John Singleton’s powerful directorial 1991 debut, Boyz n the Hood, earned him two Oscar nominations and was considered groundbreaking for its humane depiction of the lives of young black men on the violent streets of South Central Los Angeles.
Singleton, who has died aged 51, was the first African American and the youngest-ever Academy Award nominee for Best Director. He wrote the Boyz n the Hood screenplay, which was also an Oscar contender, as a student at the University of Southern California. In college, he had won scriptwriting prizes, which led to a three-picture deal with Columbia Pictures and $6.5m (£5m) to make Boyz n the Hood.
He was 22, had never made a movie before and insisted on directing the film. He proved persuasive in negotiations with studio executives.
“I’m a writer first, and I direct in order to protect my vision,” he told The New York Times. “It’s my story, I lived it. What sense would it have made to have some white boy impose his interpretation on my experience?”
Singleton grew up in a rough part of Los Angeles and said his love of movies – his mother’s apartment was next to a drive-in theatre – saved him from a life of delinquency. Boyz n the Hood reflected many disparate influences, including François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986), both of which featured children forced by tragic circumstance to confront the starker world of adult realities.
He assembled a cast that included Cuba Gooding Jr, Angela Bassett, Tyra Ferrell, Morris Chestnut and Laurence Fishburne. He also recruited Ice Cube, then known primarily as a hip-hop performer and who was sceptical of the eager young director who pursued him for a leading role as a neighbourhood enforcer who seeks to avenge a gang-related killing.
“You know, I just felt this dude was a little delusional,” Ice Cube told Vanity Fair in 2016, reflecting on Singleton’s single-minded determination. “It’s just a pipe dream – that’s what I was thinking.”
But Singleton exuded such confidence that the singer read the script and showed up for a second audition, which made Columbia executives more enthusiastic about the film’s potential.
Singleton filmed on location in neighbourhoods beset by violence, in which drugs and police brutality were rife, yet he described the movie as “my American Graffiti, my coming-of-age story.” He enlisted local gang members to add an extra edge of realism to the clothes and dialogue.
Boyz focused on three black teenagers on the cusp of adulthood: a football star named Ricky Baker (Chestnut); his half brother, Doughboy (Ice Cube); and Tre Styles (Gooding), Singleton’s alter ego and the only young man in the film with a father present in his life.
The film sought to portray the complicated bonds of male friendship – and the sorrow of the boys’ mothers – in a society in which, as a graphic at the beginning of the film pointed out, one in every 21 young African American men would die by gunfire.
Critic Roger Ebert pronounced the movie not just a “brilliant directorial debut, but an American film of enormous importance”. The characters, he wrote, “live in a neighbourhood where violence is a fact of life, where the searchlights from police helicopters are like the guard lights in a prison camp, where guns are everywhere, where a kid can go down to the corner store and not come home alive”.
When Boyz n the Hood was released, it was considered a breakthrough in its depiction of a world previously overlooked by Hollywood filmmakers, even though the movie-making capital was only miles away. Singleton joined a group of other African-American directors – among them Spike Lee, Robert Townsend and Mario Van Peebles – who were making films about racial justice and the ordinary lives of black people.
But Singleton’s huge mainstream success – Boyz reportedly grossed $100m – vaulted him to the top of the pecking order. He was 24 when he was nominated for his Academy Awards, two years younger than Orson Welles was when he received a Best-Director nomination in 1942 for Citizen Kane.
Singleton lost the directing Oscar to Jonathan Demme for Silence of the Lambs and the screenplay Oscar to Callie Khouri for Thelma and Louise, but his prospects seemed limitless.
“I got out of film school in spring 1990, so they were looking for the next Spike Lee, the next black filmmaker with the vision to make a mark in commercial Hollywood,” Singleton told The Guardian in 2018. “So I was the guy. They gave me a chance, gave me $6m to make a movie, and I knocked it out of the park!”
To far more mixed critical results, Singleton went on to direct films including Poetic Justice (1993) with Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson, and Rosewood (1997), about the massacre of residents in a black town in 1920s Florida.
Singleton was criticised for turning to blatantly commercial filmmaking, such as a 2000 remake of the “blaxploitation” action hit Shaft starring Samuel L Jackson, Baby Boy (2001) with Tyrese Gibson and Taraji Henson, 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), a sequel to the car-chase cop thriller The Fast and the Furious, and Four Brothers, starring Mark Wahlberg about four adopted brothers – both black and white – who avenge the death of their mother.
“While you can’t blame a director for giving up on the sort of serious movies that didn’t make any money,” film critic Stephen Whitty wrote in the Newark Star-Ledger, “there’s a feeling that a smart director has dumbed himself down. Yes, he works. But there’s no longer any real message to that work.”
In 2005, Singleton bankrolled and produced the box-office hit Hustle & Flow, the story of a Memphis pimp and aspiring rap star written and directed by Craig Brewer, and in 2017 he was executive producer of A&E’s documentary LA Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later, which examined racial violence in Los Angeles. The same year, Singleton created the FX television series Snowfall, set amid the 1980s crack cocaine era in Los Angeles, which is still airing.
“I want to become much more than a filmmaker,” he told Ebony magazine in 1995. “My ultimate goal is to run my own studio.”
John Daniel Singleton was born on 6 January 1968, in Los Angeles. His father managed a pharmacy and later became a mortgage broker; his mother worked in pharmaceutical sales. He lived alternately with both parents, who were not married.
Drawn to movies at an early age, Singleton recalled accompanying his mother to see Cooley High, a 1975 film about high school friends with a tragic ending.
“I looked at my mother and I said, ‘Why are you crying?,’ “ he told Vanity Fair. “And she said, ‘Because it’s such a good movie.’ So I start thinking, when I get to make a movie, I got to make people cry. I got to make them feel something.”
He was 9 when he saw Star Wars for the first time, and from then on he was determined to become a filmmaker. In addition to Stand by Me and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, another touchstone for Singleton was writer-director John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club.
“I didn’t feel alienated by the fact that they were all white kids,” Singleton told writer David Kamp in 2018 for the Criterion Collection, a video distribution outlet. “They were just teens finding their way into adulthood – like I was.”
He had a short-lived marriage to actress Akosua Busia, the daughter of a prime minister of Ghana. Survivors include a daughter from his marriage and six children from other relationships; his parents, Danny Singleton and Shelia Ward, who acted as her son’s business manager; a brother; and a grandfather.
Singleton never recaptured the early acclaim of Boyz n the Hood – which the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry placed on its list of culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films – but he said his filmmaking dreams had been fulfilled.
“I wanted to be taken seriously as a filmmaker, and my first film was taken so seriously”, he said in 2005, “so I kept feeling like each film had to be more serious than the last one. Finally I said, you know what, I’m in this business because movies saved me from delinquency, movies saved my life. I just want to make movies. It doesn’t matter if they’re serious or not.”
John Singleton, film director and screenwriter, born 6 January 1968, died 29 April 2019
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