The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly About John Singleton
This past Monday, John Singleton, the African-American director who was best known for grabbing the attention of both Hollywood and the world at the age of 23 with his debut film Boyz N The Hood, was laid to rest during a private funeral after he died from a stroke on April 29th. He was 51 years old.
A graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Singleton made his directorial debut with Boyz N The Hood, which he also wrote and was about three young African-American boys growing up in the rough and violent neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. Like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s groundbreaking rap song, “The Message,” the film enlightened people worldwide about the sometimes horrifying conditions that Black people in many cities had to live and deal with (and still do). It also caused plenty of controversy upon its release in theaters and not just because of the unflinching displays of violence onscreen, but also because of violent incidents that occurred at theaters on the film’s opening night which left two dead and thirty injured, resulting in several movie theaters pulling the film from circulation.
Despite these unfortunate occurrences, Boyz N The Hood was greeted with enthusiastic praise by critics, it gave Terminator 2: Judgment Day a run for its money at the box-office in terms of per-screen average, and it led to Singleton becoming the first African-American to ever be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards. (That Oscar was won by Jonathan Demme for his work on The Silence Of The Lambs) It also inspired many, many other “hood films” to follow in its wake, including Menace II Society, South Central, Strapped, Tales From The Hood, Fresh, Jason’s Lyric, and Clockers, which director/co-writer Spike Lee was hoping would be the final nail in the coffin for that particular genre. From Singleton’s interview with NPR back in 2011 in honor of the film’s twentieth anniversary:
“It’s a story that a lot of those cats used to make in the ’80s, in the suburbs, but made in the ‘hood,” Singleton says of the films that inspired Boyz N The Hood. “I loved the pictures, but none of those people looked like me. So me and my friends would catch the bus up to Hollywood, and we’d go see the movies, and we spent the whole time going down Vermont talking about the movie we would make. And the movie that we would make would always be something like what I did with Boyz N The Hood.”
…Singleton says he just wanted to put a young, black, male experience of Los Angeles up on the screen.
“It’s like you, you’re taught to have the potential to explode,” he says. “You know, it’s like if a person looks at you wrong, if a certain slight could turn into, like: boom!”
Nevermind that he’d never directed a feature film before: Singleton was determined to direct the script himself, despite the objections of the studio.
“He was offered like $100,000 just to walk away,” [Columbia Pictures executive Stephanie] Allain says. “‘What would you say if we gave you $100,000?’ And John was so cool. I was so proud of him. He said, ‘I’d say this conversation’s over.’”
“I do believe that the people who are making the films and the shows are just reflecting what they think the consumers want and what they think is really going on in society. I understand that. But because that is what is in fact going on in society, there’s a synergy that is destructive … There is a synergy, and I don’t think we can avoid that fact. The best thing is for us to ask ourselves what can be done to break the link without muzzling the creators. For example, I watched Boyz N The Hood very carefully. While it was very violent, it had no romance about the violence. That is a movie I would’ve wanted a lot of elementary-age kids in the inner city to see, because there was no romance. It was a mean, ugly, sad, heartbreaking tale of basically good kids who wanted to have a decent life who had it taken away from them.”
Should the film be held responsible for the violence? Nothing on the screen could have possibly inspired any trouble—just the reverse. It would be tragic if a film this important and thoughtful was blamed for conditions it dreams of changing—and if the development of the New Black Wave of filmaking was suppressed. We should not blame the messenger for the message. But the national roundup stories make it look like a wave of carnage took place, when in fact the majority of “Boyz” screenings were without incident.
Here’s the kind of dramatic news report that bears a closer look: It was reported that metal detectors were used at one theater, and two handguns were confiscated. Let’s say the theater had four showings of the movie, and averaged 600 people a screening. That’s two guns out of 2400 people. In today’s America, with our insane lack of gun controls, I’m surprised there were only two guns.
And what if they’d had metal detectors for other weekend movies, like “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” or “Point Break”? How many guns? But you’ll never read that story, because it doesn’t fit into the formula.
You’ll also never read about trouble in or near theaters showing mainstream films. That’s because the media doesn’t make the connection. We only look for the story after a black-theme movie like “Boyz” or “New Jack City”—and that’s why we find it.
