By Twanna F.
As people we thrive on the connections we have with others. An exchange of stories allows us to feel like we are apart of something bigger than ourselves. But for a long time, Black people have been deprived of that feeling. With Hollywood controlling the stories we have access to, it has been that much more difficult to gain a sense of belonging. But with the help of filmmakers like John Singleton, we’ve been exposed to a variety of perspectives that we can relate to. John Singleton was the trailblazer of realism in Black film, his artistry was revolutionary for Hollywood.
Sadly, Singleton passed away a few days ago on April 29, 2019, after suffering from a stroke weeks prior. Although his passing was untimely, and devastated lovers of film across the country, he left behind a legacy that will live on forever.
The start of his career is best marked by his first, and most well-known film, Boyz N The Hood. Singleton shook up the scene by being not only the first Black “best director” nominee but also the youngest. At the time of the film release (July 2, 1991), South Central LA was a war zone. Police brutality was running rampant and the judicial system was corrupt, but there were no efforts being made to change things. The beating of Rodney King and the murder of Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, a store clerk, best exemplified the disregard for Black life in America. Rodney King was severely beat by a group of police officers and the incident was caught on camera and broadcasted across the country by all news outlets. To throw insult to injury the officers involved were not convicted after a mostly white jury declared them “not guilty”, shocking Black people everywhere. The Latasha Harlins case was no better in that the store clerk Soon Ja Du was charged with murder but served no jail time whatsoever. She was only required to pay a $500 fine and given probation. Tensions between police and people of color were high and the only stories being told to the public made Black people look like criminals; animals undeserving of justice.
Boyz N The Hood offered a new perspective, a true reflection of the challenges Black people face just trying to make a living. Not only that, he highlighted the dynamics of relationships within the community. For instance, the relationships between Black police officers and civilians or Black people involved in gang life and those trying to break away from that lifestyle. For most Black people this was all common knowledge so to finally see it on screen was powerful. And for those who were ignorant to what was really going on in Black neighborhoods, outside of news headlines, this was an eye opener.
John Singleton definitely didn’t stop there, he was on a mission to showcase an authentic Black experience. Films like Higher Learning (a personal favorite), Baby Boy, Shaft, Poetic Justice, Hustle and Flow, Rosewood and more are perfect examples. If you’ve seen these films you know that they each have distinct characters and plots. This is especially important because Singleton was able to tap into a variety of experiences while maintaining authenticity. Aside from that, he touched the lives of many talented Black artists by giving them the opportunity to act in his films regardless of if they had acting experience. He wasn’t looking for big names to add star power to his films, he was more concerned with finding the perfect people to tell his stories the way he envisioned. Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morris Chestnut, for example, were just beginning their acting careers before Boyz N The Hood. For many actors/actresses, participating in his films gave them the break they needed to begin successful careers. In a tweet, on the day of Singleton’s passing, Ice Cube wrote, “I was discovered by a master filmmaker by the name of John Singleton. He not only made me a movie star but he made me a filmmaker. There are no words to express how sad I am to lose my friend & mentor. He loved bringing the Black experience to the world…”
All in all, John Singleton was a treasure among us. His influence will surely be felt forever, as long as we remember to treasure the work he put out in his lifetime. In a 1995 interview Barry Norman says, “Hell of an ambition to try and change the world with a movie.” To which John Singleton replies, “Well you know, the media is the most powerful thing we have now”. We have much more potential and influence than they would like us to believe. So, I hope the talented artists of our generation take this unfortunate situation as a sign to keep pushing and follow in his footsteps.