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John Singleton (1968-2019)

by guest contributor Alfred Soto 

Few young filmmakers get their scripts approved and direct a film in which most things go right, and John Singleton did with Boyz n the Hood. The 1991 depiction of life in blighted South Central L.A. starring a mesmerizing Ice Cube became the kind of phenomenon that absorbs cultural currents and creates new ones; for a few years pop music and MTV took their cues from Boyz n the Hood. It made $60 million and, in one of the Motion Picture Academy’s occasional gob-smacking beau gestes, earned Singleton a Best Director nomination, the youngest in history and, more crucially, the first nomination for a black director. 

Please consider the times...

George H.W. Bush was in the White House. He nominated (and the Senate confirmed) Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Weeks after the 64th Academy Awards, South Central went up in flames. To be Jackie Robinson and Sidney Poitier, and, for different reasons, Elton John in their times led to moments when reckoning with the intersections of audience prejudices and the same audience’s expectations must have felt soul-crushing. In the years after Boyz, Singleton aimed smaller, willing himself, it seems, to retreat from importance; he was besotted with a different kind of importance.

 Poetic Justice (1993), thanks to the casting of peak-career Janet Jackson and comer Tupac Shakur, makes fine use of beautiful black bodies and, rarer, showed these same characters loving words, savoring poetry. Although the picture had a remoteness and often stranded Jackson (Singleton had problems writing female characters), it was fresh in its appropriation of road movie tropes. Worse, though, was Higher Learning, which in 1995 already played like a sixties PSA against marijuana use. Each campus stereotype gets an airing, staged so that Rush Limbaugh could stop the movie on air and denounce the perfidy of PC culture. Teachable Moments for everyone!

Regina King and Janet Jackson in "Poetic Justice"

Before turning to Shaft (2000), 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), and other work-for-hire (some of it not bad; Shaft deserves a second look), I would submit Rosewood (1997) as his most fully realized picture: Boyz n the Hood re-conceived during the Harding administration at the height of the Ku Klux Klan revival, with the whites leading the ambush against what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his new Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, called the New Negro’s self-sufficiency, “capable of his own upkeep and uplift.” Also: a film about white violence without uplift; racism isn’t a “problem” to be overcome, it forms part of a continuum. 

Baby Boy (2001), his last film from his own script, returned to contemporary black life with a raucousness that belied its occasional moralizing. And what a cast! A young Taraji P. Henson killing it. Tyrese and Snoop Dogg doing their own Laurel and Hardy thing.

Taraji P Henson in "Baby Boy"

After the huge, anonymous success of 2 Fast 2 Furious, Singleton kept going — he had no choice. Something called Four Brothers (2005) starring Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese again, and Andre Benjamin came out with his name attached; I haven’t watched it, several friends have recommended it. Remember Taylor Lautner? Singleton directed something with the Twilight star on whose poster Lautner looks properly terrified, as if watching the crumbling arc of a career.

Only hacks would say Singleton’s career amounted to unfulfilled promise, not when every film before 2 Fast bears his peculiar brand of hysteria and quietness. It would also be a claim suffused with racism — who says he wasn’t in control of his destiny? Poitier got the same accusations. Examining Singleton’s work will reveal no incontestable masterpiece; its breadth of interests, his I’ll-try-anything-once approach may have disappointed critics who praised the youngest, blackest nominee in Oscar history. An artist in a medium that rewards the loyal journeyman, often by awarding him a Best Director prize, Singleton acted as if a journeyman approach was inseparable from his artistry. For a while Singleton was uneven on his own terms — those are the only terms, to misquote the young feller whom Singleton displaced in the stats, anybody ever knows.

Alfred Soto is an instructor of journalism, a media adviser at Florida International University, and freelance editor for SPIN Magazine. He was features editor of Stylus Magazine. His work has appeared in Billboard, The Village Voice, The Miami Herald, NPR, Rolling Stone, Slate, and Pitchfork. Much of his film, art, and political writing is found at Humanizing the Vacuum. He has been a member of the Florida Film Critics Circle since 2015. He lives in Miami. Follow him on Twitter.

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Reader Comments (17)

Not only the youngest filmmaker ever nominated for best director, but also the youngest writer ever nominated for screenplay. Honestly, his career could have begun and ended with Boyz n the Hood, and he still would have made an indelible impact.

May 1, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

I was waiting for this site to write something up on Singleton. This is what we got. I kinda hate this writeup.

May 1, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan (the 1st)

I was sorry to hear of his early and untimely passing. RIP.

May 1, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Four Brothers was at times very good, but there were obvious errors in his approach, as well as in Wahlberg's posturing. But, for both actually, it displayed potency.

And Boyz In The Hood is genuinely a great film.

