In a year defined by quotes from the likes of Terminator 2 and Silence Of The Lambs, no single line of dialogue spoke more deeply to 1991 audiences’ social consciousness than the words of an angry, grief-stricken young black man on the daily violence he witnessed and partook in: “Either they don’t know, don’t show or don’t care about what’s going on in the ‘hood.”
The young man in question was notorious N.W.A. rapper Ice Cube, making his acting debut in Boyz N The Hood, a film whose honest, even-handed look at the crime, violence and poverty afflicting black Los Angeles neighbourhoods shone a humanistic light on a subject too often ignored or sensationalized by a racist media. Shining that light from behind the camera was a 23-year-old USC graduate named John Singleton.
Coming out just a year before the racial inequality plaguing the City of Angels reached boiling point with the 1992 riots, Boyz N The Hood drew from Singleton’s own memories growing up in South Central under what he described as a “police state” where harassment and intimidation from cops and gangsters alike were a feature of everyday life. It’s a poignant, melancholic coming-of-age story whose urgent sense of immediacy is counterbalanced by a distinctly classical style that evokes old masters of American social cinema Nicholas Ray and Joseph Losey. More than just another “message movie”, Boyz N The Hood is a compassionate portrait of boyhood in a climate designed to crush it, where systemic racism is envisioned as a deliberately constructed tragedy whose beautifully-realized players – from Laurence Fishburne’s world-wise patriarch to Jessie Lawrence Ferguson’s self-hating black cop – are each individual architects in the enforcement or avoidance of the fate the system designed for them.
The film’s critical and commercial success earned Singleton the distinction of being both the youngest and first black person to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director, and paved the way for a whole new era of “hood films” that would reveal such filmmakers as F. Gary Gray and the Hughes brothers. His follow-up, Poetic Justice, continued his examination of South Central as a microcosm of the crises facing black American youth, this time from the female perspective of aspiring poet Justice (Janet Jackson) as she embarks on an uneasy road trip to Oakland with macho postal clerk Lucky (Tupac Shakur) and troubled couple Iesha (Regina King) and Chicago (Joe Torry). Using Maya Angelou’s poetry as a guiding beacon expressing Justice’s own dreams and conscience, Singleton charts a course across collective black American folklore – best symbolized by a communal barbecue where the venerated poet herself makes a cameo – that culminates in his protagonists’ personal, social and romantic enlightenment.
Poetic Justice’s critical reception was considerably more lukewarm than its predecessor’s but its box-office success allowed Singleton to continue his interrogation of racism and individual responsibility with 1995’s Higher Learning. An all-too prescient film in many respects, particularly with regards to its depiction of radicalization, campus sexual violence and identity politics, Higher Learning unfortunately suffers from a lack of focus and a propensity for high-octane melodrama that robs its subjects of their urgency and impact. Still, it benefits from strong performances by Laurence Fishburne, Michael Rapaport, Omar Epps and Kristy Swanson, and Singleton navigates his characters’ political identities and consciousness with enough acumen to recommend it on the strengths of individual scenes alone.
Although Higher Learning underperformed, Singleton returned in 1997 with the big-budget period drama Rosewood, a dramatic retelling of a white mob’s massacre of a prosperous Floridan black community over a white woman’s false claims of assault by a black drifter. While well-acted by a prestigious cast that includes Ving Rhames, Jon Voight, Don Cheadle and Esther Rolle, the film’s two-dimensional characterizations and uncharacteristically stodgy direction ultimately torpedo its noble intentions. Despite positive reviews, the film was another box-office bomb and, for a while, the once-promising director’s career seemed compromised.
He bounced back in 2000 with a new incarnation of Shaft starring Samuel L. Jackson as the legendary blaxploitation hero’s nephew. The film’s critical and commercial success allowed Singleton to return to his South Central roots with the 2001 drama Baby Boy, in which he continued Boyz N The Hood’s analysis of black America’s masculinity crisis by following unemployed protagonist Jody (Tyrese Gibson in his first big-screen role) as he drifts between two lovers in permanent search of a substitute for his no-longer-single mother.
Using Jody to demonstrate controversial Afrocentric psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing’s theory that systemic racism has infantilized black men, Baby Boy is both a bitter critique of contemporary black American urban culture and a disturbingly honest portrait of toxic male insecurities that feels as real, lived-in and personal as Singleton’s debut did. While the romanticized portrayal of Jody’s abusive relationship with long-suffering girlfriend Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) is especially troubling in light of Singleton’s own 1999 domestic violence charges, the attention Singleton and his actors pay to the currents and eddies of the characters’ emotions give the film authenticity that transcends its flaws.
Baby Boy’s critical and commercial success once again confirmed Singleton’s singular voice in America’s cinematic choir, making his decision to follow up with 2 Fast 2 Furious all the more baffling. After following up with Sons Of Katie Elder-inspired urban western Four Brothers and Taylor Lautner vehicle thriller Abduction, Singleton spent the remainder of his career working on television shows such as Empire and American Crime Story as well as his own series on the 1980s-1990s crack epidemic, Snowfall.
John Singleton’s entire career was always going to be judged by how it compared to Boyz N The Hood; few filmmakers peaked so early, so high and at so young an age. His career, with its highs, disappointments and pitfalls, mirrored the complexity of his mind and testified to his struggles as an independent-minded black filmmaker in a white-dominated industry that thrives on homogeneity. But give or take a couple, every single one of his films bled with a raw energy that could only come from a passionate artist’s heart. Good or bad, their sincerity was palpable, their level of visual and psychological detail unquestionable proof of his mastery of American storytelling. His work gave a voice to a generation of disenfranchised people more used to seeing themselves as villains and stereotypes than as the fully-realized protagonists of their own stories – and in doing so helped further the promise enshrined in his country’s foundational ideals more than any presidential administration ever could.