Obituary: John Singleton, acclaimed filmmaker behind Boyz N the Hood

John Singleton in 2018.  (Picture: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
John Singleton in 2018. (Picture: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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John Singleton, director, writer and producer. Born: 6 January 1968 in Los Angeles, California, United States. Died: 29 April 2019 in Los Angeles, aged 51

Director John Singleton, who made one of Hollywood’s most memorable debuts with the Oscar-nominated Boyz N the Hood and continued over the following decades to probe the lives of black communities in his native Los Angeles and beyond, has died. He was 51.

Singleton’s family said he died in Los Angeles, surrounded by family and friends, after being taken off life support. Earlier this month, the director suffered a major stroke.

Singleton was in his early twenties, just out of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, when he wrote, directed and produced Boyz N the Hood.Based on Singleton’s upbringing and shot in his old neighbourhood, the low-budget production starred Cuba Gooding Jr and Ice Cube and centered on three friends in South Central Los Angeles, where college aspirations competed with the pressures of gang life. Boyz N the Hood was a critical and commercial hit, given a 20-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival and praised as a realistic and compassionate take on race, class, peer pressure and family. Singleton would later call it a rap album on film.

For many, the 1991 release captured the explosive mood in Los Angeles in the months following the videotaped police beating of Rodney King. Boyz N the Hood also came out at a time when, thanks to the efforts to Spike Lee and others, black films were starting to come from Hollywood after a long absence.

Singleton became the first black director to receive an Academy Award nomination, an honour he would say was compensation for the academy’s snubbing Lee and Do the Right Thing two years earlier. He was nominated for best screenplay but Thelma & Louise won. At 24, he was also the youngest director nominee in Oscar history.

Singleton said in 2016: “I think I was living this film before I ever thought about making it. As I started to think about what I wanted to do with my life, and cinema became an option, it was just natural that this was probably gonna be my first film. In fact, when I applied to USC film school they had a thing that asked you to write three ideas for films. And one of them was called Summer of ‘84, which was about growing up in South Central LA.”

Singleton’s death prompted widespread praise for a filmmaker who, as his Shaft star Samuel L Jackson, said, blazed the trail for many young filmmakers,while always remaining true to who he was and where he came from.

Ava DuVernay called him “a giant among us”. Spike Lee said, “We’ll miss you but your films will live on.” Jordan Peele, the Oscar-winning Get Out and Us filmmaker, called him “a brave artist and a true inspiration”. “Your love for the black experience was contagious and I would never be the man I am without knowing you”,Ice Cube said in a statement. None of Singleton’s subsequent movies received the acclaim of Boyz N the Hood and he was criticised at times for turning characters into mouthpieces for political and social messages. But he attracted talent ranging from Tupac Shakur to Don Cheadle and explored themes of creative expression (Poetic Justice), identity (Higher Learning) and the country’s racist past, notably in Rosewood, based on a murderous white rampage against a black community in Florida in 1923.

He also made the coming-of-age story Baby Boy, a remake of the action film Shaft and an instalment in the Fast and Furious franchise, 2 Fast 2 Furious. More recent projects included the FX crime drama Snowfall, which he helped create. Starring Damson Idris, Snowfall returned Singleton to the Los Angeles of his youth and the destructive effects of the rise of crack cocaine.

“Drugs devastated a generation. It gave me something to write about, but I had to survive it first,” Singleton said in 2017. “It made me a very angry young man. I didn’t understand why I was so angry, but I wasn’t someone who took my anger and applied it inward. I turned it into being a storyteller. I was on a kamikaze mission to really tell stories from my perspective – an authentic black perspective.”

Singleton was married twice, and had five children. Besides his career in movies, Singleton also directed the memorable, Egyptian-themed video for Michael Jackson’s Remember the Time, which included Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson.

Singleton’s early success didn’t shield him from creative conflicts or frustration with Hollywood studios. He blamed the commercial failure of Rosewood on lack of support from Warner Bros. He fought with producer Scott Rudin during the making of Shaft and was furious when Rudin brought in author Richard Price to revise the script.

He had planned to direct a biopic about Tupac Shakur, but quit after clashing with Morgan Creek Productions. In 2014 he chastised the industry for refusing to let African-Americans direct black-themed films,but Singleton was pleased in recent years by the emergence of Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele and others.

“There are these stacks of [films by non-black filmmakers] where black people have had to say, ‘OK, at least they tried’,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2018, adding that now blacks were making the films themselves. “What’s interesting when you see Black Panther is you realise it couldn’t have been directed by anybody else but Ryan Coogler. It’s a great adventure movie and it works on all those different levels as entertainment, but it has this kind of cultural through-line that is so specific that it makes it universal.”

Most recently, Singleton, who regretted turning down the chance to direct on the first season of The Wire,turned his focus largely to TV. He directed episodes of The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (for which he was nominated for an Emmy), Empire and Billions. He co-created and executive produced Snowfall, directing three episodes.

“There’s hardly any precedent for a guy like me to have the career that I’ve had,” Singleton told Variety in 2017. “Because I grew up the way I grew up, I’m an in-your-face kind of guy. I developed that as a defence mechanism to survive in the streets. I do that in Hollywood in the service of my passion.”