John Singleton had just turned 24 when the Academy Award nominations were announced in January 1992, making him the youngest filmmaker ever to compete for a best director statue — as well as the first African-American to do so. This was a quarter-century before #OscarSoWhite hashtag started holding the Academy to task for slighting voices of color. Like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” “Boyz” was not nominated for best picture. He started young, and he left us too young, when he died Monday at 51.
Singleton’s bombshell debut “Boyz N the Hood” made him the hottest name in Hollywood for a time, leading to a string of films that changed the industry’s and audiences’ idea of the black experience, for the better. Here was a fresh directing talent who had come from Inglewood, Calif., but chosen the right path, avoiding the pitfalls “Boyz” depicted in order to attend USC film school, where CAA signed him before he had even graduated. Singleton took the hardship he’d witnessed in his community and transformed it into a raw and relatable coming-of-age story — a work of art that seemed to anticipate the injustice of the Rodney King beating and the sense of dead-end exasperation that would brew into the L.A. riots a year later. Singleton showed South Central, and neighborhoods just like it all over the country, that they had been “seen” — and responded with a message audiences could get behind: Reject violence, resist revenge, go to school.
“Boyz N the Hood” was a massive hit when it opened in the summer of 1991, doing better per-screen numbers than “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and launching the acting career of N.W.A rapper Ice Cube. It was hyper-stylized, high-attitude, and seemed to have been ripped from Singleton’s own experience with an intensity that underscored just how out of touch all the directors sitting on studio’s short lists were to talk about what was really going on in the world. His debut had earned the top prize at Sundance, a marathon standing ovation at Cannes, and rave reviews from critics, all of which helped to cement its place in pop culture (the Wayans brothers targeted “Boyz” and the flood of gritty inner-city imitators that followed with “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood”).
There was blowback and jealousy, but that was to be expected: Eazy-E, who had co-written with Ice Cube the song Singleton co-opted for the title, dismissed the film as “a Monday after-school special with cussin’,” while others insisted that not all black youths looked like these characters, or were rewarded for making the correct moral decisions. To an extent, the fact that the film was controversial was a key part of its cultural impact: “Boyz” forced audiences to confront the scourge of gun violence, as Morris Chestnut’s character, Ricky, a high school athlete with a football scholarship to USC, is shot and killed, as well as the cost of vengeance, which perpetuates the tragedy and claims the lives of several others — but not Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr., another career launched by “Boyz”), who steps away from the bloody cycle.
In a recent look-back interview with Vanity Fair, Gooding explained his concept of his character, with his sharp outfits and upright posture, as “presidential,” and looking back, I see how America needed certain role models to appear onscreen before the country might ever accept them in real life. Gooding’s character, Tre, may have been born in South Central, but could grow up to be anything. If that message seemed too simplistic to some, it was life-changing to others. One of the most powerful components of representation — something Hollywood still finds itself wrestling with a quarter-century later — is just how impactful even a problematic characterization can be when there are so few alternative depictions of people from that particular background. To some, “Boyz N the Hood” glamorized thug life, but like Singleton’s next film, “Poetic Justice,” it also suggested escape through education and self-empowerment.
Where “Boyz N the Hood” suggested the merits of higher education over “going low” and getting revenge for a friend’s death, “Poetic Justice” gave black love a voice that rivaled without replicating, updated without directly emulating, the eloquence and scope of classic stage romances: Janet Jackson’s character, Justice, is a writer and a thinker, the daughter of a law-school student, and an assertive match for Tupac Shakur’s working-class Lucky. The characters it put forth were radically different from the unflattering stereotypes that had so reduced the black experience (and more importantly, black potential) onscreen. “Higher Education” took that one step further still, choosing a university campus as its stage, and attempting to encompass the sheer diversity of experience to be found there — black, white, straight, gay, you name it — while steering it all toward one massive, seemingly unavoidable explosion.
While one could see Singleton’s ambition and skill growing with each film, neither “Poetic Justice” nor “Higher Learning” could compare with the direct, lived-in urgency of his debut. And his next film, the period-set but contemporary-minded “Rosewood,” performed so poorly that everything since has felt like safe bets. If “Boyz” was the film Singleton had to tell (and this was something he felt so deeply that he reportedly turned down a $100,000 offer to sell the script, insisting that he direct it himself), then the subsequent projects have felt like more strategic attempts to follow up its success. The pressure must be enormous after an artist is anointed as Singleton was — to be given opportunities, by studios no less, to tell personal stories about one’s background and the great expanse of African-American experience that wasn’t being represented onscreen at the time, and to witness from inside how the system tests and markets and modifies these films to succeed.
There hovers a mystery around the decline of his film career and shift to television. In a 2003 profile for the Independent, the interviewer snidely scolds Singleton for agreeing to direct the sequel to “The Fast and the Furious” — which, in retrospect, went on to become his highest-grossing movie. Singleton tells the journalist, “I’ve been trying to do something like this for a while now. But when you do certain films, people in Hollywood tend to think that’s all you’re capable of. I’ve proved to everyone that I can make serious movies. It wasn’t like I started my career with ‘2 Fast 2 Furious,’ then tried to get respect. I’ve already got respect!”
The statement offers a curious insight into Singleton’s career: An outsider (to the extent that Hollywood was a white boys’ club at the time, and largely still is) who started at the top, Singleton was expected to keep shocking, continue disrupting, and carry on expanding the way people of color were depicted onscreen in every subsequent film. And to an extent, he did, even as he shifted his focus to TV series in the final stretch of his career. In pointing a way out of the hood for Tre in “Boyz,” and in forging his own path through Hollywood, Singleton set an example for audiences. Studying a career that was never meant to end so soon, we’re reminded how much trickier that road was than he made it look, and grateful to him for the pioneering steps he took.