“At heart, I’m a dude from South Central Los Angeles. We roll the way we roll because we had survival tactics — we had to learn how to adapt. That’s just me.” — John Singleton (1968-2019)
Sometimes the label of trail-blazer is too easily tossed around. But as an African-American who hailed from South Los Angeles, Singleton broke down several barriers when he became the first black filmmaker — as well as the youngest person at age 24 — to be nominated for a directing Academy Award. His 1991 debut, the inner-city drama “Boyz n the Hood,” arrived the same year that motorist Rodney King was severely beaten by LAPD officers during his arrest for fleeing the police that would lead to riots after the cops were acquitted the next year.
Singleton is now dead at age 51 on Monday after a fatal stroke. Several notable talents took to Twitter to express their sadness and admiration for Singleton:
RIP John Singleton. So sad to hear. John was a brave artist and a true inspiration. His vision changed everything.
— Jordan Peele (@JordanPeele) April 29, 2019
— Morris Chestnut (@Morris_Chestnut) April 26, 2019
Mourning the loss of a collaborator & True Friend John Singleton. He blazed the trail for many young film makers, always remaining true to who he was & where he came from!!! RIP Brother. Gone Way Too Soon!
— Samuel L. Jackson (@SamuelLJackson) April 29, 2019
My prayers go out today to John Singleton and his family. May God bless the young cinematic king who gave us images that will stay with us forever.🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/tohsQTUPbj
— Robert Townsend (@Robert_Townsend) April 29, 2019
Singleton’s semi-autobiographical Oscar-nominated original screenplay for “Boyz,” whose plot takes place in South Central Los Angeles, was a coming-of-age tale and a snapshot of black America as it focuses on a young boy, Tre (played by Cuba Gooding Jr. as a teen), with behavioral issues who goes to live with his father, “Furious” Styles (Laurence Fishburne). The Vietnam vet is steadfastly determined to keep his son on the straight and narrow, despite his having friends who are gang members while being regularly hassled by white policemen.
As Roger Ebert wrote about the film,” ‘Boyz n the Hood’ has maturity and emotional depth. There are no cheap shots, nothing is thrown in for effect, realism is placed ahead of easy dramatic payoffs and the audience grows deeply involved. By the end of ‘Boyz n the Hood,’ I realized I had seen not simply a brilliant directorial debut, but an American film of enormous importance.”
Singleton’s success — the film grossed a substantial $58 million at the box office — created more opportunities for black filmmakers to tell their stories that often featured the devastating effects of inner-city violence as well as the influence of hip-hop culture. Since his recognition by the academy, five other African-American directors have been in the running for a directing Oscar — Lee Daniels (“Precious”), Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) and Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”). But the hurdle of a black director actually winning a trophy still exists.
Singleton, who attended the Film Writing Program at USC, would go on to oversee the nine-minute music video for Michael Jackson‘s 1992 single “Remember the Time.” Other feature films included 1993’s “Poetic Justice” starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur, 1995’s “Higher Learning” with Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Ice Cube and Michael Rappaport and 2001’s “Baby Boy,” which featured singer Tyrese Gibson and the film debut of Taraji P. Henson. He would also helm more commercial films including a 2000 remake of “Shaft” with Samuel L. Jackson and 2003’s “2 Fast 2 Furious.”
More recently, Singleton became involved in TV series such as “Empire,” “Rebel” and “Snowfall.” But it was “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the first installment of the FX anthology series “American Crime Story” that aired in 2016 and delved into the football legend’s notorious murder trial, that would earn Singleton his first Emmy nomination for directing the episode “The Race Card.” When he spoke to Gold Derby contributor Zach Laws (see video above) about his approach to the material, he described how it captured the African-American experience through the eyes of three men — Simpson (Gooding Jr.), defense attorney Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) and prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown).
“They were three distinct, different black men who had certain paths that they followed in their lives. When you saw them interacting with each other, it stayed very true to who they were, and the combustibility of what that became about.” Singleton also revealed how it felt to be the first black director to receive such Oscar recognition for his big-screen debut. “It was kind of intimidating,” he said, “but it was a good thing because it made me lock myself up in my house and watch many, many movies, and try to be as well-read as possible, and create my own philosophy of what type of filmmaker I wanted to become.”
And in doing so, Singleton helped open the door wider for other filmmakers of color to tell their stories and forever change the landscape of cinema. It is a fight that continues, but now sadly minus one ground-breaking talent who went too soon.