John Singleton: The Cinematic Voice Of The Hip-Hop Generation
For almost 30 years, writer/director/producer John Daniel Singleton had been one of the premiere storytellers of the hip-hop generation. In the late ‘80s, actors/directors Robert Townsend and Spike Lee broke through Hollywood barriers as black filmmakers with Hollywood Shuffle, She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze and Do the Right Thing, proving that our stories could be told with a modest budget, and young, largely unknown talent and still yield a high-profit margin. As smaller, niche studios emerged on the scene and looked for content in the early ‘90s, they gravitated towards black films; a trend that started in earnest when a 23-year-old writer and director fresh out of University of Southern California’s film school brought a coming-of-age tale of three black teenagers in South Central Los Angeles to the screen titled Boyz n the Hood. Then, nothing was the same.
1991 was the beginning of a black movie boom that lasted a little more than a decade; it was the first time black actors and black stories from a black perspective had been so broadly represented in cinema since the Blaxploitation era of the 1970s. The ‘80s film industry focused on widely marketable stories with notable names - the decade of the blockbuster. There were black movie stars — most notably Eddie Murphy — but not black creatives behind the camera. The ‘90s brought a complete cultural shift in music and media. There were more films written, directed and/or produced by black people in 1991 alone than the entire previous decade. The representations in New Jack City, Jungle Fever, House Party II (just a year after the box office success of House Party), Daughters of the Dust, Strictly Business, The Five Heartbeats and more than ten other films that year covered the varied aspects of the black experience, from deep and profound to light and comedic. But the breakout success of the bunch was Singleton’s debut film.
The semi-autobiographical story of Tre, Ricky and Doughboy simply trying to survive through everyday life in Inglewood was brand new to the mainstream – Boyz was released the year before the acquittal of four LAPD officers charged with brutally beating Rodney King turning the nation’s attention to the racial tension and social issues of the lower income, predominately black Los Angeles neighborhoods south of the I-10 freeway. Singleton strived to bring the realities of South Central to the world the way Spike Lee was known for doing with Brooklyn, New York. While at USC, the student saw Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing and started working on Boyz N the Hood immediately, developing it from a concept in his film school application. “I was so enamored with Spike and what he did,” Singleton told the LA Times, “painting Brooklyn as his cinematic turf, I was like, I have to come from L.A. so hard, so people really know that it has its own type of flavor and its own vibe.”
“Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.” - Doughboy (Ice Cube in Boyz N the Hood)
After the movie grossed an impressive $55 million, other L.A. “hood” films followed, most notably 1993's Menace II Society (Albert and Allen Hughes), 1992's South Central (Stephen Milburn Anderson) and 1995's Friday (Ice Cube, whose career as an actor and filmmaker was inspired by Singleton giving him his first role in Boyz), the lighter side of the hood that still addressed drive-bys and crack heads, but Boyz was the prototype.
West Coast hip-hop was making a national impact by 1990. NWA’s 1988 album Straight Outta Compton blew listeners away with the raw depiction of life as a young black man in L.A., but Singleton translated the perspective to film in a way that humanized the stories. You didn’t have to be a hip-hop fan to understand Boyz N the Hood, but Singleton’s casting of some of the strongest rap voices in the West enhanced the feeling of seeing Cube, Snoop or Pac lyrics come to life.
“A lot of people don’t really understand what it is to be young, black and male and grow up in L.A. It’s like you – you’re taught to have the potential to explode,” Singleton explained to NPR around the film’s 20th anniversary. “You know, it’s like if a person looks at you wrong or a certain slight could turn into like, you know – you know, boom!”
Like his big brother in cinema, Spike, Singleton’s career expanded over the years beyond exclusively black subjects into more diverse storytelling and genres, including a turn at the helm for the Fast and Furious franchise with 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious and, more recently, the television dramas Snowfall for the FX network and BET’s Rebel. But here, we examine his first decade of filmmaking following the explosive success of Boyz N the Hood, the cultural impact of his early films, and Singleton’s classic “isms.”
