From The Vault: Poetry In Motion - The Director, John Singleton (Fall 1992)
Simi Valley, Calif. — April 29, 1992
Today an all-white jury in this predominantly white community found a group of police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King innocent. As the old folks would say, it is the Day of Reckoning. Generation after generation of African Americans in Los Angeles had grown up saying don’t trust the police, and, finally, the videotape of King’s beating showed millions outside the hoods just what they’d been talking about. President Bush would later declare on prime-time television that he found the verdict “hard to understand.” Whether or not the system failed, things certainly look that way.
Hard thoughts run through John Singleton’s mind as he hears the verdict on the radio in his Pathfinder all-terrain vehicle. He’s driving to the set of his new Columbia Pictures film, Poetic Justice. Singleton, the 24-year-old director of last summer’s explosive, money-making Boyz N the Hood, is livid. Impulsively, he decides to drive directly to the courthouse. With him is his assistant, a 6’7” man named Shorty, who used to work for Tone-Lôc and was hired to keep Singleton insulated from the masses that besiege him during a shoot.
On the courthouse steps, Singleton and Shorty are immediately pressed by newspaper and television reporters barking questions. In the quiet, steady voice he adopts to make a point, Singleton tells them: “The judicial system feels no responsibility to black people—never has, never will. We have too many lawyers who don’t practice true law. They had a chance to prove the system works and they messed it up.” His piece said, he heads for the Pathfinder.
Back on the set, everyone tries to carry on business as usual. But the King verdict has turned Los Angeles into a tinderbox, and film crews are not immune. Some crew members say they feel there’s a schism between whites and blacks on the set, though there are no overt incidents. The blacks are visibly angry, the whites either silent or apologetic. The racial split on this crew is about fifty-fifty, unusually integrated for a big-studio production. But holdovers from Boyz, whose crew was almost entirely black, feel the added white presence.
It doesn’t help that, on a street only yards away from the set boundary, a dozen police patrol in full riot gear. It’s almost as if they think Singleton might lead a riot, then and there.
The first shot goes up. The scene is set in an old-fashioned open-air drive-in theater. Because the initial shot is panoramic and doesn’t involve any of the actors, most of the crew, including Singleton, aren’t directly involved. They spend the time crowded around Singleton, who’s sitting in his director’s chair holding a small television on his lap. The two dramas unfold concurrently—one starring Janet Jackson, the other starring the angry throngs of Los Angeles. On the small television, the riot looks surreal, a Hollywood concoction of burning buildings, cars on fire, helicopters circling and people in the streets.
All three days shooting continues in Simi Valley as the riots rage on. Although the physical violence never reaches this suburban area, other kinds of violence do. The whole time, crew members alternate between watching the news and the scene being filmed. By the weekend, the worst of the riots have passed, but upon returning home, many of the cast and crew find that their neighborhoods have been hit hard. Singleton’s own neighborhood of Baldwin Hills, a pleasant middle- and upper-middle-class black area, was only brushed by the violence. It takes days for the blunt anger to dull and the miasma to lift. To many on the set, the whole idea of making a movie amidst all the destruction of property and spirit seems an aberration.
But, like everyone else in Los Angeles, the cast and crew must get back to work.
John Singleton sold Boyz N the Hood shortly after graduating from the University of Southern California’s film school. Because of its relatively minuscule $5.7-million budget, it generated the most pure profit of any film last year. Boyz was straight-up family drama—with the twist that it was set in the hellish epicenter of South Central Los Angeles. Its sleeper success started a tsunami brewing, one that Roger Ebert promptly dubbed the black new wave. To Hollywood, it proved there was a new way to sell pictures. And it earned Singleton all of the town’s most valued perks, including creative freedom, numerous ducats, and representation by Hollywood’s most powerful agency, CAA. It also created for his second picture the kind of expectations that can only be called unrealistic.
Poetic Justice is the story of a young black woman named Justice who has known more than her fair share of tragedy. She writes poetry, hence the movie’s title. Through a blind date and a crazy road trip, the winsome poet is thrown together with Lucky, an around-the-way boy who teaches her a thing or two about men. But make no mistakes, Justice couldn’t have been directed by John Hughes. It is populated by black women you know and love: mamas, aunts, and grandmas; best friends and sisters; rappers and chit chats, divas and hootchies. After the male-heavy Boyz, Singleton decided to focus on women’s stories this time around.
Even before casting began, Singleton and casting director Robi Reed were besieged by black actresses asking to read for parts — from the famous (Robin Givens, Lisa Bonet) to the vaguely familiar (Jada Pinkett from A Different World) to the unknown. It has been said that sexism is a bigger monster than racism in Hollywood. For black actresses, who must deal with both, meaty roles that move beyond simple stereotypes (hooker, welfare mother) are few and far between. In the end, the lead went to pop singer Janet Jackson. She did not supply her own poems, however—they were penned by Dr. Maya Angelou.
