shot on his block — tried to disrupt the process in the most obnoxious of ways. He’d belt out Al Green tunes off-key and loudly every time director F. Gary Gray would call for action. And several times, he’d yell out to anyone within earshot, “This ain’t no real movie anyway. 'Cuz they wouldn’t be shooting it over here.”
He was incorrect, of course — Friday, the stoner comedy with a limited release and an even more limited budget, grossed more than $27 million at the box office, and had a bigger life in video and DVD rentals and purchases in the years since. But his drunken sentiment was dripping with genuineness. And it wasn’t lost on anyone.
Friday is about almost nothing — refreshing, really, after a string of movies set in South Central, Los Angeles, that focused only on strife. But in this movie, Craig (Ice Cube) gets fired on his day off — and made fun of because of it all throughout. And his best friend Smokey (Chris Tucker) is a small-time weed dealer who’d rather smoke it than distribute it. The two encounter a neighborhood filled with some over-the-top characters, and there’s laughter to be found where we hadn’t exactly seen before.
“The Crips — they wear the blue, right? — they would come every day and watch us shoot,” actor John Witherspoon, who plays Craig's father in the film, recalls in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “They had bandanas over their faces, but would want us to take pictures with their kids. They were so nice to us.”
A native son was documenting their neighborhood on one of its better, less violent days, and this was noteworthy. Clearly, the pride of the L.A.-based notorious gang was undeniable; they came to set daily, engaged with the actors, and wanted their children to witness the energy building around a film almost no one wanted to make.
Friday, released on April 26, 1995, was a bona fide laugh-out-loud comedy, and was a stark departure from the work Ice Cube had done before. It was a different twist from his acting debut in 1991’s Boyz n the Hood, a film set in South Central, L.A., that was wholly inspired by the music his rap group NWA — Niggaz With Attitude, for the ill-informed — created in the 1980s. (In fact, NWA member Eazy-E’s solo debut was a track called “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” which was co-penned by Ice Cube.) Friday, which has established quite the cult-like following since its release 20 years ago this month, will screen in nearly 400 theaters for one night only: 4/20.
This comedy was Ice Cube’s passion project, so much so that he paid the actors — most everyone remembers it being a payday of $5,000 apiece — out of his own pocket. This was the rapper’s chance to, in a way, mute some of the narrative that he was instrumental in giving the world. Through his music, he told street tales of everyday black and brown people living in one of L.A.’s most violent neighborhoods, and the scene was unpleasant. NWA touched on South Central street life (“Gangsta, Gangsta”), police brutality (“Fuck tha Police”), and censorship (“Express Yourself”) — and their music resonated in urban areas all across the country.
The hood and all of its faults (as presented in dramatic fashion, often with someone beloved dying violently in the end) had been a box office moneymaker: Menace II Society earned nearly $28 million in theaters, and Boyz earned almost $58 million and also was nominated for an Oscar. But in Friday — which Cube co-wrote with his longtime friend DJ Pooh — the hood wasn’t so unnerving. As bleak a place as it could be, there was much humor to be found.
“People thought how we grew up was like growing up in a war zone,” Ice Cube says in an interview with BuzzFeed News. "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.”
Cube and his writing partner found ways to create a continuous 91-minute-long joke about two dudes sitting on a porch, taking in their surroundings. In the process, they poked fun at some of the nuances that happen in the hood — the permed-out dope man selling bud from an ice cream truck, a horny, weed-smoking preacher who gets naked with a married woman while her husband’s away, and the hilarious neighborhood crackhead, a natural-born swindler. And all of the incidents — kids knocking over trash cans, ornery neighbors who don’t want you to step on their manicured lawns, and the day the resident bully got his ass beat — actually happened on the block where Cube grew up.