Poetic Justice, (1993) – Writer and Director
After Boyz N the Hood, the 25-year-old wanted to do something that wasn’t message heavy, but just about the experiences of young people from his hood. He’d bumped into Janet Jackson on a set soon after Boyz and told her he had a script that was perfect for her. She asked him to send it over…but there was no script. He just knew he needed a big name attached to his second film and wanted her. He started writing Justice with Janet in mind as the lead. He was also enamored with budding rap/movie star Tupac Shakur and thought he was a strong enough personality to pull his weight opposite Janet. Ironically, Singleton has said that Pac’s anti-Black Hollywood attitude drew him to the rapper: “I saw him do his first interview on BET. He declared war on black Hollywood – not Hollywood itself, but black Hollywood. He was like, ‘F*ck Spike Lee, f*ck Eddie Murphy, f*ck Quincy Jones, f*ck all these fake a** people. They’re going to see a new dude out here. I’m going to come hard.’ And I was like, ‘I want to work with him!’”
If Boyz N the Hood was an introduction to South Central L.A., Poetic Justice continues the tour. Through Singleton’s penchant to use the same actors in his movies - in this case Regina King, Tyra Ferrell, Lloyd Avery II (reciting almost the same exact lines as he did when his character spotted Ricky in Boyz), and Dedrick D. Gobert – the viewer has a sense of continuity between films. The movie remains a Singleton fave not because it’s as strong as Boyz N the Hood, but because it isn’t. Roger Ebert said in his review, “Poetic Justice is not (Boyz’) equal, but does not aspire to be; it is a softer, gentler film, more of a romance than a commentary on social conditions…by the time it's over we can see more clearly how Boyz presented only part of the South Central reality. Yes, things are hard. But they aren't impossible. Sometimes they're wonderful. And sometimes you can find someone to share them with.”
In my opinion, the best part of the film is the crew happening upon a random family reunion and stopping to eat. It’s a testament to the connection between black folks, ‘cause you sho’ can roll into a massive black family gathering, say you’re somebody’s child, hug some strangers, and grab a plate. As long as you speak to everybody and can play cards, you good.
Iesha: “So what y’all gonna do?”
Chicago: “What you mean? We gonna eat.”
Justice: “You crazy? This ain’t your family”
Lucky: “We black, we all family...especially when it comes to barbeque.”
Singleton became close to Pac while filming and had plans to do more projects with him, including Baby Boy – Pac was supposed to play Jody, and they suspended development after his death. Singleton was also long attached to a Tupac biopic project, but eventually abandoned the project altogether because, he said, “The people involved aren’t really respectful of the legacy of Tupac Amaru Shakur.”
Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” (1992) – Director
Late one night, a half-asleep Singleton got a call from someone he believed was Michael Jackson requesting a meeting. He asked if he could give him a call the following day. The next day, a game of telephone commenced: Singleton called his agent, his agent called Michael’s agent, then Michael called Singleton and said he was interested in them working on a video together. When John asked about the late night call, Michael said it wasn’t him. Later, Singleton discovered the original call was a prank from Lloyd Avery II, but the end result was the epic cinematic short film for “Remember the Time.”
The nine-minute long masterpiece premiered simultaneously on Fox (following The Simpsons), MTV and BET, and it was the most beautiful, unapologetically black a** sh*t. And that full blackness was the intention, “(Michael) said, ‘What do you wanna do?’ I said, ‘I wanna put you with a whole bunch of black people.’” The video featured not just “a whole bunch of black people,” but rich and famous black people like Eddie Murphy, Iman, and even a comedic cameo by then NBA All-Star, Magic Johnson. Singleton also wanted to bring Michael into the New Jack Swing era. He called choreographer Fatima Robinson, who’d been an extra in Boyz, to bring in every hip-hop dancer of note in the game and give Michael some updated moves. The short film was a cinematic portrayal of historical black royalty (shoutout to the original Asiatic black man), opulence and excellence. Threads and think pieces would’ve abounded had it premiered in today’s digital era.
