The Passion of John Singleton

On Film / The Daily — Apr 30, 2019
John Singleton

For three weeks starting this Friday New York’s BAM will present Black 90s: A Turning Point in American Cinema, a series of films “made by African-American directors who forever altered what we thought of ‘black aesthetics’ and who created touchstone works that continue to inspire contemporary filmmakers.” One of the key works in the series is Boyz n the Hood (1991), the culture-shifting debut feature by John Singleton, who died yesterday at the age of fifty-one. He wrote Boyz while studying film at the University of Southern California and began shooting it when he was all of twenty-two. Following its premiere in the Un Certain Regard program in Cannes, and after it became a box office hit later that summer, Singleton became the first African American to be nominated for an Oscar for best director—and he remains the youngest nominee ever in the category. All in all, it was an auspicious beginning for a career as a director and producer of independent productions, studio franchise entries, and high-profile television series.

Based on his own experiences growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Boyz centers on three young men, each forging his own path through an obstacle course of gang violence and police hostility. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw calls Boyz “a masterpiece that seems to thump, judder, and pulse with police helicopter rotor blades, or semiautomatic gunfire, or music in the streets.” When it opened, Boyz was met with strong reviews across the board, but most crucial to its mainstream success were the endorsements of two of the most influential critics of the time, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Ebert wrote that, as the credits rolled, “I realized I had seen not simply a brilliant directorial debut, but an American film of enormous importance.” And Siskel argued that the debut was “good enough to suggest that John Singleton is going to be a major player for a long time.”

Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City had been released a few months before Boyz, but as Tambay Obenson suggests at IndieWire, it was Singleton’s film that “effectively gave birth to what came to be known as the ‘hood film’ sub-genre,” which would include films such as South Central (1992), Menace II Society (1993), Juice (1992), Sugar Hill (1993), Dead Presidents (1995), and Friday (1995). “Released during L.A.’s escalating gang wars, and months before the uprising that followed the acquittal of Los Angeles police officers accused in the Rodney King beating, gang-related violence overshadowed the film’s premiere weekend and a few theaters yanked it,” notes Obenson. “In retrospect, the carnage surrounding the film’s opening only made it seem more timely and profound. And recognizing this, then-California governor Pete Wilson recommended that all Americans watch Boyz n the Hood.

In 2002, Boyz was added to the National Film Registry, all but guaranteeing its preservation, and in 2016, the Academy celebrated the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary with a special screening and Q&A. Nigel M. Smith was there to record Singleton’s comments for the Guardian: “As the movie was going along, I was learning how to direct,” Singleton said. “As it becomes more intense and comes on to the third act, the camera work is more and more fluid, because I’m getting better and better—and taking more chances.”

The success of Boyz gave Singleton the clout to cast Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur as lovers in Poetic Justice (1993), and eventually, Samuel L. Jackson in the 2000 reboot of the Shaft franchise. “Singleton was a master of dropping his viewers into the thick of his films, sometimes using techniques that were gleefully old-fashioned yet pulsated with the energy of youth,” writes Odie Henderson at RogerEbert.com. “You were in the passenger seat of the speeding cars” of 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) and “in the chaos of horrific racial violence” in Rosewood (1997). “Looking back on his work,” adds Henderson, “one is surprised to see how great and prescient Singleton was with his casting. Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, Nia Long, André Benjamin, Ice Cube, Jeffrey Wright, and Ving Rhames all had early and memorable roles in films Singleton directed or produced.”

Singleton was a “fearless” producer, argues Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. He took on Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow (2005), with Terrence Howard as “a complex and not always likable small-time drug dealer and pimp,” and Brewer’s Black Snake Moan (2007), with Samuel L. Jackson as “a disillusioned, God-fearing juke-joint bluesman who sets out to redeem a sort of fallen angel, played by Christina Ricci.” Over the past ten years or so, Singleton was primarily active in television, directing episodes of Empire, American Crime Story, and Billions, and cocreating Snowfall, a series set against the backdrop of the crack epidemic in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s.

Tributes have been posted all across social media from the likes of Jordan Peele, Ava DuVernay, and perhaps most movingly, from Spike Lee, whose She’s Gotta Have It (1986) was a major inspiration behind Singleton’s decision to become a filmmaker. “Over many years people have told me, ‘I’m going to be a filmmaker,’” writes Lee. “When John said that to me the first time we met, I believed him right away. It was no surprise. With his passion, his heart, the way he talked about his love for cinema and black folks, I could see John would make it happen, and he did.”

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