Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Losing Another Boy from the Hood: An Appreciation of John Singleton

John Singleton gone at age fifty-one?

Mortality is much on my mind right now, alas. Some very nice people in my orbit have succumbed to illness far too quickly, and of course we’re all aware that the crazies are out there, gunning down anyone they perceive as “different.” But you just don’t expect a talented director/producer to be felled by a stroke smack in the middle of what used to be called middle-age.

Good thing Singleton started out early. He’s still best known for writing and directing 1991’s Boyz n the Hood, a complex family drama set in South Central L.A. that was already in his head when he was applying as an undergraduate to the prestigious USC School of Cinematic Arts. Influenced by Spike Lee’s Harlem-based landmark film, Do the Right Thing, Boyz n the Hood tells an L.A. story that has nothing to do with swimming pools and mansions. It begins with a small group of inner-city young boys who flirt with sports and gang-banging, then returns to them seven years later when the allure of sex and of violent retribution threatens their paths away from the urban ghetto. 

While at USC, a school known for its solid gold links to the film industry, Singleton came to an important realization: "I learned that no one was going to write the films I wanted to do except for me. No one was going to have the vision to tell the stories that I wanted to tell except for me." Fortunately, despite his youth, Hollywood proved open to what he had to say. As a mere sophomore, he signed with an agent at the powerful CAA. By the time he reached his senior year, he was inking a deal with Columbia Pictures to shoot his script for what was then called Summer of ’84. He knew from the start that he’d occupy the director’s chair, later saying, "I wasn’t going to have somebody from Idaho or Encino direct this movie." Despite his lack of experience, Columbia ultimately allowed the newbie director to shoot the film in continuity, so that it’s possible to watch him becoming more and more adept as the seven-week shoot wore on. 

Among Singleton’s cast for Boyz n the Hood were such prominent players as Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, as the estranged parents of central character Tre Styles. The part  of Tre was the first major role for future Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr., while Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut made their screen debuts in other key roles. The movie itself was a huge success, with Singleton Oscar-nominated both for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director honors. In the latter category, he was the first African-American ever to be nominated. At 24, he was also the all-time youngest nominee in the directing category.  

Singleton has strongly influenced such hot African-American directors as Barry Jenkins and Jordan Peele. But, though he never again achieved the celebrity he enjoyed with Boyz n the Hood, he was hardly a one-hit wonder. His later films as a director included Rosewood, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and the 2002 remake of Shaft, with Samuel L. Jackson playing the blaxploitation hero.. As a producer, he helped finance and launch the memorable 2005 indie, Hustle and Flow, which garnered an Oscar nom for Terrence Howard’s lead performance and won for the unlikely rap song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”  As recently as 2013, Singleton was announced as the director of a major Tupac Shakur biopic. It didn’t happen. Unfortunately, that’s one movie we’ll never get to see.

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