Higher Learning (1995) – Writer / Director / Producer
Higher Learning isn’t Singleton’s strongest film. The edict on race, sex and culture through the microcosm of the fictitious Columbus University was criticized at the time for being too shallow and on the nose. The New York Times review pointed to the arcs of the main characters: “Malik (Omar Epps), a black athlete, risks being exploited for his sports ability in ways that prompt unflattering comparisons with the trenchant ‘Hoop Dreams.’ Remy (Michael Rapaport), a white misfit…falls into the clutches of skinhead Aryan supremacists. These guys, loathsome even by skinhead standards, resort to every stock villainous gesture short of twirling their mustaches. Kristen (Kristy Swanson)…winds up crying date rape in ways guaranteed to alienate a large segment of the audience, which will think her anything but blameless.”
However, looking back at the film from a 2019 lens, those on-the-nose points have become social and cultural reality.
The Times mused Kristen would be thought “anything but blameless,” because she consented to sex, but her partner charged ahead without a condom despite her insistence he wear one - a key topic in conversations around consent and sexual assault today. Remy is radicalized in part because he’s looking for acceptance and belonging. Black people intimidate him, and the cool white kids think he’s weird – sounds like everyone on 4chan, the anonymous message board infamous for breeding internet trolls, incels and alt-right wingers. And considering we’ve recently seen a mob of Bobs-from-accounting carrying tiki torches with no shame or fear, and white power dog whistles peppered in the rhetoric of even the country’s highest elected official, the Aryan brothers on Columbus University’s campus are lightweight.
Malik’s athletic exploitation for education fits right into the current dialogue around student athletes. There’s also a moment early in the movie, when resident super-senior and sage, Fudge (played by Ice Cube...every campus had one; mine was named Bill), asks Malik what he’ll do when he’s at a football game full of white people, the National Anthem begins, and everyone turns around to watch him. Malik’s nervous: “I’d probably stand up” is especially resonant in this post-Kaepernik protest era.
(Also, shoutout to the exchange between Cube and Regina King about the printer paper that echoes Doughboy telling Shalika, “You better take yo’ a** to the store with that.”)
Rosewood (1997) - Director
Rosewood was Singleton’s first commercial disappointment, but the historical drama was exactly within the director’s mission and intention with his art: to make sure our narratives are told properly.
The movie is based on the accounts of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre in Florida, which Singleton learned of via a 1994 story in Esquire. The tale is eerily similar to Black Wall Street, where a white woman falsely claimed assault by a black man, and the white community used the accusation as motivation to attack a financially thriving all-black area in Oklahoma. Singleton did fictionalize some elements of the story, including Ving Rhames character, Mr. Man, who rallies to fight back against the white mob. He said he added Mr. Man because historical accounts omit the fact that we fought back against our persecution. “The written history is black people, no matter what their persecution was, no matter what was heaped upon them by institutionalized racism, and American terrorism, they always got their a** kicked, and they kowtowed and they left,” he explained in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “That ain’t true…We got our a** kicked, but we kicked a**. People lynched our women, killed our kids, we went back and shot them. It’s the people that are writing the history, that are re-writing history…They’re trying to lead… people of color not to fight back against their persecution. It ain’t true. We fought back.”
Baby Boy (2001) – Writer / Director / Producer
Singleton has called Baby Boy the counterpoint to Boyz N the Hood. Baby Boy is a different type of coming-of-age tale; not a story of a character’s journey from naiveté into maturity, but one of a manchild’s forced acceptance of adulthood and responsibility. Jody isn’t a high school student fighting to survive in the South Central streets, he’s a twenty-year-old living in his mother’s house, using his girlfriend’s resources, and getting by off good dick and good game. He’s not gang affiliated, he’s not a hard criminal, he just a fucc boi.
The role of Jody was originally intended for Tupac. After Shakur’s death, model/singer Tyrese Gibson – in his film debut – was chosen in part because he’s an avid Pac fan. In tribute, a mural of the rapper covers the wall above Jody’s bed.