May 1, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

"Boyz in the Hood" is a cinema landmark- too bad he never reached those heights again- but he was way too young to die

May 1, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Me: I didn't hate Boyz n the Hood, but, sorry, it's a bit too short of a movie to justify that 25 minute prologue. Either 1. Cut down the prologue a little, 2. Commit to a slightly longer future portion (120-135 minutes?), 3. Both 1 and 2 (ultimately the same length, but more focused feeling) or, 4. Just make it "Black Stand By Me." All of those decisions would have made better movies.

May 1, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

John Singleton was open about his historic directorial nomination. Being aware, it was Hollywood's f-you to Spike Lee, here's a homegrown Black talent, who theoretically we're happy to potentially replace you. Of course, outside of the passion of his debut, he was not a genius, but the shininess of his opportunities to follow: a Micheal Jackson music video, where the world got to see an accurate depiction of ancient Egypt because of its all Black cast, and Janet Jackson headlining a Hollywood movie not written and directed by the abysmal Tyler Perry. (Side note: Oscar winner Regina King owes the early half of her film career to Singleton who cast her well consecutively three times.) She wouldn't have booked Jerry M without also having done those three Singleton movies for Sony. Rest well Mr Singleton, you're contributions more than mattered.

May 1, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

HIgher Learning was sledgehammer subtle, but it was trying to say something.

I had the misfortune of seeing Boyz N Da Hood on my 3rd time, and the couple in front of us started LAUGHING at the slow motion murder of Morris Chestnut. An African American couple, for the record.

This suburban white kid thought it was the best film of a very very good 1991. Incredibly powerful.

May 1, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

“Something called...” seems highly disrespectful for a tribute article or whatever this is supposed to be. And it’s used twice.

May 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Roberts

I was waiting for the John Singleton tribute to appear here. Too bad this is what we got, but the guest contributor guy was also on one of the supporting actress smackdowns pods, and he's very pompous. I wasn't expecting a hagiography, and some could surely fault Singleton for his later career "director for hire" decision-making. I'll never watch "2 Fast 2 Furious" or "Abduction" (the Taylor Lautner film that Soto couldn't be bothered to IMDb) in my lifetime, but his 1-2-3 punch of "Boyz in the Hood"/"Poetic Justice"/"Higher Learning" showed the makings of a visionary artist in FULL control of his directorial craft and aesthetic sensibilities. I tend to think that he did things on his own terms in a very flawed and very racist Hollywood system. At least the historical context surrounding Singleton's peak is sound in this write-up. I applaud Singleton's idiosyncrasies, personally. And "Four Brothers" is quite watchable, FWIW. He also was Emmy-nominated recently for directing "The Race Card" from the "American Crime Story" limited series about O.J Simpson. "Boyz in the Hood" is a masterpiece, plain and simple, which will always be remembered as such. It influenced a generation of moviegoers like myself with its prescient snapshot of an America in continued racial crisis. The Academy acknowledgement is a wonderful coda, but almost an afterthought to me. Nothing was beating "Silence of the Lambs" or "Thelma & Louise," and that's perfectly fine. It's hard to follow up that level of historic rubber-stamping success so young, but Singleton conducted his career in his own way. If only everyone could live by that in power, good sir.

May 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDorian

I am happy a black director finally got nominated - but sadly his nomination meant Barbra Streisand was snubbed yet agan.

I've seen both films and Prince of Tides is a much better film to Boys in the hood.

And I'll admit the weakest thing about Prince of Tides was Barbra playing the psychiatrist. Otherwise it is an excellent film.

May 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBette Streep

Dorian --

I condescended to Singleton by using "something called" -- a mistake and I've corrected it.

I agree he did the best he could in the system, and often better than that. I saw Baby Boy again last night, and it was fresh, rude, and raucous.

May 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAlfred

Rest easy to a legend. So many of his films showcased exactly what it's like to be an African American male in America, past and present. He gave a voice to African Americans. Growing up, I was inspired by him and the messaging of his films. Truly will be pissed.

May 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRicky

I admittedly should know more about John Singleton, but I feel it is odd to offer a tribute to him and not mention that he directed The Race Card, one of the finest hours of tv I've ever watched.

May 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Singleton deserved much better than this cursory, choppy overview.

May 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNewMoonSon

Suzanne: I think it's partially because TV is looked at as a writers/actors medium, not an actors/directors medium. That's...shifting, but I also don't necessarily think that's a good thing. It's definitely tied-in with the shift away from episodic or semi-episodic shows as a general format to hyper serial ones as the default. And, well, for every relative miracle like The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Americans, or Agents of SHIELD (which REALLY doesn't get enough credit), there's a dozen shows at the level of Iron Fist, Gotham or Runaways.

May 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

He was so young and so damn gifted yet opportunity limits talent. All I can say it's that life fucking sucks and we can't nice things.

May 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

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