Singleton then followed Boyz N The Hood with the romantic drama Poetic Justice, about a grief-stricken hairstylist named Justice who joins her best friend on a road trip along with her best friend’s boyfriend and his best friend, a postal worker who finds himself enamored with Justice. (The film also features Justice showing her talent for poetry, all of which were written by the late, great Dr. Maya Angelou)
He also directed the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Remember The Time,” which also featured Eddie Murphy, Iman, and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
And if you haven’t read this entire thread from Twitter user @NY_Wiseass about the video for “Remember The Time,” just know that it is a must-read.
Michael Jackson was an asshole in “Remember the Time”— The Angry (@NY_Wiseass) August 29, 2017
Higher Learning took place at the fictional Columbus University and was about three college freshmen whose experiences with racial and sexual politics and frustrations all come to a violent and life-altering boiling point.
Rosewood was based on a true story about a race riot in January of 1923 that resulted in the destruction of the town of Rosewood, Florida as well as the deaths of six Black people and two White people, though there were witnesses who have stated that the death toll was significantly higher, almost as high as one hundred fifty deaths.
Twenty-nine years after the release of Gordon Parks’ classic blaxploitation film Shaft starring Richard Roundtree, Singleton directed and co-wrote its sequel, with Samuel L. Jackson playing the original John Shaft’s nephew who is also named John Shaft, as he is willing to do whatever it takes to bring down the spoiled, racist, and murderous son of a wealthy real estate tycoon (Christian Bale) while also protecting the only eyewitness to his crime (Toni Collette).
Singleton returned to his roots with the drama, Baby Boy, set in South Central Los Angeles in which a 20-year-old man is forced to finally stop being irresponsible with his life and the people in it, and take the necessary steps in to adulthood before his irresponsibility ends up getting him killed.
Our very own Kate Hudson went into great and entertaining detail with her post as to why this sequel to The Fast And The Furious (a.k.a. Point Break with cars) is made of awesome and deserving of more attention, but if you didn’t read that post, just know this: 1) You deserve ALL of the side-eyes 2) If you’re looking for more action, more car chases, more comic relief, more ejector seats, and more male bonding/HomoeroticismYay!, then 2 Fast 2 Furious is the movie for you (if Con Air isn’t available for streaming, that is).
Four Brothers told the story of, well, four adopted brothers who seek revenge on the Detroit gangsters who murdered their mother.
And Abduction, Singleton’s last film, starred Taylor Lautner as a young man who finds himself targeted by assassins after he discovers that his parents are not actually his biological ones.
When the news broke that John Singleton had died from his stroke, Twitter was filled with numerous tributes from those he had worked with and those who had followed and admired his career from its very beginning.
I’ve always admired that John Singleton kept the rejection letters for BOYZ N THE HOOD framed in his office "just to remind me these motherfuckers don't know shit.” RIP.— Sean Burns (@SeanMBurns) April 29, 2019
This one cuts deep. You’ll never be forgotten. Cause your work will live on. pic.twitter.com/bqCV8RTyc8— Lena Waithe (@LenaWaithe) April 29, 2019
John Singleton had Boyz N The Hood, Poetic Justice and Higher Learning all under his belt at only 27 years old. That's insane. RIP— Beyonce has an uncle named Larry Beyince. Bruh…. (@DragonflyJonez) April 29, 2019
So sad to hear about John Singleton. I met and spent time with him on a few occasions. He was always kind to me. Boyz in the Hood was a big inspiration to me in film school.— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) April 29, 2019
#JohnSingleton was an innovator - he came with drive & a creative vision when people of color didn’t have the same visibility we do now. He will remain a beacon of light in our community, and today we celebrate his legacy. Rest well my friend, we’ve lost one of the good guys.❤️🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/U3FhJkdRhC— Halle Berry (@halleberry) April 29, 2019
Boyz n the Hood was an inspiration and left an indelible mark on America Cinema. John Singleton is loved and will be missed.— Keegan-Michael Key (@KeeganMKey) April 29, 2019
27 years ago, I was newly landed in Hollywood and got to visit my already legendary filmmaking hero John Singleton on the set of Poetic Justice. He took the time off from set to talk, offer words of encouragement, and told me to work from the heart. Rest in peace, John. pic.twitter.com/mZe0guejvv— Robert Rodriguez (@Rodriguez) April 29, 2019
