JOHN SINGLETON AND HIS IMPACT ON A GENERATION
April 30, 2019
When it comes to scenes in Black movies, few are more memorable than the end of Boyz N The Hood. In a swift climactic moment, high school football star Ricky Baker’s (portrayed by Morris Chestnut) life is tragically cut short in a drive-by shooting. Few things equate to the moment we hear Tre (portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr.) scream out his best friend’s name in agony. The soul crushing scream in John Singleton’s film debut sets the tone for a career that would continuously alert us with the same sense of urgency. His opus to Black life in Los Angeles was a pure reflection of what was happening in inner cities across the country, a sign of the new political times we were entering containing a hidden truth that could no longer be denied. Our parents may have still believed in the possibility of the American Dream but John’s work revealed to us the restrictions to the access of that dream. His characters mirrored society in its full natural light and let us know that the death, discrimination, and the ability to discard of Black people was something we would have to confront. As a child, seeing this reality of Black life on screen helped prepare me for the dark side of being young and Black in America.
Born John Daniel Singleton on January 6, 1968 in Los Angeles, the power in his John’s approach to filmmaking reflected the very real and very current issues that Black America faced in the 90s and just how stark in contrast those issues were to the problems that our grandparents faced and that our parents were prepared for. It was a theme that didn’t go unnoticed – in fact, it was this boundary that the director willingly challenged. In a 1991 interview with Rolling Stone, Singleton expressed how the tides were changing, and his work was a mirror image of that shift. “In the Eighties we were told, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ by our government, and cinema reflected that. Now, they’re still trying to tell us that, but we know we’ve got a lot of problems. Thought went out of vogue in the Eighties, but I think it’s coming back.” It wasn’t enough for him to just tell a story – he knew that he was combating against systems that would aggressively crack down on us in the years to come.
Violence was a theme in most of his movies but the approach was always intentional and deliberate because it depicted the challenges we faced in an authentic way. While mainstream media would have wanted us to believe that the tragedies that plagued our communities were a result of our own doing, one of the greatest accomplishments of his work was that it exposed the root of our issues. John made it clear that it wasn’t us, it was America that had the real problem. Through conversations with Laurence Fishburne’s Furious Styles character, Boyz N The Hood also tackled the concept of gentrification, and the identity of the Black man in those new times. Higher Learning explored sexuality and racism in a complex environment and showed how even if you’re placed in a position to win — (how many of us also become respectable Black college students like Omar Epps’ character?) – you weren’t immune to dealing with discrimination. Poetic Justice focused on the trauma of our environments, the depression that’s often left behind, and the journey towards healing. The brilliance of his movies was that they didn’t shy away from the harsh truths of being a young Black person living in this country. It highlighted them with empathy and compassion, a space often not reserved for us on film.
Nothing echoed our truth more than Ice Cube’s closing line in Boyz N The Hood: “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.” The bleak and vivid pictures could have been left us with defeat but John did his best to provide moments of hope and prompts that would drive us to solutions. One particular scene in Higher Learning exemplifies this trait. The popular track star Malik Williams (Epps) unravels his discouragement around going up against a system has always been set up for him to fail. “I’m smart enough to know that this ain’t my game to play,” he shares. “I’m just a pawn, like everybody else.” In response to this moment, Fishburne as Professor Maurice Phipps delivers a gem: “Used intelligently, a pawn can create a checkmate or become a very powerful player himself. Don’t you understand? This is all a game. You play it and you play it to win because in the real world, no one wants to hear excuses or empty rhetoric — they want to know if you have a plan.”
If there was a time capsule for Black life in the ’90s, John Singleton’s movies would contain a central part of culture’s history and provide the spark that would go on to help us create our collective plan of action. John Singleton made space for us in so many ways, not only through representation but with the constant reminder that our stories, even the tragic ones, were worth being told. These stories became a signal to our generation of the fight that was ahead of us and for that, he paved the way for us in more ways than one. We’ll be forever grateful to him for giving us the heads up. May he rest peacefully.