For John Singleton
The last time I saw my friend and brother John Singleton was last year, the year 2018, what month exactly I cannot recall. But the meet-up was for me to spend several hours with him to interview John for the book I am still writing on the life and times of Tupac Shakur. John asked me to visit his production office in Los Angeles, where I got to sit in with his team of writers, including famed novelist Walter Mosley (one of John’s mentors and heroes). John was very proud of his FX network television show Snowfall, and how it was like a prequel to his most famous movie, his first, Boyz N The Hood. During my interview with John, he mentioned several times he rarely did interviews, but that he trusted me. Little did I know it would be the final time I would ever see him in person.
I first met John Singleton in 1992, when we were both 20-something upstarts, him as the creator of a critically-acclaimed and Oscar-nominated film (when John was only 23, 24), and me a staff writer for Quincy Jones’ VIBE magazine. I do not think John even remembered our first encounter in New York City, where he simply asked myself and some other heads if we dug Boyz N The Hood, being East Coast folks. Dug it? Heck, it was and is a classic of American and world cinema. What also connected John Singleton and I through all these years was our relationships with Tupac Shakur. In one of my early VIBE cover stories on ‘Pac, John said he wanted Tupac to be Robert DeNiro to his Martin Scorsese. Sadly they only did one film together, Poetic Justice. I’ve long imagined what they could have manifested, two racially proud black sons of two strong black mothers.
In an interview last year for my Tupac book, John cried on several occasions: about the lost potential of Tupac’s life and art, of the many lost black male lives. I also noticed that John sweated quite a bit. Little did I know he was suffering from the high blood pressure that would lead to the stroke that just took his life. John gave me a lot of information he has never shared with anyone and asked me to do the right thing, over and over, with this Tupac book, especially given his great disappointment that he did not get to direct the biopic on ‘Pac.
Like me, John was a fighter, to the very end, and what they called back in the day, a race man: his life and work were for black people, largely, to correct all the racist wrongs we have seen across American pop culture from the beginning to now. John was not afraid to speak his mind, to challenge, even if it cost him many career opportunities, which I feel it did. He understood he had to speak for all of us, not just himself; that he had to sacrifice himself, his art, for the greater good of real diversity and real inclusion; that Hollywood, or America, would never change without being pushed, nonstop. John was our cinematic resister, our cinematic revolutionary. He was a USC-trained filmmaker with the independent spirit of a Melvin Van Peebles and our beloved hip-hop culture. John was high art and he was also games of spades at a fish fry in the ghetto on a Friday night.
And John was not afraid of looking himself in the mirror. In that same interview I did with him for the Tupac book, he and I spoke at length about the pitfalls of fame, especially when it comes mad young, mad early. John spoke to me about how he carried guns then, how he became something he was not, and how it could have ended his life before 30, the recklessness of it all. But because we had outlived famous and not-famous black males around us, both John and I also shared this thing called survivor’s guilt. Like why me God, why am I still here? This is the question virtually every black male in America will ask himself as he sees those around him, including those more gifted, smarter, fall, one by one. John was determined not to fall. That is what I felt in my bones when I left his office that day from what turned out to be one of the best interviews I’ve gotten for the Tupac book. John and I always stayed in touch, usually by text, but John also liked to pick up the phone and just kick it voice to voice. He was accessible in a way many in the entertainment industry are not. John did not, to me, believe his own hype. He was always about the next TV show, the next film, the next thing he had to do, and he always thought of helping others.
When I first heard John Singleton had had a stroke, all the conflicting information made me think he would pull through. But today, ironically, as I flew from my city of New York to John’s city of Los Angeles, I learned it was over, that he was being taken off life support. I cried on that plane ride, I cry in my heart as I write this now. Another black man gone too soon, from something that was preventable. But given the many challenges we face in America, the ugliness of racism, the constant need to prove ourselves, over and over, it is little wonder that so many of us are sick, are walking wounded, are working ourselves, quite literally at times, to death. I am sad because I never got on that boat of John’s for a ride he was always offering. Sailing was one of the great joys of John’s life, and I spoke with him many a day when he was on his boat. I am extremely sad because just this past Saturday, I directed and produced and wrote my very first short film, about black men and black boys, and I thought about John Singleton the entire time, how I wanted to create something with him. And how I was going to ask him to support my short film entitled “Brotha Man.”
Indeed, we had kicked around some ideas the past year or so, he had quietly supported financially my wife Jinah Parker’s theater production, SHE, a Choreoplay, and John stood by me when I filed a lawsuit against the producers of the Tupac biopic, even as I was being ridiculed by some due to false media information. John, in a word, was a friend, to me, to many, a supporter, to me, to many; and because he is of my generation, of my race, of my gender identity, he also spoke for me and to me, through his films. So a part of me has died, too, with him, and you wonder every single time you see one of your peers gone how much time you have yourself before God, the ancestors, the universe, some spirit force calls on you next. I have no idea, I am not afraid, I am stunned, yes, but I have done everything I can to prepare myself for how long or how short the rest of my life will be. And it is my humble hope that like John Singleton, when I am gone, I will have left something behind for all time. Because he did, he truly did.