“Do I believe in God? Yeah, I guess I do,” a young black man admits in the 1991 drama, Boyz N the Hood. Sitting in the back of a toffee-colored low rider convertible belonging to Dough Boy (Ice Cube's character in the film), the young man points to the night sky above South Central L.A. and muses, “How else can you have the sun, the moon, the stars and shit like that?”
With words like these, viewers knew then that black boys in the ghetto could be philosophers too. Director, producer, visionary, John Singleton — who died of a stroke on April 29, 2019, at the the age of 51 — wanted us to know that.
A kind of philosopher himself, Singleton was a wet-behind-the-ears 23-year-old when he wrote and directed the untold inner city tale of friendship and struggle in South Central L.A.. With Boyz N the Hood, Singleton gave the world a pivotal, nuanced look beyond the racial stereotypes, presenting the neighborhood as a microcosm of the black experience, dispelling the myths and derogatory portrayals of young black men solely as thugs, criminals and shiftless nobodies. Scratch deeper under the surface, listen to their words and look at their choices, and you understand that young black men have dreams too, something films rarely did successfully before Singleton. Even though they're shown as products of their environment where crime, lack of opportunity, poverty, and cycles of violence hardened their demeanors, the three main characters played by Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut, were equally vulnerable, lovable and funny as hell.
Nominated for a Best Director Academy Award at age 24 (he was the youngest person to have ever been nominated for the category and the first African-American) Singleton was propelled to celebrity status seemingly overnight, and it wasn't long til he became the father of black inner city cinema. Simultaneously, the movie launched or solidified the rising careers of actors such as Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Nia Long and Regina King. Boyz legitimized the black male inner city narrative like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye established a new lexicon for African-American women in 1970.
A USC graduate and Los Angeles South Central native, Singleton wanted to make movies that represented his community in an authentic way. While Boyz n the Hood didn't necessarily represent every black community in America, it accurately reflected a familiar cycle of hopelessness that many in inner cities seem unable to break. At the same time Boyz was the personal story of a young man at the threshold of manhood, in love, dealing with divorced parents, contemplating higher education and trying to maintain bonds with two best friends pulling him in two different directions.
Films to follow, including 1993's Poetic Justice with Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson, 1995's Higher Learning, and 2001's Baby Boy continued the director's gripping and honest portrayal of people of color and influenced a generation to open their minds. He was also a producer of numerous works, such as acclaimed Terrence Howard movie Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan starring Samuel L. Jackson.
At the time of his death, Singleton was working on Snowfall, an FX TV drama he co-created in 2017 portraying South L.A. and Black Angelenos besieged by the crack cocaine epidemic. Like Boyz, Snowflake looks critically at the perpetrators and players who contribute to inner-city woes, but it also explores and exposes the choices that characters with few options must make in order to survive and thrive.
“Thank you for all you have given to the world through your work and all you have done for Black culture, women and young filmmakers,” Janet Jackson posted on Instagram Monday.
“There aren't many of us out here doing this,” filmmaker Ava Duvernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) also posted on her Instagram Monday. “It's a small tribe in the grand scheme of things. He was a giant among us.”
Not just a giant, but a creator and game-changer. Singleton educated, transformed, confronted truth and showed us all what we didn't even know we needed to see. He pointed us towards the sun, the moon and the stars, and made us realize that no matter where we come from, we could all reach for them.
Rest in power, John Singleton. You will be missed.