Baby Boy is a BET Black Star Power hall of famer and is maybe one of the best bad movies of all time. Ok, it’s not bad bad; it’s cultural excellence, and it’s damn near documentary-level accuracy in the portrayal of an ain’t sh*t mama’s boy, but Oscar material it ain’t.
Singleton is extremely particular about the dialogue in his movies and has his cast get together for an off-script improv session before taping, to flesh out their character personalities. It’s a technique Lawrence Fishburne passed on during Boyz, learned from the legendary director and Singleton hero Francis Ford Coppala. “I hate watching movies and they’re only talking dialogue that can only happen in a movie. I abhor that,” the director has said. “I have a saying where the audience has to come out and have ‘isms,’ they have to come out and say things characters said in the movie. That’s when you have a hit because you’ve captured them.” I don’t think any of Singleton’s movies can beat Boyz for “isms,” but Baby Boy holds its own. There are quotables and meme material for days. The most popular and enduring is Juanita’s (AJ Johnson) “Mama gotta have a life, too,” followed by Taraji’s trademark “I hate ‘chu!” But almost every character gets in a gem or two.
“Y’all some unstable creatures.”
“I don’t give a f**k about your little fort.”
…and OG Melvin’s famous “Guns and Butter” sermon.
Hustle & Flow (2005) – Producer
Hustle & Flow is an outlier in this overview; the movie came out later than our scope of reference, and Singleton didn’t write or direct, he just produced. But the film is key because it was Singleton’s full-circle moment.
Stephanie Allain, the black Columbia Pictures executive who championed Boyz N the Hood, was fighting to bring unknown filmmaker Craig Brewer’s surprisingly complex and heartfelt movie about a pimp chasing his rap star dreams to screen, and getting turned down. So she took it to Singleton. “(Studios) always think they know what should be made and what shouldn’t be made and what’s cool,” he recounted to The Hollywood Reporter. “I’d just made 2 Fast 2 Furious, it made like $200 million all around the world...You guys can’t give us $3 million to do this movie?... I was like you know what, fine, forget it, I’ll do it...My philosophy was, if I had the money to do Boyz N the Hood on my own, would I do it?”
The 2005 film was a surprise hit and critical success, garnering 2006 Sundance, SAG, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominations with a Best Original Song win for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” So basically, without John Singleton, the world would never have been blessed to see Juicy J, DJ Paul, and Crunchy Black win an Oscar.
Singleton had been outwardly critical in recent years about black creatives fight for presence and voice in filmmaking. "They ain't letting the black people tell the stories," he lamented in 2014 before an audience of students at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television. "The so-called liberals that are in Hollywood now are not as good as their parents or ancestors. They feel that they're not racist. 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.'" He went on to add that it wasn’t that “black movies” weren’t getting made, but that they didn’t have substance because black people weren’t in charge of the narrative. “(The studios) want black people to be who they want them to be, as opposed to what they are,” Singleton explained strongly. “The black films now — so-called black films now — they're great. They're great films. But they're just product. They're not moving the bar forward creatively…when you try to make it homogenized, when you try to make it appeal to everybody, then you don't have anything that's special."
Since that speech, a new boom of black content by black creators has begun. The new guard of directors like Ava Duvernay, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele and Barry Jenkins are killing at the box office and making strides towards recognition at notable awards ceremonies. Singleton became the first ever black nominee for Best Director in 1991. The next nomination didn’t come until 2009 for Lee Daniels, and there’s been one each of the last three years, most recently with the long-awaited nomination for Spike Lee. But a black director has yet to actually take the Oscar home (Lee won for Best Adapted Screenplay, the first Oscar of his career). There’s still a long way to go.
It’s fitting that Singleton and Lee are the bookends of the highest acclaimed black directors, even though the student was nominated decades before the teacher. “I just try to rep hard for Spike,” Singleton said recently about his goal with filmmaking. “When he was starting he was trying to get people to say, ‘Hey listen, we can have our own idiom in film. We can have a black film aesthetic. We can have a thing that’s unique.’ When I do whatever I’m trying to do, I’m still trying to rep that.”