John Singleton, 1968–2019
The director who stunned with Boyz n the Hood
John Singleton was a moviemaking novice when he sold the screenplay for his 1991 film Boyz n the Hood to Columbia Pictures. But the 22-year-old film student was adamant that he was the only person who could direct the feature, about three black teenagers growing up amid gang violence in South-Central Los Angeles. “It’s my story, I lived it,” Singleton said. “What sense would it have made to have some white boy impose his interpretation on my experience?” Columbia’s president decided to take a gamble on the inexperienced filmmaker after he handed over impressive audition tapes of actor Cuba Gooding Jr. and hip-hop star Ice Cube, whom Singleton met while interning at The Arsenio Hall Show and doggedly pursued to star in Boyz n the Hood. The gritty coming-of-age tale went on win to rave reviews, and it made Singleton—who died at age 51 last week following a stroke—the first African-American and the youngest person ever to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar.
Singleton “grew up in a rough part of Los Angeles,” said The Washington Post. He lived alternately with his father, a mortgage broker, and his mother, a pharmaceutical sales executive from whose apartment window he could watch the local drive-in. “The cinema saved me from being a delinquent,” Singleton said. He became known to the professors at the University of Southern California’s film school “before he was even a student, roaming the hallways, sitting in on classes, and engaging professors about their favorite films,” said the Los Angeles Times. Singleton wrote the script for Boyz n the Hood for his senior thesis. The resulting movie, said critic Roger Ebert, was “an American film of enormous importance.”
The director never replicated that success, said The Wall Street Journal, but his focus on portraying black life on screen made him “a figure of enduring influence.” He worked in a range of genres: 1993’s Poetic Justice was an urban romance starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur, while 1997’s Rosewood dealt with a racist mass lynching in 1920s Florida. In recent years, he shifted his attention to TV, creating FX’s Snowfall, set during the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic in L.A. “I could have done it 20 years ago,” Singleton said. “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.” ■