Gray — a noted music video director at the time — had been friends with Cube since the early '90s. Cube knew Gray was itching to do a feature film, and after collaborating on the rapper’s seminal solo video “Good Day,” a song that ironically describes in rich detail a day in South Central that goes off without a hitch, he approached the director with his idea of Friday. That 1992 music video, in some ways, was an early seed to Friday itself, playing off the idea of an unremarkable day in a neighborhood that’s so rich in conflict. “Plus nobody I know got killed in South Central, L.A. / Today was a good day,” Cube raps in what’s perhaps his most well-known hit.
“I was a young kid at the time, really looking to break into the business,” Gray says. "Cube described Friday, and that it was a story about where I grew up and where he grew up and how much fun it was — dangerous at the same time — but fun. I thought it was a great idea. We wanted to show a different side.”
From the rapper’s limited film experience at the time — Cube barely had two John Singleton movies (Boyz and Higher Learning, the latter of which was released a few months before Friday) under his belt — he was convinced that skirting the traditional Hollywood studio system was the way to go.
“We knew Hollywood had never seen this kind of comedy,” Cube says. "I was like, ‘Yo, I don’t want to [go] in there and have all these people try to explain what this is. I’d rather just go do it.'"
The rapper didn’t think a film that found comedy in shit-talking crackheads and dayside toking would get the Hollywood thumbs-up. Turns out, he was a bit off the mark. New Line Cinema — which released Menace in 1993 and a trio of House Party movies — learned of the project, and wrote a check (it ultimately cost about $3.5 million to make; Cube says they contributed about $1 million and distributed the film).
“They were like, 'We want to make this movie. How much do you all need?'” Cube recalls. “We didn’t have distribution, so we was like, ‘Yo, they’re feeling it, they’re going to let us go do the movie we want to do with no interference, and they’re going to give us the money and they’re going to put it out.’ It was a perfect match for that movie.”
New Line did have some casting suggestions. Though the rapper easily slid into the role of Craig, the still-living-at-home-with-mom-and-dad twentysomething who was fired for (maybe) stealing boxes; the studio couldn’t get behind his writing partner DJ Pooh who was to portray Smokey, saying he wasn’t experienced enough. The studio wanted a stronger name to take on Craig’s carefree best friend, the irresponsible pothead. He’d be the source of comedy for Craig, who didn’t smoke, but was stuck trying to figure out how to navigate a day in his hood.
Pooh ultimately took on a smaller role (the misfortunate Red, who is a target of Tommy “Tiny” Lister’s Deebo, the big bully), and Cube suggested that the studio hire Chris Tucker for the lead role, considering that the comic was such a fan favorite on HBO’s ‘90s stand-up series Def Comedy Jam.
“New Line was like, ‘Who?’" remembers Ice Cube. "And I was like, ‘Y’all just did a movie with him!’ They gave him a small, little part in House Party 3, and they underused him."
The Tucker casting was key: He was a 22-year-old, slim, goofy rule-breaker to Cube’s straight man. In Friday, Tucker debuted his distinct higher-pitched, comedic voice, the same ones that often killed on those Def Comedy Jam stages. Peppered throughout the movie were other comedians who’d graced the HBO stage: Faizon Love, the late Bernie Mac, and Angela Means all took on neighborhood characters who resonated in major ways with audiences. Having those comics on the set of a film being shot by a newbie director (whose previous experience was making music videos) meant that all types of ridiculousness ensued. And for some cast members, marijuana was the great — and paralleling – unifier.
“Chris and I used to share a car, a Jetta,” Love says in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “We would smoke out in the car in the mornings. Chris was like my little brother. We would always work on scenes together, go to the comedy club ... we were always fucking around. Back then, we smoked weed every day. Gary Gray hated me and Chris because we would talk so much shit. He was like the principal, and we were like the bad kids. Every day, we would get fired. Chris got fired. I got fired.”
But they kept coming back, largely because they were able to bring the right comedic tone to a film that would heavily rely on ad-libbing. Gray says Cube was so open to the changes of the script, of which about 65% was written and about 35% improvised. This worked quite well, considering that the cast was stacked with so many recognizable black stand-up comics.
