Trailblazer John Singleton Wanted to Do for LA what Spike Lee Did for NY
When John Singleton died on April 28, 2019, at the age of 51 following a stroke, one of the numerous tributes to him was by Barack Obama who tweeted, “His seminal work, Boyz n the Hood, remains one of the most searing, loving portrayals of the challenges facing inner-city youth. He opened doors for filmmakers of color to tell powerful stories that have been too often ignored.”
Singleton was the youngest person at 24 and the first Black to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director for that film. (To date, none have won; four others have since been nominated – Spike Lee, Lee Daniels, Barry Jenkins, and Jordan Peele.) Singleton was also nominated for his screenplay.
The title of the film referenced the rap song by Eazy-E written by Ice Cube and incorporated hip hop and rap culture in its story. Boyz n the Hood was semi-autobiographical in the sense that Singleton based the story on his experiences growing up in South Central Los Angeles with characters based on people he knew, including his childhood friends, who grapple with gang wars, addiction, and racial identity. Singleton shone a spotlight on life in the inner city with an authenticity not seen onscreen before and showed audiences the systemic obstacles in which his protagonists were trapped. Boyz starred Cuba Gooding, Jr., Angela Bassett, Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, and Laurence Fishburne, and debuted to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival where it was showcased in Un Certain Regard. The film was made for $6.5 million and earned $57.5 million worldwide. It was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2002.
Singleton grew up next to the Century Drive-In “which was a drive-in that was near the airport outside of my apartment. I would always watch these films outside the apartment window that were basically B-movies, the AIP films, the throw-away films, the slasher movies, the blacksploitation movies, the kung-fu movies. I would see them with no sound. That was my initial entrée into film and filmmaking,” he told students at Loyola Marymount’s film school in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway.
“The galvanizing moment for me was when I saw Do the Right Thing,” he said to Galloway. “I saw what Spike did with that picture. I said I got to do it for LA., I got to come hard with an L.A. movie. So it was just like I’m going to pull this idea that I had, I got to put on my application for USC that was called Summer of ’84. That’s Boyz N the Hood.”
Singleton was signed to CAA while still at USC, his script ended up at Columbia, and a month after graduation he was in preproduction on the film. That was the start of a long collaboration with the studio that spanned his next few films.
Poetic Justice with Janet Jackson in the lead role was up next, released in 1993, as Singleton focused on the experience of young Black women. Tupac Shakur, Joe Torry, and Regina King also starred in the movie about a poet (Jackson) who loses her boyfriend to gun violence and goes on a road trip to Oakland with her friends.
Two years later, Singleton made Higher Learning, set on a fictional college campus. It further explored racial identity and the differences in the Black and white experience with a diverse cast that included Ice Cube and Fishburne again, with Omar Epps, Michael Rapaport, Jennifer Connelly, Kristy Swanson, and Tyra Banks in her first screen role.
Rosewood was released in 1997 and Singleton changed focus with this film and turned to actual historic events – the massacre of the people of Rosewood, Florida in 1923 by a white mob. Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, and Jon Voigt led the cast. Baby Boy (2001) and Four Brothers (2005) followed, but Singleton segued into a lighter mode with Shaft in 2000 and 2 Fast 2 Furious in 2003.
In 2005, he put his own money into the hip-hop drama Hustle and Flow when he couldn’t raise it from the studios and steered the film as a producer to great success and an Oscar nomination for star Terrence Howard. It was written and directed by Craig Brewer and grossed $25 million.
He was vocal about the lack of opportunities for Black filmmakers in Hollywood. In a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter in 2013 entitled “Can a White Director Make a Great Black Movie?” Singleton pointed out that “the success of black-themed movies like The Help and this year’s 42 points to a troubling trend: the hiring of white filmmakers to tell black stories with few African-Americans involved in the creative process.”
In the column, he acknowledged that white directors have succeeded in telling Black stories, and cited several examples, but wondered what Spike Lee would have made of 42, and “what if the commercial success of “black films” like 42 and The Help, which also had a white director, are now making it harder rather than easier for African-American writers and directors to find work . . . In the black film community, the consensus is that we’re entering a new era of “Al Jolson movies.” Jolson, for the uninitiated, was the star of the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer in 1927, and is best known for donning blackface and singing “Mammy.” He is an apt symbol for what slowly is becoming the norm in Hollywood. Even when there are black directors or writers involved, some of the films made today seem like they’re sifted of soul. It’s as if the studios are saying, ‘We want it black, just not that black.’”
At the end of the LMU interview in the Q and A session, one student, Emmanuel Saint-Ange, asked this question: “After you pass away, what do you think is going to be the work that represents you best as a filmmaker? Why? And what do you want it to say about you as a filmmaker?”
Singleton responded: “Oh man. You’re scaring me, man. I haven’t made my best work yet. I have my best work lying ahead of me. I have my best and my worst, probably. I want to be remembered for my passion. And for the fact that my films, each one of them is a different soulful statement.”