Jackson isn’t new to acting, of course. As a child and teenager, she appeared on such television shows as Good Times, Diff’rent Strokes and Fame. Understandably, there were doubts that the Encino-bred Jackson could play a girl from South Central. But Jackson, sporting the de rigeur Fendi bag and Nefertiti-like braids, went to town in the screen test. The head honchos at Columbia were duly convinced.
In the movie, Jackson is teamed with another musician, rapper Tupac Shakur. On a recent solo pin from Digital Underground, Shakur landed a smooth one-two earlier this year with a hit movie, Juice, and a boomblasting debut album, 2pacalypse Now. Ice Cube, for whom Singleton wrote the role of Lucky, turned it down because he was “too busy.” Ultimately, Shakur and Singleton made a fine match. The scene in his video “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” in which Shakur’s seen holding an infant, reminded many of Singleton’s point in Boyz that the black man must be a real father to his children.
Poetic Justice also features Boyz co-stars Tyra Ferrell, Baha Jackson, and Regina King. Roger Smith (Do the Right Thing, Deep Cover) gets a lot of laughs—at singer and co-star Keith Washington’s expense. It’s a very musical cast that also includes rappers Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Tone Lôc, Dina D., Miki Howard, and a cameo by rapper Nefertiti. Singleton insists that the musicians were the best actors that auditioned, (Likewise, music videos have become a stage for many would-be actors.) He’s also confident that this movie will be better than his first because “it has rhythms—ups and downs, drama and humor, like a good song.”
Los Angeles — Spring 1992
The song begins. It’s the first day of principal photography, and, because the crew hasn’t become comfortable with one another yet, tension hangs in the air. Everything is brand-new, including the director’s chair. The logo on the back of the cast’s and crew’s chairs reads: POETIC JUSTICE: BACK TO THE HOOD. Singleton is dressed in his usual B-boy uniform of T-shirt, baggy jeans and baseball cap, a Malcolm X pendant dangling from his neck.
We’re in a predominantly black Los Angeles community, near where many of the scenes in Boyz were shot. It’s a street scene: Lucky is driving up the street to visit somebody he knows in the neighborhood, and on the way he runs into a few old friends. While that encounter unfolds in the street, non-actor neighbors peer out of their windows and around the corners of buildings, out of range of the cameras.
The street is full of cars and people. But it’s hard to tell which are the studio cars, which people are actors, and which live in the area. In some circles in Hollywood, fantasy is out and reality is in. Particularly African-American reality. Singleton knows his strengths: every hour or so, he says to whoever wants to listen, “This is it, this is the real shit.”
As a practical matter, the experience of shooting Boyz N the Hood made Singleton a stronger filmmaker. He admits, “With Boyz, I didn’t know how to direct a movie. I just went with my feelings. Somehow, it came out right. I was really intense in film school, a lot more intense than I am now. Whenever someone foils a person’s ability to be creative, they make that person dangerous. A lot of people should be glad I’m making movies. I could be out somewhere robbing cars.”
Culver City — Later
Singleton drives onto the Sony Pictures lot, blasting Leaders of the New School on his sound system. He is happy because Boyz is up for two big Academy Awards—Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. He is the youngest person ever to be so honored.
As Singleton approaches the lot’s gate, two young brothers guarding it shout, “Whaddup?” They give him dap for the nominations, obviously proud, even a little in awe of him. Singleton thanks them, shaking their hands.
“These are the people I make movies for,” he says, driving on, “the regular brother and sister on the street.”
Many expected the writing nomination, but best-director is a surprise. With it come two firsts. Not only is Singleton the youngest director ever nominated (Orson Welles was 25 when he was nominated for Citizen Kane), but he is also the first African-American director to be recognized by the Academy.
The latter is a fact that makes him both proud and uneasy. He says, “It’s all political. Spike should have got it first. If not for School Daze, then for Do the Right Thing." Spike Lee and Singleton have a close friendship, with Lee functioning as a mentor to the younger filmmaker.
Lee is many things, but he is not a darling of the movie industry. He lives in Brooklyn and doesn't play on Hollywood's social lots; he's a no-show at industry parties and refuses to join the Directors Guild. On the other hand, Singleton is Los Angeles born and bred. Although he won't win an Oscar this year, the industry likes the USC grad. If nothing else, they like the fact that he made a movie for $5.7 million that took in ten times that much at the box office. Politics, racism, and class struggle go over a lot of these people's heads. Money does not.
