Yesterday was a sad and difficult day for the culture, for filmmaking, definitely for all of Los Angeles – but particularly South Central, and certainly a major loss for the friends and family of John Singleton. He passed away yesterday after being taken off of life support. He suffered a stroke last week – and while so many people were praying for him and believing that he might pull through – he just didn’t make it. He was 51 years young.
And 51 is young. It’s old enough to have lived a full life, and certainly he did, but it’s young enough to have decades worth of living and creativity to go. I think the loss of John Singleton was acutely felt for a few reasons, but for two in particular.
First, we all watched John Singleton grow up. He was just 22 when he wrote and directed Boyz N The Hood and 23 years old when it came out all the way back in 1991. He was fresh out of college and it was literally first film – which is mind blowing. All you have to do is just think back to what you and I were making when we were 23 years old to think about how absolutely amazing John was to have written and directed this film at such a young age. And I wanna talk about Boyz N The Hood for a few minutes. It’s one of my Top 5 Favorite Films of All Time.
My favorite film critic, the late Roger Ebert, called Boyz N The Hood not only the best movie of the year, but one of the best movies in years – giving it his coveted 4 stars. Had it not come out in 1991, I truly think the film and the entire cast and crew would’ve all won Oscars, but it was so ahead of its time. John Singleton was literally the first African American filmmaker to ever be nominated for Best Director and best Screenplay – and to this day is the youngest person ever nominated for Best Director. He should’ve won both awards.
I’ve seen Boyz N The Hood dozens of times and it never gets old to me. I think it was the first movie ever to show both the beauty and the pain of our families and our community. It wasn’t all pain – and think that’s what we all know about the hood – the hood is never all pain – now let’s be real – the hood is hard – but John even showed the hard edges of the hood with nuance and care – with Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut, he showed what it was like to have half brothers and a mother that was abusive, but probably didn’t know it. He showed how hard it was to escape the hood. He showed how hard it was for parents and children to resist the temptations of the cycle of violence. And in a way that had never been shown on screen before, John Singleton showed the bloody and emotional costs of violence.
But Boyz N The Hood was so much more than that. I don’t know if any film before or after Boyz N The Hood had a more beautiful and complex father/son relationship on screen. Laurence Fishburne and Angela Basset played the divorced parents of a young son, Trae, and John Singleton showed all of the beautiful complex nuances of that relationship – from shared custody and more. But my favorite parts of the film are all of the conversations between Laurence Fishburne and his son. From how he teaches him about the responsibilities of doing his chores, to a tender talk he had with him at the beach about having principles, and understanding the birds and the bees, to later teaching him about gentrification and home ownership. They have other great scenes together where Trae brings his dad a plate of food from the cookout, another one where Laurence Fishburne gives Trae a haircut and gets in his business about his love life, to a very painful scene where Fishburne grieves with his son over the murder of his best friend.
And I tell you what, at the end of the movie, Fishburne decided to send Trae to Morehouse and his girlfriend, played by Nia Long, to Spelman, and that simple little act had a huge impact on so many of us. I think it was the first time I heard of Morehouse actually.
But that was John Singleton. He was unapologetically Black and went to great lengths to tell stories about Black people from a uniquely human perspective that was and still is missing too often in Hollywood. John was a vocal critic of the limitations and challenges of Black writers and directors in Hollywood and that advocacy will be sorely missed.
I’ll close with this thought – and I think it often – when the leaders and best among us pass on – we should mourn – but we should also be grateful that we got to experience their gifts. I only spoke about Boyz N The Hood, but John did so much more than that – and jumpstarted so many careers – not just on screen – but on set and behind the cameras as well.