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The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly About John Singleton

By Brian Richards | News | May 10, 2019 |

By Brian Richards | News | May 10, 2019 |


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.’”

Even Bill Clinton came to the film’s defense when it was criticized and judged for its content…

“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.”

And Roger Ebert was more than willing to do the same.

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.

Higher Learning took place at the fictional Columbus University and was about three college freshmen whose experiences with racial and sexual politics 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.

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.

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