John Singleton was instrumental in bringing the Black experience into mainstream culture while maintaining the height of artistic integrity. He told stories from the hood that showcased the breadth of the community, not 2-dimensional stereotypes. He framed us through our own POV. pic.twitter.com/8M5jNtDofS— Verbal The Rapper (@malcolmbarrett) April 29, 2019
#johnsingleton Needless to say we go way, way back… There are no words to convey the absolute loss and sadness I feel right now. John was there for his fellow filmmakers, always. All we had to do was look up and he would be there smiling and applauding our efforts. pic.twitter.com/gpPDQg1dGn— JulieDash (@JulieDash) April 29, 2019
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I can’t find the words right now 😪 All I can say is thank you brother! Thank you for sharing your immense gifts, having an unapologetically powerful voice, and standing for our people and our culture. I learned a lot from you. I salute you king! I pray that you’re at peace, and are dancing with the angels now. Tell Pac I miss him and love him. Damn… We can’t ever question God, but sometimes it’s like damn… Rest in paradise John! 🙏🏾🙏🏾🙏🏾 Praying for your family as well. #RIPJohnSingleton
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Rest In Power, my friend. One of the greatest to ever do it. Thank you GOD for blessing us with this gift better known as John Singleton. Having trouble finding enough words to share just what you mean to me. Will always love you John! Your spirit will forever shine bright💜
Singleton planned to re-team with Taraji P. Henson on a film about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old victim of the horrendous Mississippi hate crime. Henson was to produce and play Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother. It had the potential to be Singleton’s most ambitious project. https://t.co/z4v9YePIy4— Janet Maslin (@JanetMaslin) April 30, 2019
Not only did John make movies for us and our culture, he made one of the most iconic videos ever! It showed the world what Egyptians really looked like! Again I say, THANK YOU! May God bless the soul of John Singleton. pic.twitter.com/RAEm61vw0a— COMMON (@common) April 29, 2019
John Singleton showed us how special the world can be when you let creative people soar. There aren't enough words for the impact of his legacy. Grateful to have seen him fly.— LaToya Morgan (@MorganicInk) April 29, 2019
John Singleton was a Jedi level geek. The only thing more fun than seeing a Marvel or Star Wars movie was arguing with him about it: shot for shot. Line for line. Seeing Endgane with him would have been a blast. That gleam in his eye. That cackle. He would have loved it.— Cheo Hodari Coker (@cheo_coker) April 29, 2019
This is heartbreaking news and a tragic loss. John Singleton was a great talent who brought many of our stories and lived experiences to the big screen.— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) April 29, 2019
My prayers and deepest condolences are with the Singleton family and their many friends and loved ones. https://t.co/70I3grhA6E
Too too soon. We worked on one together that the people love.— Jeffrey Wright (@jfreewright) April 29, 2019
RIP, John. https://t.co/zPkHomH4jX
Don't know if there's a kid or teen in the 90s who didn't know Boyz in the Hood. That John Singleton wrote and directed it at age 24 is unbelievable to me. What a talent and voice. Thanks for what you did to pave the way for the next class of black artists. #ripjohnsingleton— Tracy Y. Oliver (@TracyYOliver) April 29, 2019
Simply shocked by the loss of the great John Singleton. I'll never forget seeing his films for the first time. Changed the world for everyone. Will be missed and remembered.— Patty Jenkins (@PattyJenks) April 30, 2019
John Singleton made sure to tell our stories on the big screen in an authentic way that only someone from where he’s from could tell, all the while ensuring that our community benefitted. By doing so, he changed Hollywood forever, as well as South L.A.— Congressmember Bass (@RepKarenBass) April 30, 2019
We'll miss you, John. pic.twitter.com/AoRXDkQFru
John Singleton. Thank you for your brilliance, your vision, and for showing us that we can own our narratives and tell our own stories because our lens matters. This is a true loss for the culture. May love and light surround his family and loved ones. pic.twitter.com/9VGSTAMJ9n— Tracee Ellis Ross (@TraceeEllisRoss) April 30, 2019
I was discovered by a master filmmaker by the name of John Singleton. He not only made me a movie star but made me a filmmaker. There are no words to express how sad I am to lose my brother, friend & mentor. He loved bring the black experience to the world. ..Us at Cannes ‘90 pic.twitter.com/CaRKjZtjgB— Ice Cube (@icecube) April 29, 2019
