John Singleton loved talking movies. Sometimes it was about the art behind the process; sometimes it was just for the fun of it. Singleton’s shocking death at 51, after suffering a stroke that put him in a coma, brought the usual pull quotes about Boyz N the Hood, the 1991 film that put the then-22-year-old in the record books as the youngest person — and the first African-American — to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Director. His debut put his subsequent career in the shadows. Yet he persevered, following Boyz with Poetic Justice, Higher Learning and other stinging films about racial violence that reflected his own upbringing in South Central Los Angeles.
The last time I spoke to Singleton, he compared the movie business to the Wild West, a place where you had to fight to make sure your vision came through on screen. To Singleton, all his films were westerns. He even insisted that his go-to fanboy film, Star Wars, was a western disguised as a space opera.
Still, his favorite example of the genre was Henry King’s The Gunfighter, a 1950 western starring Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a gunslinger ready to hang it up as a killer and settle down with his estranged wife and son. “Except the world won’t let him,” he said. “The youngbloods in town want to prove they can outdraw Ringo and take his place on top.”
Singleton, talking of his own formative years, saw himself as one of those youngbloods, taking on the Hollywood establishment. The volatile environment of South Central was his training ground. “L.A. in the late ’80s and early ’90s was kind a police state,” he noted. So when Singleton entered the USC film writing program, he pursued his goal to become a writer-director. He was even ready to turn down a studio offer for his Boyz script if he couldn’t direct it himself. “This is the movie I was born to make,” he told the suits, who miraculously gave in to a kid whose experience was limited to silent, Super-8 shorts. In interviews, the man could be arrogant: “I’ve got passion, and for people who don’t, I make them see how trite their lives are.”
He claimed that “you can see The Gunfighter all over Boyz N the Hood,” only the traditional western trappings are replaced by drive-by shootings, chopper surveillance and police harassment. The film opens with a cold statistic: “One out of every 21 black males will die of murder. Most of them will perish at each other’s hands.” Frontier justice prevails in the hood. Doughboy, the character played by Ice Cube, is doomed by his gang ethic. It’s his friend Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr) who sees his way out thanks to a hands-on father, Furious Styles (Laurence Fisburne). The older man lectures Tre about how any punk kid can get laid, “but only a real man can raise his children.” The lecture cuts to the heart of the film’s theme about fathers and sons. But even Furious, a Vietnam vet, keeps a .357 Magnum handy. And like Ringo in The Gunfighter, he’s not afraid to use it. Violence in the hood is inescapable.
The 2011 documentary, Friendly Fire: The Making of an Urban Legend, is a reminder of how Singleton made history with Boyz on a bare-bones budget of $6 million. But there’s something more. “I’ve got these mice in my head,” he said, referring to the internal pressures that warned him against letting down his guard so that repetition and formula could seep in and leave no room for improv and rule-breaking. In Higher Learning, which he sets at a fictional university where white and black students are thrown together in alleged Utopian harmony, Singleton refuses to comfort audiences with easy resolutions that Hollywood has favored from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to the Oscar-winning Green Book. When speaking to young, black filmmakers, Singleton would often advise them: “Don’t be afraid to be black.” Taking risks was an essential to survival: “Don’t tuck your balls up under your ass to be accepted.”
His “personal breakthrough,” he claimed, came courtesy of 1997’s Rosewood, a true story about the predominantly black Florida town of Rosewood that was virtually burned to the ground in 1923 when neighboring townspeople decided that a black man from Rosewood had raped a white woman. Long kept a secret, the destroyed town gave Singleton a chance to strike at the racism festering in America. He wanted that “secret” out in the open, a drive reflected in Doughboy’s lines from Boyz about the apathy of the outside world: “Either they don’t know, don’t show, don’t care about what’s going on the hood.”
The man cared, though after the box-office collapse of Rosewood he let his junk instincts hold sway. “Nothing wrong with fun,” Singleton said at the time. Still, he never turned off his searching intellect. In Shaft (2000), he strained to recapture the blaxploitation energy of the 1971 original even after white screenwriter Richard Price rewrote his script, much to the horror of star Samuel L. Jackson. In 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), Singleton was brought in to sequelize the hit 2001 original after star Vin Diesel opted out when his money demands weren’t met; the director job was mostly to “give an edge” to costar Paul Walker and bring in new Diesel fuel in the form of newcomer Tyrese Gibson. It almost worked (“I made the blackest Fast and Furious“). As for Four Brothers (2005), Singleton’s goal was to make — no surprise — an “urban western” out of four foster brothers (Mark Wahlberg, Andre Benjamin, Garrett Hedlund and Tyrese) seeking revenge for the murder of their foster mother. But he did not write the script. And it shows.
Singleton’s best work during this so-called commercial period was Baby Boy (2001), an unofficial sequel to Boyz N the Hood which benefits greatly from a script that returns to the themes of rootless black men who fail to live up to their responsibility as fathers. Tyrese Gibson plays the lead role once meant for Singleton’s friend Tupac Shakur; the rapper’s murder in 1996 had sent Singleton reeling. “It set my life on a whole other trajectory,” he said, forcing him to change it up as a filmmakers and as a person who needed to grow up. Singleton had long dreamt of making a Tupac biopic that never came to fruition. Too bad.
He’d had major regrets was turning down the chance to direct the first season of HBO’s The Wire — so Singleton was particularly excited about Snowfall, the FX crime series that he’d created about the crack epidemic in 1980’s Los Angeles. In his vision, it was a plague that affected everyone — blacks, Hispanics, white teens in the Valley. “I’m not just in a black bubble, I can tell different stories,” he said. Was that ever in doubt? Even in his flawed films, you can feel Singleton — ever the youngblood — pushing against studio control in the name of personal expression. That’s the lasting legacy of his films, the work of a cinematic gunfighter who never stopped planning his next move, fighting the power and playing with the mice in his head.