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Remembering John Singleton, Hip-Hop's Favorite Director

By Kiani Belgrave

John Singleton's magnum opus, Boyz n the Hood, celebrates its 30th anniversary this week. In celebration of the film, we're dedicating an entire week to aspects of Boyz... you may have never considered before. 

 

Just four months after a 26-year-old Rodney King was beaten to a pulp on the side of the Foothill Freeway in Los Angeles, California, by the disreputable LAPD, a young film director from South Central would be preparing to release his first feature-length film for LA audiences. The movie would finally give the people from the city where he grew up a voice of their own, creating a world where POC viewers could actually relate to the characters presented to them rather than the black caricatures that dominate popular media. 

John Singleton was getting ready to release his classic 1991 coming-of-age hood drama, Boyz n the Hood. The film was released exclusively to Los Angeles audiences on July 2, 1991, a year before the city would break out in the historic 1992 riots, after the disheartening verdict of Rodney King’s trial. It seems that Singleton made his debut with perfect timing, telling stories of black inner-city youth in such a tumultuous time; Boyz n the Hood would eventually go on to resonate with Black audiences across the country.  

In 1986, Singleton began to develop the early stages of Boyz n the Hood along with his application for the film-writing program at the University of Southern California. He sharpened his skills as a filmmaker during his time at USC, making his first films on a Super-8 camera much like his idol, Steven Spielberg, in his early days.

By 1990, Columbia Pictures bought the rights to Boyz n the Hood from a then 21-year-old Singleton. Columbia offered Singleton a hundred thousand dollars not to direct to film; of course, Singleton declined the offer. The city of Los Angeles rallied behind the young filmmaker, a local hero who gave his local community a voice through his stories. Tre, Doughboy, and Ricky are based on Singleton’s real-life friends and their experiences growing up in a crime-ridden Los Angeles. 

A first of its kind, Boyz n the Hood was a critical and box office success. Singleton would be nominated for an Academy Award for Directing, making him the youngest filmmaker to earn the honor and the first black director in the history of the awards. This achievement would lead the way for those who would come after him including Jordan Peele, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, and Lee Daniels. 

View of director John Singleton, wearing sunglasses and beret, while on the set of his movie 'Poetic Justice', Los Angeles, CA, 1993.

Credits to: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

Hip-hop has always been the centerpiece of John Singleton’s work.

Naturally, recruiting Ice Cube for Boyz n the Hood, the songwriter behind the song of the same name, later casting more hip-hop elites, including Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, Busta Rhymes, Andre 3000 and R&B singer Tyrese. Singleton's films are authentically hip-hop, from the soundtrack to the way characters interact with each other; John Singleton was a master of painting pictures that were relatable to the experiences of black and brown youth. 

Director John Singleton speaks onstage during the 70th Annual Directors Guild Of America Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 3, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California.

Credits to: Kevork Djansezian

His second film, 1993’sPoetic Justice,was an ode to black women and black love. After some backlash from critics about how black women were portrayed in his previous film, Singleton wanted to show his appreciation for black women, asBoyz n the Hoodwas a report on Los Angeles gang culture.Poetic Justice was a story dedicated to black love. Casting two of the most prominent black stars of their eras, Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson, portraying a young couple living in Los Angeles. 

Singleton recruited Maya Angelou as the offscreen poet for the film, writing all of the poems Janet Jackson’s character would use in the movie. Poetic Justice was Singletons take on the importance of love and companionship while dealing with the plight of the hood. He would reunite with Ice Cube and Regina King for 1995s Higher Learning, a film that used life on a fictional college campus for an allegory about societal ills including racism, rape and gun violence; and 1997s Rosewood would be Singleton's foray into period pieces, the true story of a Florida town destroyed by racist white mobs in the early 1900s. 

In the 2000s, Singleton would continue as both director (of hit movies such as Shaft and Baby Boy), as well as producer on major films such as Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan. He'd gone from upstart to elder statesman, with his unique point of view forever intact.

In his most recent project, the hit television show. Snowfall an FX drama based on the inception of the crack epidemic in the 1980s. The series stays true to Singleton’s themes highlighting the lives of black teens in LA. Singleton’s character’s stories are always honest and remain true to his experiences.

Singleton's work was ahead of its time. In an era where black filmmakers were a rarity, Singleton's movies spoke to a demographic that desperately needed films for them and by them. Singleton’s films deal with the importance of friendship, love, and companionship in a world where the odds were stacked against them. From his debut film that dealt with the perils of growing up in the inner city as a black man to Poetic Justice, exploring the love life of a black woman in the hood, John Singleton always created a world where black characters were authentically themselves. 

On April 28, 2019, John Singleton passed away of a stroke, precisely 27 years after the LA riots. Once again, the city will gather in his honor, saying their farewells to an artist that gave so many people in that community a voice. His stories have become timeless classics, establishing the sub-genre of the “hood” movie, changing the way black stories are told forever.