John Singleton burst onto the scene like a thunderbolt in 1991 with his directorial debut, Boyz N The Hood. For directors of color, Spike Lee had kicked open the door with Do The Right Thing two years prior, and then Singleton stormed right through it. Where Spike’s style was more esoteric, Singleton’s approach was more straightforward, although no less effective for it.
While on some level it’s reductive to discuss Lee and Singleton as African-American directors, it’s important to remember how unique their status was in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Before them, opportunities for directors of color were thin to say the least.
Until they came along.
Lee’s early work proved there was a hungry audience ready for his artistry and point of view. She’s Gotta Have It was an arthouse success. School Daze did better than that. It was Do The Right Thing that changed the game. Still, at that time, movies for and about black people were considered a niche. Do The Right Thing scored Oscar nominations for Spike’s screenplay and Danny Aiello’s supporting role. It did well at the box office, but its returns were not huge.
The marriage of critical acclaim and high grossing success would be consecrated by another filmmaker. This is what Singleton delivered. Do The Right Thing made $27 million in 1989 dollars. Two years later, Boyz would more than double that sum, which may not sound like a lot today while The Avengers is cleaning out enough wallets to make over six times that amount in a single weekend, but you have to put yourself back in another time. Adjusted for inflation, Boyz sold enough tickets to make over $120 million in today’s money, and was made for just $6.5 million. That level of profitability proved more than that movies about black people could be successful. It also proved that people of all demographics would come out to see their stories too.
I suppose it’s a little crass to carry on about the financial success of Boyz. Because here’s the thing: it wasn’t just successful – it was also really great.
Aside from telling a story that many people of all backgrounds weren’t familiar with, it delivered the artistic goods on the big screen. It’s nearly impossibly to overstate the significance of that.
Sitting in my theater seat that warm night in July, I felt as if a shock had gone through my system. I had read stories and seen news reports that got me thinking, but it took Singleton’s dramatization of the world that Boyz exposed to make me feel it.
Singleton took us into the hood, and he showed these boys trying just to survive. The L.A. streets that he illuminated were not just about gangs, but the fun and life to be had too. It showed harsh realities that are still issues in 2019. It trained an eye on police brutality – again, still an issue today. It was and remains an eye-opener.
Boyz is a lean, muscular, and heartbreaking tale about, as Ice Cube put it on track #1 of the soundtrack, “How To Survive In South Central.” The scene near the end when Doughboy (Ice Cube) walks away from Tre (Cuba Gooding) and disappears in the middle of the street as a voice-over foretells his future is both subtle and devastating. For his work, Singleton became the first African-American to be nominated for best director by the Oscars, and, aged just 24, he was the youngest filmmaker to ever receive the nod. His screenplay also received a nomination.
Several other careers were launched by Boyz. Gooding and Ice Cube would soon become household names. Larry Fishburne would become “Laurence” and go on to be one of the finest actors of his generation. The great Angela Bassett can be found here too. Nia Long, Regina King, Morris Chestnut, and Tyra Ferrell have all gone on to do wonderful work as well, and they all starred in the film.
While Singleton himself would never quite recapture the success of Boyz, he would continue to make a name for himself, regularly turning out solid and financially successful films such as Shaft, Too Fast Too Furious, and Four Brothers. His follow up to Boyz, Poetic Justice starring Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson, was considered a disappointment at the time. Although the final scene of Shakur looking sweetly at Jackson as she works on his young daughter’s hair is so lovely it makes me ache to think of it. Next came Higher Learning. An extremely ambitious film that connected white supremacy, college life, and an on-campus shooting. At the time it may have seemed overwrought and as if it were trying to do too many things at once. It now looks prescient.
Of his later films, I always thought Rosewood and Baby Boy were overlooked. The former is a harrowing true story of a mostly black town in Florida whose population becomes overrun by white supremacists. Considering our current times, it deserves another look; to my mind, it’s a near masterpiece waiting to be rediscovered. The latter was thought of as a return to Singleton’s roots – a South Central story about a young man played by Tyrese Gibson who resists coming of age with all his might. It was a smaller film in terms of theme compared to Boyz, but an underseen gem in its own right.
Over the last several years, Singleton turned his attention from film to television. The well-reviewed FX series Snowfall, concerning the crack epidemic in mid-80s Los Angeles, is looking forward to its third season. Singleton also produced the Emmy-nominated A&E documentary L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later.
Throughout his career, Singleton never stopped working. Never stopped opening doors for others. His keen eye for fresh talent should be legendary.
And then there is that thunderbolt from 1991. That powerful, groundbreaking film that opened up a world to audiences whose eyes were often looking elsewhere, as well as a world of opportunity for both those in the movie and for those who aspired to make movies.
John Singleton reminds me of what the famous sportswriter Jimmy Cannon said of boxing great Joe Louis. “He’s a credit to his race,” Cannon said. He then paused and followed up with, “the human race.”
The existence of Boyz N The Hood and its director is about more just than the story it tells, or even the life that was lived. It’s about what’s possible when we do what we must while at our best. When that happens, we elevate the human condition.
John Singleton died today of complications from a massive stroke. He was 51 years old.