In Celebration Of John Singleton’s Restless Spirit

Portrait of African American film director John Singleton, taken on the Columbia Studios lot in Los Angeles, California, 1994. (Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

In Celebration Of John Singleton’s Restless Spirit

The beauty of John Singleton's criminally underrated talent as a writer, director and producer was that it was damn near impossible to box him in.

Published 2 weeks ago

Written by Keith Murphy

It was April of 1992 and John Singleton, still fresh off the groundbreaking success of his game-changing movie debut, Boyz N the Hood, was filming a movie in the heavily white and conservative California city of Simi Valley. Just a month before, the 24-year-old South Central, Los Angeles, native became the first African-American and youngest ever to be nominated for Best Director at the 64th Academy Awards. The blazing-hot Singleton, who also earned a Best Original Screenplay nod, was now the highest grossing Black director of all time as Boyz N the Hood, made for a modest $5.7 million, pulled in nearly $60 million in the U.S. alone (and over $100 million worldwide). 

The cinematic wunderkind, Hollywood darling, complete with a glowing New York Times Magazine cover story, could have easily made a sequel to his layered, heartfelt, and at times sobering realization of life in the ‘hood. In fact, no one would have blinked twice. Instead, Singleton, who shockingly passed away at the gone-too-soon age of 51, was about to defy critics and fans with an unapologetically BLACK romantic road-trip drama anchored by the poetry of the iconic Maya Angelou. 

Released on July 23, 1993, Poetic Justice -- starring global pop R&B superstar Janet Jackson and two-fisted future rap legend Tupac Shakur as an unlikely couple brought together by urban blight and tragedy -- was one of several films during an unpredictable 25-plus-year career that underlined Singleton’s restless spirit as a filmmaker. It wasn’t enough for the man to make “Black movies,” a term that he found antiquated and quite limiting. Singleton was out to create a world where characters of color could be proudly entrenched in their own Black experience while at the same time exemplify universal themes. 

“I always want people to point to the screen and say my cousin is like that, or my brother’s like that,” he once told the Los Angeles Daily News. “The film should get responses, good or uncomfortable.” 

 

Maya Angelou and John Singleton ca 1993
Maya Angelou and John Singleton ca 1993

And Singleton pulled it all off without ever having to water down his vision. The beauty of his criminally underrated talent as a writer/director/producer was that it was damn near impossible to box him in. Just as the industry was ready to tag Singleton as the auteur who singlehandedly gave birth to the stripped down “hood flick,” he switched it up time and time again. 

Poetic Justice might have lived in the same grounded, around-the-way universe as Boyz N the Hood, where working class Black folk celebrated life and loved their families as they dealt with the harsh realities of gang violence, a devastating drug epidemic, police brutality (sounds familiar?) and neighborhood gentrification. But Poetic Justice also proved to be a more introspective world where Black romance between a hairdresser (Jackson’s Justice) and a mail carrier (Pac’s Lucky) was given a refreshing nuanced spotlight. 

You can’t talk about Singleton without discussing the rich ‘90s decade that saw Black filmmakers rise to pop culture prominence. The Oscar-winning Spike Lee, godfather of the modern Black cinematic movement and an indelibly influential figure, was a beacon of light for many aspiring directors of color, including Singleton. Yet the gadfly figure left a heavy political and philosophical imprint on his string of classic films including Do the Right ThingSchool DazeMalcolm XInside Man and Black KkKlansman. Robert Townsend (Hollywood ShuffleThe Five HeartbeatsB*A*P*S) aimed for heartfelt laughs. Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) was imbued by a more independent, non-linear spirit. 

 

Portrait of a group of American film directors, 1991. Pictured are Charles Lane (front), John Singleton (in black jacket and 'LA South Central' cap), Matty Rich (in light blue shirt and glasses), Mario Van Peebles (in denim jacket), Spike Lee (in 'X' cap), brothers Warrington (rear left, in beard and glasses) and Reginald Hudlin (rear second left, in yellow shirt), and Ernest Dickerson (in red shirt).
Portrait of a group of American film directors, 1991. Pictured are Charles Lane (front), John Singleton (in black jacket and 'LA South Central' cap), Matty Rich (in light blue shirt and glasses), Mario Van Peebles (in denim jacket), Spike Lee (in 'X' cap), brothers Warrington (rear left, in beard and glasses) and Reginald Hudlin (rear second left, in yellow shirt), and Ernest Dickerson (in red shirt).

The Hudlin brothers (House PartyBoomerangBébé's Kids) took on a more populist approach to their film making. Mario Van Peebles (New Jack CityPossePanther, Baadasssss!) was unabashedly pulp. Ernest Dickerson (Juice) struck a more coming-of-age chord. Alan and Albert Hughes (Menace II SocietyDead PresidentsFrom HellThe Book of Eli) were stylized visionaries. F. Gary Gray (Friday, Set It OffThe NegotiatorThe Italian JobStraight Outta ComptonThe Fate of the Furious) was an effortless genre jumper.

And there were more movie-making standouts from the empowering Leslie Harris (Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.) and the delightfully quirky Chris Cherot (Have Plenty) to the steadfastly earnest Malcolm D. Lee (Undercover BrotherThe Best ManRoll BounceGirls Trip). 

Yet compared to his peers, Singleton was a throwback filmmaker who in a racially just world would have thrived in Hollywood’s old school studio system of the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s. Following his first two big screen efforts, the West Coast-based talent directed a college life melodrama (1995’s Higher Learning); took on an underrated historical period piece about a 1920s racist massacre of Black citizens in Florida (1997’s Rosewood); resurrected a Blaxploitation icon (2000’s Shaft); returned to the ‘hood for a stark dissection of modern African-American manhood (2001’s Baby Boy); segued into an out-of-the-box crime thriller (2005’s Four Brothers); and proved he could lead a big-budget popcorn production (2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious). 

Not all of Singleton’s films stuck the landing, but that was never his goal. Singleton, who elevated the movie careers of everyone from Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Ice Cube, Regina King and Cuba Gooding Jr. to Jeffrey Wright, Tyrese Gibson, Jennifer Connelly, Terrence Howard and Ludacris, was a pure movie man by heart. 

At one point, Singleton was even attached to direct the film version of Luke Cage, before the Black Marvel comic book hero was brought to life by his friend Cheo Hodari Coker for Netflix. “John Singleton was a Jedi level geek,” Coker tweeted. “The only thing more fun than seeing a Marvel or Star Wars movie was arguing with him about it: shot for shot. Line for line. Seeing Endgame with him would have been a blast. That gleam in his eye. That cackle. He would have loved it.”

Indeed, it all goes back to John Singleton never limiting himself; dreaming beyond the at times harrowing, violent South Central confines he grew up in. The ambitious USC film student who kicked down Hollywood's restrictive doors kept them open and never forgot why he fell in love with the medium in the first place. And he did it all while celebrating his Blackness in the most matter-of-fact way. We salute you, sir. 

 

Photo Credit: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

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