Several of the earliest feature films out of Hollywood to tackle addiction in a realistic way were challenged by the Hays Code, a self-imposed industry censorship managed by the Production Code Administration that existed from 1934 to 1968. The Hays Code prohibited profanity, sexual acts, nudity, or graphic violence among other acts deemed problematic or offensive for audiences. This included films that grappled with drugs, alcoholism, and addiction. Even under the heavy-handed review of the Production Code, a number of remarkable films successfully tackled these tough subjects. Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) is a gripping portrait of an alcoholic’s struggles and downfall over the period of four days. The extraordinary creative team won four Oscars for a story of a man who is consumed with finding his next drink. It is an important film because it shows the dire side of addiction and its destructive forces. I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955), a film based on the real life story of the successful stage performer and actress Lillian Roth, provides a piercing glimpse of the downfall and recovery of an alcoholic who hit skid row before finding recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous. Drug addiction was a more challenging topic for film. The film director Otto Preminger defiantly faced off with the Production Code authority with his film The Man with a Golden Arm (1955). The film challenged the censorship which disapproved of any screenplay that portrayed the use or trafficking of drugs. The film did both with a focus on the devastating effects of addiction and how impossible it can be for an addict to return to the environment that nurtured the addiction in the first place. The main character, portrayed by Frank Sinatra, serves six months in a federal criminal hospital for his crime and to cure his addiction. At the completion of his sentence, he returns, optimistic and clean of drugs, to his neighborhood in Chicago and immediately faces the troubles that initially set him on his inopportune path. In one graphic scene, Sinatra’s character suffers through the pain of heroin withdrawal after falling back to using after his treatment.
The film industry experienced two important changes in the late 1960s. The dissolution of both the Hollywood studio system and the Hays Code program of censorship. These events gave way to a new independent cinema which would produce scores of films that tackled societal problems and drug use. John Singleton’s brilliant directorial debut, Boyz n the Hood (1991), is in part a coming-of-age story for three young men, Tre, Ricky and Darrin “Doughboy”, living in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s, a neighborhood plagued by drugs, gangs, guns, violence and racism. Each character is on a different path but face the similar brutal challenges that add to a stressful environment which could be described at times as a war zone. Tre’s character is centered around his family and the dynamic father and son relationship. He, like Ricky, wants out of Los Angeles. Doughboy spends time with drink and drugs which recklessly have him on the edge of danger every day of his life. Singleton wrote the screenplay drawing from personal experience and in telling the story of these three young men, he addresses the larger societal issues of the time: gentrification, systemic racism, and police brutality and the collective impact these issues have on communities of color. More than thirty years later, the film still resonates in large part due to an exceptional screenplay and, painfully, because these problems still exist.