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I Will Forever Miss My Brother John Singleton. We Met While He Was A Film Student At USC. Over Many Years People Have Told Me “I’m Going To Be A Filmmaker”, When John Said That To Me The 1st Time We Met, I Believed Him Right Away. It Was No Surprise. With His Passion, His Heart, The Way He Talked About His Love For Cinema And Black Folks I Could See John Would Make It Happen, And He Did. From Day One, We Have Remained Close Over The Decades, Cheering Each Other On In This Industry That Is Not Set Up For Us To Win. John Singleton’s Films Will Live On Forever. Blessings And Prayers For His Family. May John Rest In Power. Amen.
Los Angeles — One Week Later
The cast and crew have moved to a different location, a residential block in a more upscale neighborhood. This neighborhood is also predominantly black, but it has bigger houses, with pretty gardens and lavish, rolling lawns around back. About fifty people, cast and crew, stand disconsolately inside and around a comfortable-looking house, doing nothing, burning up studio dollars and valuable production moments. It’s a couple of hours after lunch, and Singleton is sitting outside, quietly fuming.
The trouble is, an important video segment hasn’t arrived as scheduled. Today’s scene can’t be shot without it. It’s a scene in which Justice sits in the living room of her home watching television; the missing segment contained the images that were supposed to be played back on the television. Production assistants point at one another, saying, “I thought you were supposed to bring it,” and, “Like hell I was.” Because of the timing and location, there’s nothing else that can be done until the tape shows.
Singleton is characteristically even-tempered. Sanguinely, he says, “It should’ve set us back an hour, but it’s taking most of the afternoon.”
While many directors habitually rant and rave, Singleton has never been known to blow up. He admits to getting frustrated and says he often wants to vent. But he doesn’t believe overt anger has ever made something happen more quickly on a set.
For some reason, the delay has raised the tension level to its highest pitch yet. It’s still relatively early in shooting, and the crew has yet to settle in. Everybody looks uncomfortable. Trying to cope, Singleton locates a box. He puts on Rick James’ “Super Freak” at block-party decibel level. A few of the crew members start dancing. Singleton says, “I should have thought of this sooner. Play some music when things are getting tense. We used to do this all the time on Boyz.” The earlier film was shot in six furious weeks; the box was out a lot.
The Poetic Justice shoot must be going smoothly, because he hasn’t had to pull out Rick James until today.
Los Angeles — The Next Day
A 12-year-old girl visits the set with her mom and two brothers in tow. She wears a key on one of her hoop earrings and a “Rhythm Nation World Tour” T-shirt. Looking around anxiously, she explains that she is “Janet Jackson’s biggest fan.” Her little brother pipes in, “You should see her room. Janet Jackson everything.”
The girl explains that she met Singleton last year when he visited her elementary school. When she heard Jackson was co-starring in Singleton’s new film, she wrote him a letter asking to meet her. “John liked the letter and invited me to the set,” she says. The girl keeps one eye cocked, looking for Jackson at all times. She spots Jackson’s chair and squeals, “Oooooo. She’s here. This is her chair.” Like Goldilocks in the Three Bears’ house, the girl and her two brothers take turns sitting in Jackson’s chair.
Singleton comes out and greets the family as respectfully as he would any studio vice president. Then Jackson comes out to meet her fan, trailing two bodyguards who try to stay unobtrusive. She looks like any of the very pretty black women on set, the sort of girl who’s always told she should be a model or an actress. Face to face, and not projected larger-than-life on a video screen or dancing around a stadium stage, you realize that she’s a real person. It’s oddly comforting and reassuring.
Although not very tall, Jackson has an almost regal grace and posture. Perhaps the most-avoided subject on the set is the fact that she’s the youngest member of America’s First Family of Soul. Clearly, to this little girl, meeting Jackson is like meeting the Queen. After burbling a few compliments, the girl and her family is shuttled offset so that the actress and director can continue. The meeting is a rarity; the schedule is so tight that every interruption, be it from fans or press or studio heads, takes away precious minutes.
Los Angeles — Two Weeks Later
A month into shooting, the barrage of visitors continues: press, industry, and financial-types, hangers-on and hopefuls, most of them gunning for Singleton. The array of suits constantly dogging him includes his legitimate Sony colleagues, as well as the enemy—writers and producers who bluff their way onto the set and try to woo Singleton with big talk and outrageous promises.
So, the two white men in suits standing near the camera truck could be anybody. They’re talking to another white guy, a member of the camera crew. The suits, who obviously haven’t read the Poetic Justice script, ask him what the movie is about. “It’s a love story,” the camera guy says. The suits pause.
“So, it’s a nice story?” one of them asks.
“Did you see Boyz N the Hood?” the camera guy says, looking at them dubiously.
“No.” The suit shakes his head. “But I saw New Jack City.”
It’s a minor moment, but it makes you think. There will always be those who throw Singleton’s work into that big grab bag called Films About Black Folks. Those who will never be able to tell the difference between Superfly and Lillies of the Field.