One of the first things I said to John Singleton was at an audition where I told him, “Lil boy, just give me the job.” And God bless him he did - casting me as Tupac Shakur’s mother in Poetic Justice. Rest in sweet peace, John. ❤️#JohnSingleton #BlackExcellence #BlackFilm #Love pic.twitter.com/nSzwrS80Cw— Jenifer Lewis (@JeniferLewis) April 30, 2019
Your images defined and articulated an entire generation. Thank you for sharing your vision. Thank you for the in-roads you paved where none existed. We love you John Singleton. Rest in power. pic.twitter.com/yVyi2Go9HA— Justin (@JSim07) April 29, 2019
Boyz in the Hood arrived at the height of my selfish teenage rebellion, that time in every young life when we think the world revolves around us. Singleton’s films hammered home a POV outside my own, one so grounded and real that I felt it in my bones. His legend will never die.— Amy Berg (@bergopolis) April 29, 2019
My prayers go out today to John Singleton and his family. May God bless the young cinematic king who gave us images that will stay with us forever.🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/tohsQTUPbj— Robert Townsend (@Robert_Townsend) April 29, 2019
Farewell my filmmaking friend! Your Boyz story and your laser disc commentary inspired me back before I shot my first film. You made me believe I might be able to be like you: heard. Thank you for leading, John. Wish we had one last chance to talk comics again… #JohnSingleton pic.twitter.com/jZvCxNIIsw— KevinSmith (@ThatKevinSmith) April 29, 2019
Mourning the loss of a collaborator & True Friend John Singleton. He blazed the trail for many young film makers, always remaining true to who he was & where he came from!!! RIP Brother. Gone Way Too Soon!— Samuel L. Jackson (@SamuelLJackson) April 29, 2019
To the youngest person ever nominated for Best Director by The Academy:— Strong Black Lead (@strongblacklead) April 29, 2019
Thank you for telling our stories. Thank you for transcending Black cinema. Thank you for inspiring millions. We salute and lift you, your family, and your work forever. Rest peacefully, John. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/yc1UH2CH6j
RIP John Singleton. So sad to hear. John was a brave artist and a true inspiration. His vision changed everything.— Jordan Peele (@JordanPeele) April 29, 2019
There aren’t many of us out here doing this. It’s a small tribe in the grand scheme of things. He was a giant among us. Kind. Committed. And immensely talented. His films broke ground. His films mattered. He will be missed. And long remembered. Thank you, John. #RunIntoHisArms pic.twitter.com/wKfOaCGFuA— Ava DuVernay (@ava) April 29, 2019
And yet, despite the legacy that John Singleton leaves behind with his many impressive cinematic achievements, much of his behavior away from film sets left a lot to be desired. In January 1999, Singleton was arrested after a physical altercation with the then-28-year-old mother of this then-6-year-old daughter. From the Los Angeles Times:
The director of “Rosewood” was charged with the misdemeanor count after a Jan. 2 argument that occurred when the 28-year-old mother of his 6-year-old daughter arrived at his home to pick up the girl. The names of the mother and daughter were not released.
The victim and an unidentified woman friend who accompanied her to Singleton’s home told police Singleton struck his ex-girlfriend repeatedly with his fist. The two said he grabbed her neck, choked her and yelled at her to leave his Ladera Heights home.
Police found a scratch and bruise on her face. The two women said that Singleton ended the attack when his daughter pleaded with him to stop hitting her mother, prosecutors said.
As part of his sentence, which included three years probation as well as domestic violence counseling, Singleton was ordered to produce a fifteen-to-thirty-minute short film about domestic violence.
In November 2017, Singleton was interviewed by Danielle Young of The Root, who wrote in this post titled “Don’t let the Smile Fool You. I’m Cringing On The Inside” that over the course of their interview, he had made several sexual advances towards her.
A few months ago, I went to the American Black Film Festival, and one of the interviews I landed was with John Singleton and the cast of his new show, Snowfall.
The interviews took place in a room filled with public relations executives, ABFF officials, myself and my camera crew. When I walked into the room, I heard Singleton say something, and I heard enough of it to know it was about me. But I ignored it. Thank God for my callus. I only had about four minutes to interview him, so I was in go mode.