“Their ability to improvise and contribute creatively made the movie a classic," Gray says. "There’s no Friday without Chris Tucker and Faizon Love and what they contributed. Cube and DJ Pooh did a great job with the script but you can never dream up on your laptop the things that some of these comedians would come up with on the spot.”
Gray says he recently discovered 16 hours of behind-the-scenes footage that has never been seen before, including rehearsal moments where some of the more famous lines were created.
“I found the first moments of ‘Bye Felisha,’ ‘You got knocked the fuck out,’ — all this stuff that happened in our rehearsal out of improv,” Gray says. “That’s the brilliance of the actors. It’s also the brilliance of Cube not being precious with his words — he said the best idea and the funniest idea is the idea. I think with that approach, we led with our hearts and it paid off.”
Love says he helped to round out his hair-curler-wearing drug-dealer character Big Worm — who sold drugs from an ice cream truck — and pulled traits from a guy named Bird from one of the neighborhoods he grew up in. When he auditioned for the role, he showed up with a joint and helped to create one of the film’s more memorable lines — “Playing with my money is like playing with my emotions” — partly from a soul song he’d heard earlier that morning.
“But the ice cream truck?” he adds. "That’s some other shit."
The film had a small release — worldwide it played in only 883 theaters — but grossed $28 million. And the life it’s had in VHS rentals and later DVD sales was so impressive that it spawned off sequels — Next Friday, which earned more than $57 million in 2000 and introduced comic Mike Epps; Friday After Next, which brought in about $33 million; and Friday: The Animated Series, a short-lived cartoon series that aired on MTV 2 in 2007–2008. No one in the cast — save for maybe Cube himself — had much faith that this film would hit the way it has. It was mostly something to do while awaiting the next gig: quick money for a film that featured a ton of comedians. As insular as it was in subject matter, place, and time, the comedy has translated in a major way, and has connected across audiences with fans all over the world.
“You know those people,” says Regina King, who played Cube’s sister, Dana (and who also co-starred in Boyz herself). "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 a 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.”
Love says he was shooting another movie in 2001 on location in South Africa when he saw a guy craning his neck to get a good look at him. “We see this guy walking. He has little ratty-ass trousers on and no shoes and a stick. He's beating a satchel. And he looked thirsty ... and I was like, ‘Get him some water.’ And he looked at me, and he pointed, and he said, ‘Big Worm?’ And I said, ‘Oh, fuck no!’ Out of this bush, this no-having-shoes-motherfucker … he ain't got no shoes! Where did he see this movie?"
But that’s how strongly the film has resonated with viewers. Two decades after its initial release, and the pop culture hold is prevalent: Quotes from the movie have filtered into contemporary lexicon.
Blame the “Bye Felisha” wave on a small but hilarious scene where Craig dismisses Means, the neighborhood beggar with those two words after unsuccessfully asking Tucker to “borrow his car right quick.” The comedic power lies in a bunch of tiny scenes like that one; they live on YouTube, benefit from multiple viewings on cable outlets (while fans live tweet it), and get brought back to life by contemporary reality-TV stars who quote the film and connect it with a younger audience who didn’t get it the first go-round.
“I thought maybe four people would see it,” King says. “It was one of those movies where in between scenes we all sat on the porch and talked shit. Everybody. The director. The props person. The DP. Everybody.”
Anna Maria Horsford, who played Craig and Dana’s mom Betty, enjoyed a successful run starring in NBC’s Amen as Thelma Frye, and in the early ‘90s, The WB sitcom The Wayans Bros. before appearing in the movie. But she said that her role in Friday — a straight-no-chaser but lovable character who wanted her kids to excel in school or at work — is what she’s most recognized for.
“Every other person who I run into says, ‘Excuse me? Are you Craig's mother?’" Horsford says. "It's such an identifiable stamp. There was a middle-class white woman who saw me at the airport, and she said, ‘You look familiar.’ And then she turned around, and … it hit her. It was Friday. I said, ‘Did your children force you, sit you down so you could see it?’ She said, ‘No! I loved it. I watched it on my own.'"
