john singleton was a giant of black film
April 29, 2019
With the likes of Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins called upon to translate Black lives onto celluloid, it’s important to remember that Black movie directors were not always given room to talk about our communities. Only in the ’90s did it become normal to see Black lives interpreted by those who lived them. And if Spike Lee helped defined Black New York City — specifically Brooklyn — for American cinema, John Singleton did the same for South Central Los Angeles. And today we learned that John Singleton transitioned due to a massive stroke.
Singleton’s films created empathy for those of us who would never have experienced the California ‘hoods for ourselves — and for me, moving mainly between New York City and Atlanta in my young life, film was the only way to see experience a more authentic interpretation of Black life in places I’d never seen. It was with surprise that I learned that although different in some instances, I felt more connected with Black people even if they were not in my backyard. Even if their oppression and liberation happened underneath palm trees, there was still a common experience between poor Black people that somehow made me feel less alone and more inspired. This is John Singleton’s cinematic legacy: through his authentic voice, he made films so specific to himself that he unlocked a universal experience recognized and coveted by all Black people.
In 1992, Singleton was the first Black director to gain an Oscar nomination in the category, for Boyz N The Hood. I mention this to validate his creative power, and to remind myself that although Hollywood’s memory can be short and cruel with how they remember Black talent and storytellers, Singleton was a crucial voice to not only the Black community, but everyone hungry for cutting edge and authentic storytelling. Films like Higher Learning and Baby Boy broke ground by making the regular and mundane parts of Black life as compelling as the more theatrical elements.
Jordan Peele sent out his condolences early this afternoon on Twitter, “RIP John Singleton. So sad to hear, John was a brave artist and a true inspiration. His vision changed everything.”
Peele’s short, but powerful note refocuses what we can appreciate about John Singleton in the wake of his death. He articulated his South Los Angeles upbringing through his films, and created space for future filmmakers like Donald Glover and Ryan Coogler to tell their stories with an authentic voice. Through his work and talent, Singleton was an early architect of a Black art renaissance we are currently experiencing. He let us know how it’s supposed to feel. He let us know that there doesn’t need to be a negotiation of identity for a story to be told — there simply must be a story that desires to be told truthfully. Through his vision and bravery, he normalized authenticity for Black creators and assisted in opening the doors for a generation that would make his level of courage the standard.
This is the most we can hope for a life — no matter how short or long — that it somehow makes room for even more lives; and once this one life is gone, a thousand more sprout up in its place that even if the physical form is gone, the influence is remains.
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