I conducted the interview, and afterward I went over to Singleton to grab my mic and he grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward him, saying, “Bring that juiciness over here.”
He was sitting in a director’s chair, so when he pulled me, I fell forward and stopped myself by placing my hands on his legs. He then leaned forward and kissed me on my cheek. I said, “Oh, oh, OK,” and stood up, embarrassed because everyone was definitely still in the room.
Mostly, no one reacted, aside from a few seconds of laughter. A few people asked Singleton for a photo, and I didn’t. He noticed. When he was about to leave the room, he asked if I wanted a picture. In order not to make it awkward, I said yes.
He grabbed me around my waist and pulled me into him, saying, “Oooh, I’m gonna grab on tight to you.” I laughed, because that’s what I do when I am uncomfortable, and snapped the photo. When I posted the photo on Instagram, I admitted to his sexual advances, but I kept it light with humor. A therapist would tell me that’s a defense mechanism.
…After Singleton and his crew left the room, I turned to a woman working for the festival and I said, “Did you see that?”
She said, “Yeah, girl. I heard he likes big girls.” The woman was also “of size,” and told me that when she went to take a selfie with him, he kissed her on the cheek and said, “I love your face! It’s so soft. I want to feel your cheek on my cheek.”
The woman’s admission was so pedestrian, I was convinced she was simply reacting the same way many women do to unwanted sexual attention—she ignored it. I tried to ignore it, but I felt weird.
I left the room and then another journalist asked me about the interview, I told her about the arm pull, the “juiciness” and the kiss, and she said, “Girl, he’s worth $50 million! You should pursue that!”
And according to this article from Bossip back in 2006 when they were known more for the somewhat problematic content and questionable quality of their articles before going on to becoming known for their hilarious and incredibly clever headlines, Tyra Banks (who just came out of modeling retirement to once again appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue) admitted in an interview with Ryan Seacrest that she was physically and emotionally abused by a former boyfriend, who she refused to name at the time. And considering that she and Singleton had previously dated as well as the clues that many people had put together regarding her relationship history, all signs pointed to Singleton being the one who had abused her.
And in 2017, Singleton was approached by paparazzi for TMZ, who wanted to know what he thought about R. Kelly and the recent revelations of him being not just a child-molesting piece of shit, but a piece of shit holding Black women and Black girls captive in his home and forcing them to follow his orders when it comes to what they say, do, eat, and wear, as well as being forced to have sex with him. His response was…less than impressive.
I’m sure that all five of you who are reading this are doing so because you respect John Singleton’s work and legacy, and if I had to guess what you’re saying as you read this, it will probably be “I don’t believe this. This is fucked-up!” or “Why are you doing this? The man just died and a lot of people looked up to him, so why are you trying to shit all over his legacy and ruin a Black man’s reputation?” And my response to both of those responses would be :
1) Yes, I totally agree with you about how fucked-up all of this is.
2) Because in the immortal words of Anne Lamott, if people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better. And everything I just described makes it pretty clear that as much as Singleton may have earned the admiration of his colleagues and audiences with his work, his behavior towards others, particularly the women in his life, left much to be desired, and deserves to be known and talked about. And as for shitting all over his legacy, I promise you this: You don’t even want to know how much and how hard I will laugh when the blessed day comes that R. Kelly exits this mortal coil once and for all. And the things that I will say, the jokes that I will make, that will be me shitting all over a Black man’s legacy. What I’m saying about Singleton now, and what I’m saying about his past horrible behavior, doesn’t even come close.
I can express my admiration for the work that John Singleton has done, of the legacy he has left behind, for all that he has done to help kick in the door for other talented Black artists both in front of and behind the cameras. I can also express my disgust at much of what he did in the past that made hashtags such as #YouOKSis, #MeToo, and #TimesUp necessary today, and that there are too many other directors and actors and executives in Hollywood whose similar behavior towards women will make both myself and others who discuss their legacies and their films/television shows take a similar approach in respecting the artistry even if we no longer respect the men who made the art.
Rest in peace to you, John Singleton. Thank you and fuck you for what you have done, and for all that you have done.
Header Image Source: Getty Images
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