With movies like “Boyz n the Hood” and “Poetic Justice,” Singleton constructed what he called a hood “hyperreality” and expanded the Los Angeles film canon.
Photograph by Neville Elder / Corbis / Getty
How many great directors have lived and died without ever making a film? Too many, and there is no satisfactory way for us to lament what was never given the chance to exist. I’m grateful that we can mourn the director and screenwriter John Singleton, who died on Monday at the age of fifty-one, and his valorous brand of hood films. You need money—or connections to money, or social standing that suggests a potential to make money—in order to survive the embedded injustices of the studio system. Singleton, who came from a black family in South Central Los Angeles, had none of those things. What he did possess was an old-fashioned fortitude, and virtually every young director working in realism today, black or white, has benefitted from it.
Singleton was born in January, 1968. His father, a mortgage broker, and his mother, a sales executive at a pharmaceutical company, did not stay together long. He came of age in the era of Reagan’s drug-war policies, and Singleton witnessed black and brown people in his city fighting to survive. “I remember ice cream trucks, and you realize the ice cream truck isn’t selling ice cream, they’re selling crack,” Singleton told the L.A. Times, in 2017. He was a gifted child, and in eighth grade he started going to school in the Valley, where he was awed by the affluence of “Encino, Tarzana,” he said. But he was not interested in forgetting his home. Instead, he became an auteur of place.
In 1986, he enrolled in a film-writing program at the University of South Carolina, but he found it unfulfilling. “USC was a cultural wasteland,” Singleton told Rolling Stone, in 1991. “Everybody wanted to get rich, but nobody wanted to work to get there.” He was a fan of Steven Spielberg, and, like Spielberg, he shot his first short films on a Super-8 camera. But he bypassed typical stages of mimicry that many young filmmakers undergo, instead honing a distinctive voice.
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Singleton, who wore large round glasses and L.A. Dodgers jerseys, had a thrillingly cocky sense of entrepreneurialism. At twenty-one, he finished the script to “Boyz n the Hood,” a story about Tre, Doughboy, and Ricky, young men growing up in Crenshaw, Los Angeles, during a peak time of gang strife and police violence. A couple of years later, while Singleton was interning at Columbia Pictures, reading scripts that he thought were “straight-up booty,” his supervisor asked to read one of his. Impressed, she sent several of his scripts to an agent at the Creative Arts Agency. A couple of days later, Singleton was signed.
When Columbia Pictures bought the rights to “Boyz,” in 1990, Singleton was reportedly offered a hundred thousand dollars not to direct. He refused to take it. He was twenty-two when he began filming, in South Central L.A. Hundreds of people gathered nearby, watching silently as Singleton directed; when he shouted “Cut,” the crowd roared. Singleton shot the story’s scenes in order, which is virtually unheard of; you can sense his tracking shots growing more ambitious as the story reaches its tragic climax. I will never forget the first time that I watched Ricky (Morris Chestnut), the high-school running back who’s bound for college, dying in the arms of Doughboy (Ice Cube) and Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). The film was a teen movie and an epic, both a sociological mirror and a sculptured creation, and it was the first masterwork of a hip-hop film aesthetic. Released the summer before the L.A. riots, the film captured a city’s disbelief and rage.
The extraordinary success of “Boyz” has been well chronicled. The film received a twenty-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival. Singleton became the youngest filmmaker to be nominated for an Academy Award for Directing. He was considered the second coming of Orson Welles. But it’s what Singleton did subsequently that is legendary: he didn’t go full Hollywood; he didn’t allow his new class status to cloud his work. Instead, he assembled a kind of black Rat Pack: Ice Cube, Chestnut, Gooding, Angela Bassett, Regina King, Laurence Fishburne, and Taraji P. Henson were all either discovered by Singleton or gained recognition by appearing in his films. “Boyz” became the first of what Singleton has called his “hood trilogy.” With “Poetic Justice,” from 1993, a romantic drama starring Tupac and Janet Jackson, and “Baby Boy,” from 2001, about a young father who won’t grow up and the women who mother him, Singleton constructed what he called a hood “hyperreality.” In the process, he ardently expanded the Los Angeles film canon.
Singleton once described August Wilson as his Chekhov. Zora Neale Hurston, who bucked respectability by listening to and codifying the black vernacular, was an inspiration. He loved hip-hop and spoke its language. He was an examiner of men in crisis, both black and white. The character of Remy (Michael Rapaport) in “Higher Learning” (1995), a quiet engineer who embraces the white-supremacist cause, reminds us of too many American boys today. Even an anomaly in Singleton’s œuvre, “Rosewood,” a work of historical fiction about a massacre of a black town in Florida, in 1923, explores personal motivations that drive black male self-defense. But what I admired most about Singleton’s filmmaking was his willingness to question didacticism, sometimes even his own. He did not judge his characters, but he did impose a strong moral voice on his stories; many of his films center on a young black man or a group of them, equally drawn to duty and vengeance, and the women who have to weather their tempests.
In recent years, Singleton was focussed on television. He was a co-creator of “Snowfall,” an FX Networks drama about the introduction of cocaine to Los Angeles, in the early eighties, which premièred in 2017. He directed episodes of “The People v. O. J. Simpson,” “Empire,” and “Billions.”
But he was known as a guardian of black cinema. He warned a younger generation of filmmakers against the “slavery Zeitgeist” of contemporary Hollywood, a system that homogenizes the work of black creators into soulless content. “They want black people to be who they want them to be, as opposed to who they are,” he said, in 2014.
Singleton died after suffering a stroke. His family said that he had long struggled with hypertension, a condition that disproportionately affects black men and women. He is survived by his parents and seven children, including his first daughter, Justice, who shares her name with Jackson’s character in “Poetic Justice.” He still had movies that he wanted to make, including a bio-pic of Tupac. He changed the trajectory of black film when he was still a kid; what could he have made as an older director who had experienced the world?