John Singleton obituary: ‘I got to make people cry. I got to make them feel something’

Boyz N the Hood, the late film-maker’s debut, quickly put him alongside Spike Lee

John Singleton: the late director at Columbia Studios in Los Angeles in 1994. Photograph: Anthony Barboza/Getty

John Singleton: the late director at Columbia Studios in Los Angeles in 1994. Photograph: Anthony Barboza/Getty

 

John Singleton
Born: January 6th, 1968
Died: April 29th, 2019

John Singleton, whose powerful debut film, Boyz N the Hood, earned him an Oscar nomination for best director, the first for an African-American, died on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 51.

His death, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was confirmed in a family statement after he was taken off life support. Singleton had been admitted to the hospital on April 17th, reportedly after having a stroke. His family said he had a history of hypertension.

When I was 18 I saw She’s Gotta Have It. The movie was so powerful to me, as a young black teen who grew up seeing movies with not a lot of people who looked like me

His mother, Shelia Ward, said last week that he was in a coma and filed court papers last week asking to be appointed his temporary conservator. Several of his children at the time opposed her trying to take control of his medical and financial decisionmaking and publicly disputed her assessment of his medical state.

Boyz N the Hood, a bleakly realistic film about three teenagers growing up amid gang violence in South Central Los Angeles, established Singleton’s credentials and placed him in the conversation with more established African-American directors like Spike Lee, Bill Duke, Julie Dash, Robert Townsend and Reginald Hudlin.

“When I was 18 I saw She’s Gotta Have It,” Singleton said, referring to Lee’s 1986 breakthrough film, in a YouTube video in 2013. “The movie was so powerful to me, as a young black teen who grew up seeing movies with not a lot of people who looked like me.”

Boyz N the Hood: Ice Cube in John Singleton’s debut film
Boyz N the Hood: Ice Cube in John Singleton’s debut film

He was 22 when he began shooting Boyz, which follows Tre (played by Cuba Gooding jnr) and his friends Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube) as they try to avoid gangs and drugs. When Ricky is shot and killed by a gang member, Doughboy, his half brother, seeks revenge, but Tre backs away from retribution.

Singleton had graduated from film school less than a year earlier. He later conceded that when he made Boyz N the Hood he did not yet know how to direct a film. “As the movie was going along, I was learning how to direct,” he said after a 25th-anniversary screening in Manhattan in 2016. “As it becomes more intense and comes on to the third act, the camerawork is more and more fluid, because I’m getting better and better – and taking more chances.”

After Columbia showed the movie at the 1991 Cannes film festival – with Lee in the audience – the film critic Roger Ebert praised its “power, honesty and filmmaking skill”. “By the end of Boyz N the Hood,” he wrote, “I realized I had not simply seen a brilliant directorial debut, but an American film of enormous importance.”

John Singleton: in 1991 the late director became the youngest Oscar nominee for best director, for Boyz N the Hood. Photograph: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis via Getty
John Singleton: in 1991 the late director became the youngest Oscar nominee for best director, for Boyz N the Hood. Photograph: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis via Getty

John Daniel Singleton was born on January 6th, 1968, in Los Angeles. His mother was a pharmaceutical sales executive, and his father, Danny Singleton, was a mortgage broker. He lived with his mother until he was 11 and then moved in with his father, on whom he based the character of Tre’s father (played by Laurence Fishburne) in Boyz.

John was influenced early on by movies like Cooley High, a 1975 comedy-drama about high-school friends living in the projects in Chicago, directed by Michael Schultz and starring Glynn Turman and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs. Singleton was seven when he saw the film with his mother. He recalled that she cried when Hilton-Jacobs’s character was killed. “I looked at my mother and I said, ‘Why are you crying?,’” he said in a 2016 interview with Vanity Fair. “And she said, ‘Because it’s such a good movie.’ So I start thinking, When I get to make a movie, I got to make people cry. I got to make them feel something.”

He studied script writing at the University of Southern California’s School of Film-Television and wrote the Boyz N the Hood screenplay during his senior year. He then showed it to Stephanie Allain, a script reader for two of Columbia Pictures’ top executives. At the time he was being interviewed to succeed her. He did not get the job, but she loved the script and pushed for it to be acquired.

They said, ‘Who wants to see Boyz N the Hood on television every week?’ Now everybody wants to see Boyz N the Hood on television

Before a deal was made, though, Singleton demanded, despite his inexperience, that he direct the film. Frank Price, the president of Columbia, agreed; he was especially impressed with Singleton’s audition tapes of Gooding and Cube. Singleton returned to South Central – the neighbourhood is now called South Los Angeles – in his next film, Poetic Justice, from 1993, a melodrama centring on a romance between a poet (played by the singer Janet Jackson) who works as a beautician and a postman (the rapper Tupac Shakur in an early movie role).

In an otherwise lukewarm review of the film, Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote that Singleton had made a significant leap as a storyteller from Boyz N the Hood. “Poetic Justice,” he wrote, is “nothing less than an attempt to celebrate the creative impulse as a means of salvation, not only for the individual but also for society.”

Singleton directed a variety of films over the next 20 years, but none had the impact of Boyz. They included Rosewood, a 1997 re-enactment of a mob attack against black people in Florida in the early 1920s; Shaft, from 2000, a remake of the hit 1971 film; 2 Fast 2 Furious, from 2003, an early entry in the Fast and the Furious franchise; and Four Brothers, a crime drama from 2005. He also moved into television, directing episodes of Empire, The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story and Billions.

Shaft: Samuel L Jackson in John Singleton’s remake of the 1971 hit
Shaft: Samuel L Jackson in John Singleton’s remake of the 1971 hit

Singleton produced some of the films he directed, as well as other movies, like Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow, from 2005, which starred Terrence Howard, who earned an Oscar nomination for best actor. The film won an Oscar for best original song.

His most recent venture was Snowfall, a series on the US TV channel FX about the crack-cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Singleton was one of the show’s creators and executive producers and directed three episodes. “Snowfall manages to carve out its own distinctive visual style, leaning heavily on the contrast between the bright blue LA sky and the violence and crime happening beneath it,” Kelly Lawler of USA Today wrote in a review after the series’ debut. “Even in moments of harrowing violence, it’s hard to look away.”

For Singleton, Snowfall was a return to the turf that inspired Boyz, with a vehicle that he likened to making a movie every week. “It’s a popular show, and I could have done it 20 years ago,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2018. “But they said, ‘Who wants to see Boyz N the Hood on television every week?’ Now everybody wants to see Boyz N the Hood on television.”

He is survived by his parents; his daughters Justice Singleton, Hadar Busia-Singleton, Cleopatra Singleton, Selenesol Singleton and Isis Singleton, and his sons, Maasai and Seven. – New York Times