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Tomm the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will salute the 25th Anniversary of my first picture Boyz n the Hood. With a screening and discussion with some cast and filmmakers. I am honored to have made this film as the start of my career. The picture was a labor of love and reflects not only what was happening in South Central LA at that time but it gives voice to the lives of many black people living in urban cities. I want to thank all the real folks out there who've supported my work and tell you I attend to keep coming with that "real real" while the rest of Hollywood ignores the black experience. Thanks Love John Singleton
Baldwin Hills — Two Weeks Later
On location in a Baldwin Hills hair salon, Singleton is reading Rising Sun by Michael Crichton between takes. A fictional diatribe against a perceived Japanese threat to our way of life, the book is being made into a film—a major production—starring Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery. So Singleton is especially curious about this novel, though he is always working his way through one book or another. That is, when he isn’t playing Lynx, a hand-held video game system. Either way, he has the ability to concentrate on the book or game despite the bustle of activity surrounding him.
The mood on set is light. It usually is while shooting scenes in the hair salon, where Justice works. They are typical on-the-job comic riffs, like sitcom set pieces—Cheers meets the ghetto. Shampoo for afros. Today’s scenes strike the giddy crew, at least, as the film’s funniest so far.
Singleton looks up from his book and shouts, “Action!” Jackson and Tyra Ferrell cut up, almost losing their self-control in a maelstrom of giggles. Their timing is right-on, but after film stops rolling, Peter Collister, the director of photography, says that the shot was no good because one of the screens used for lighting purposes shows in the shot.
“Maybe it will just show a little bit,” Singleton says, hopefully.
Don Wilkerson, unit production manager and first assistant director, shakes his head. “John, at a drive-in, that screen will look a block long.”
Singleton looks annoyed. “But the performance was so good. It gets no better. Damn, I hate when this happens.”
Seizing an opportunity to nag, Collister says, “Now if we were on a soundstage….”
Singleton just smiles at him, acknowledging the point. He fought for location shooting, even though Hollywood lots make work much easier. Defiantly, Singleton says, “I didn’t want to be on a soundstage. It’s too artificial. I wanted to be on location. With my people.” To emphasize his point, he turns and hugs the person standing next to him. He does this a lot.
The screen is cleared and the picture’s up again. Singleton whispers directions to the actors between shots.
After one good take, he yells from his chair, “Now that was perfect. Let’s do it again.”
The cast and crew groan. They’ve heard the line before. And they’ve also heard what comes next: “I love you and I love myself. Action!”
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TBT.... Me at my purest time... 1986.... Graduating Blair High School.... On my way to USC Cinema School where is planned to make my mark on the world.... Today is October 2015.... Four years after this picture was taken... And 25 years ago I began principal photography on Boyz n the Hood... I was only 22... Now today I'm blocks away from where Boyz was shot doing scenes from SNOWFALL my first TV series... More dreams to be fulfilled and soul to capture on film. Give blessing to God that I've survived when so many of my folks didn't make it... I think our purpose is to honor those that came before us and pull as many of us trying to get ahead forward as well... I was a kid with lofty dreams in this picture now I'm a general on the battlefield.... Time to work!!
* This article originally appeared in a 1992 issue of VIBE Magazine.
Monday was a sad day knowing that great American artist John Singleton passed away. John was a truly extraordinary creative artist, and in his memory, I wanted to share a special moment we had many years ago.
I had the privilege of photographing John in 1992, in a shoot that marked my career transition from photojournalist to an artistic portrait photographer. On a personal level, John has come to represent this final switch from covering events to developing my own vision.
At the time of our memorable shoot, I had spent five years in L.A. working for People Magazine. Moving from the Boston Herald on an invitation to be one of their regular shooters was hard for me. I loved the storytelling aspect of being a news photographer but wanted to explore my personal vision as an editorial and commercial photographer. This was uncharted territory. Little did I know John Singleton would help me take the first steps in this direction.
Prior to the Singleton shoot, I had just purchased the Holga camera to experiment with. The Holga was a plastic camera with plastic lenses that took artistically slightly soft images. It also gave me the ability to use my strobes (flash) outdoors.
On that early spring day in March, I picked John up and he suggested that we go to South Central for a location. I didn’t know that area at all, but I figured the legendary Watch Tower was a good symbol of the neighborhood, and so that’s where we went. I pulled the Holga camera out for the first time. John truly understood how to collaborate and make the elements of the photograph tell a story. During our shoot, he was a true creative partner, contributing his ideas, patience, and intellect.
The experience and resulting portrait were unfamiliar in a new and tantalizing way. With John’s help on that day in 1992, I had broken ground into new photographic territory. Since then, I have moved my career into a more creative and stylized direction of portraits, capturing celebrities all around the world. Thank you John, for taking that first step with me. I will miss your achievement and contribution to this world.