by Todd “Stereo” Williams
His first film is an era-defining classic, a movie that helped shape so much black cinema of the 1990s. He cast rappers from Ice Cube to 2Pac to Andre 3000 in serious, dramatic roles that didn’t just trade on their personas but afforded them an opportunity to expand on and/or subvert those personas. No disrespect to luminaries such as Spike Lee and Keenen Ivory Wayans, but John Singleton was truly Hollywood’s first hip-hop director.
So much was made of Singleton’s youth when the 23-year old director’s buzzed-about first film Boyz n the Hood became the talk of Hollywood in 1991. Singleton began making the movie fresh out of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, ultimately calling the experience his “grad school” and learning on the fly the do’s and don’ts of filmmaking. The result was a riveting look at the community that had raised him, told through the eyes of a guy not much older than the high school kids Tre, Ricky and Doughboy who sat central in his tale. Singleton would famously earn Oscar noms for his screenwriting and directing.
His age wasn’t inconsequential and, almost 30 years later, it signifies part of why Singleton’s work was singularly important. Directors such as Lee, Wayans and Robert Townsend were a decade older than Singleton, and their affinities belied an older generation; nods to ’70s blaxploitation, ’60s soul and the civil rights era abounded in their work of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But Singleton was of the age to have grown up in the shadow of hip-hop and President Ronald Reagan, and that sensibility was prevalent in his work early on and would inform it for the remainder of his career.
Singleton’s coming-of-age classic Boyz n the Hood was a new kind of voice — even among a wave of assertive black directors. Eschewing Lee’s self-consciously “arty” flourishes for a straightforward style he indebted to American Graffiti, Singleton presented his version of the Gen X black experience. This was the story of the kids who’d been raised in the post-Watts riots world, the post-crack epidemic world. Boyz was an unpretentious look at growing up in South Central Los Angeles, the community at the heart of notorious news headlines and hip-hop’s most polarizing supergroup, N.W.A. Singleton gave that world the layers and depth it deserved at a time when outsiders were still largely viewing Compton, California, youths through red and blue stereotypes.
Boyz n the Hood was the harbinger of a wave of “growin’ up in the ’hood” movies that would hit theaters over the next three years, but Singleton, still only in his early 20s, sought to tell a different story with the follow-up. 1993’s Poetic Justice dared to center a woman’s journey in an era when so much of the urban experience was being relayed through the eyes of young black men. With pop superstar Janet Jackson as the sensitive poet coping with the violence of her surroundings, Singleton offered a broader rendering of a generation suddenly at the center of so much culture and concern. No filmmaker documented the hip-hop generation’s coming-of-age more succinctly than John Singleton.
It’s not hard to see how influential Boyz, in particular, was on what followed: the popularity of “ ’hood movies” throughout the early 1990s, the almost standard casting of rappers in prominent dramatic roles. Singleton’s success served as a template for the Hughes brothers, Rusty Cundieff and others who came to the fore in the next few years. Of course, Singleton’s emergence coincided with a surge among black voices in mainstream Hollywood. On the heels of Lee’s late-1980s breakthrough, the early ’90s teemed with possibilities, as Lee forged a path for director-driven auteurism with films such as Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues and established stars such as Eddie Murphy blazed a path for box-office visibility with crowd-pleasers such as the Reggie Hudlin-directed Boomerang.
Singleton branched off into all kinds of projects, directing the acclaimed music video for Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” in 1992. And his storytelling expanded with each subsequent film: 1995’s Higher Learning attempted to look at race relations via the microcosm of a major American university, and the 1997 period piece Rosewood peeled back the layers on an ugly episode in America’s racist history. 2001’s Baby Boy was a return to the communities he’d always known so well, albeit with a scrutinizing lens that belied how much he’d grown in his commentary in the decade since Boyz n the Hood.
In the 2000s, Singleton’s creative output became more varied and somewhat less definitive. He scored a major box-office hit with 2004’s revenge drama Four Brothers, once again teaming with artists turned actors in Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson and Andre 3000. And, as if reaffirming the potency of telling the hip-hop generation’s stories, he produced gritty urban films such as Hustle & Flow and Illegal Tender. His move to television projects remained undeniably Singleton, from his work on Empire to his acclaimed series Snowfall. And he challenged Hollywood to cultivate black voices that can tell black stories, railing against the idea that white storytellers all too often are given the reins of black history and experience.
“They feel that they’re not racist,” he told The Hollywood Masters in 2014, referring to white gatekeepers in contemporary Hollywood. “They grew up with hip-hop, so [they] can’t be racist. ‘I like Jay-Z, but that don’t mean I got to give you a job.’ ” The previous year, Singleton praised projects such as The Butler and Fruitvale Station as “a number of films helmed by African American directors that raise the bar and also many questions concerning the industry’s historical outlook on what is commercial and what isn’t.”
The success of Singleton’s creative voice was a game changer; it was a generational and cultural push into both Hollywood’s mainstream and black cinema’s more rarefied corners. He made movies for a generation that understood the ideals of the civil rights generation but didn’t always feel beholden to them. His movies could be as brash, and as hopeful, as a great rap album. He demanded accountability in the industry and commanded your attention in his storytelling. With news of Singleton’s passing, we’re losing a huge part of contemporary Hollywood’s soul and black Hollywood’s legacy. But his success forged a path that the Ryan Cooglers and Ava DuVernays now walk — Cali kids who broke through telling stories their way. For almost three decades, Singleton gave us a map to follow.