Horsford also points out how, unlike other films that focused on the same types of neighborhoods, this was the first one to feature a traditional nuclear family — a mother and a father in the household. In other films, we'd largely see narratives about single moms in economic strife and a father nowhere to be found, let alone ever married. The image alone was stark by comparison.
A gripping scene in Boyz comes as a single mother curses at her 10-year-old son (the older version of him, ironically played by Cube), saying: “You ain't shit. You just like your daddy. You don't do shit, and you never gonna amount to shit. All you do is eat, sleep, and shit.” Her words stung, and the subtext was obvious. That film in particular made many statements; one poignant one challenged the lack of black fathers' influence on their children by way of Laurence Fishburne’s very involved character.
That relationship between Fishburne’s dad and Cuba Gooding Jr.’s son was important, but it was wrapped in seriousness: STD talks, police abuse, gentrification, and gang violence. There was very little room for fun, nor was there an example of a nuclear family to be found in that very meaningful film. That’s where Friday differs. It’s a comedy and it subtly introduces something that we’ve rarely seen films set in an urban neighborhood.
“It shows a family and a father who cares about his son,” Witherspoon says. "And his daughter. And his wife. I don’t think we saw that in pictures before, A really dominating father? Or a mother running her family? But no, this was a family.”
Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts as well as screenwriter and producer of the 1999 coming-of-age drama The Wood, says that Friday didn't just add an element of comedy to depictions of everyday life in black neighborhoods, it spawned a new genre — the hood comedy.
“The film demonstrated that black life was not all drugs, violence, dysfunction, and pathology — yet instead of offering a Cosby Show-like fantasy, Friday put these issues in context, finding humor in the everyday lives of regular black people,” he explains. “Since the 1970s, Hollywood has always looked favorably upon low-budget black films that produce high profit margins at the box office. Friday expanded the representation of the hood into the realm of comedy and achieved box office success at the same time.”
Other hood comedies that followed include: 1996’s satire Don’t Be a Menace While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, 1998’s The Player’s Club (Cube wrote and directed it), 2001’s How High, and 2002’s Barbershop, the latter of which Cube starred in.
Friday film helped to launch many careers — Gray is now a seasoned feature film director who has credits including The Italian Job, Law Abiding Citizen, and as fate would have it, in the upcoming NWA biopic, Straight Outta Compton; King has co-starred in many films since (playing next to both Gooding Jr. and Jamie Foxx in their Oscar-winning roles in Jerry Maguire and Ray), and Cube has created quite the TV and film production enterprise — he co-produced and co-starred in last year’s Ride Along, which grossed nearly $135 million domestically.
“I wish I could tell you that we knew it would have the legs that it’s had,” Gray says. "We just followed our instincts: Is it funny? Is it relevant? Is it real? Is it true? We didn’t know enough to be politically correct — I think that’s part of the charm. We were all just young guys out there looking to laugh. We wanted to inject a little bit of meaning in this entertainment. For some reason, it stood out.”
Friday ultimately was a star-making role for Tucker — he later went on to co-star in a trilogy of Rush Hour films, which came with hefty paydays and grossed more than half a billion dollars domestically — and it’s a key reason why a long-awaited Friday sequel with all of the original actors coming back hasn’t happened yet. Next Friday and Friday After Next fared well but were missing were a lot of original characters that everyone fell in love with, namely Tucker.
“New Line won’t cut the check. So we’re in a holding pattern,” Cube says of the possible new Friday film, which he has written. “I’m depressed about it. Ain’t nobody going to be more pissed off than me. Because it’s ridiculous. It don’t make sense. I’ve got to do it with the company that the movie was released on. So until they come to their senses, we can’t be funny.”
Until then, fans will have to stick to wearing their DVDs out and tweeting favorite lines from the film as if it were released 20 days ago.
“People are still into it like it just came out last week,” says Ice Cube. "It’s a movie that never gets old for a lot of people. A good movie can always be discovered, no matter how old it is or how low the budget is. It’s a great movie, and people will continue to discover it in their own way.”