John Singleton is the African American film director, screenwriter and producer best known for directing Boyz n the Hood – becoming the first African American and youngest director to have ever been nominated for an Academy Award.
Born John Daniel Singleton on January 6, 1968 in Los Angeles, California, Singleton grew up in South Central Los Angeles. His parents paid close attention to him as a child and part of that attention, which ultimately influenced his career choice, was his father’s taking him to see movies. By the time he was nine years old, Singleton decided he was going to make motion pictures. “He gorged on films by Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut, Steven Spielberg, Akira Kurosawa, John Cassavetes, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola,” Karen Grigsby Bates noted in the New York Times Magazine. Singleton learned from these masters, but he needed to express something that they could not. “I always wanted to do a real film about what it’s like growing up Black,” he told Ebony. “There are always stories about how Whites grow up, films likeAmerican Graffiti or Rebel Without a Cause.”While in high school, Singleton learned “that the film business was controlled by screenplays. After I heard that, I knew I had to learn how to write, so I did,” he told Time. This focus proved valuable. After graduating from high school in 1986, Singleton studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, winning three writing awards from the university, which lead to a contract with Creative Artists Agency during his sophomore year.
In May of 1990, his agent sent the script for Boyz N the Hood to Columbia pictures. The response was immediate: “I thought John’s script had a distinctive voice and great insight,” Frank Price, chairman of Columbia Pictures, said in an interview excerpted in the New York Times. “He’s not just a good writer, but he has enormous self-confidence and assurance. In fact, the last time I’d met someone that young with so much self-assurance was Steven Spielberg.” Columbia wanted to make the picture, but at first wanted someone else to direct it. Singleton believed only he could do it. “They asked me if I would consider anybody else directing it,” he recalled to Interview’s Steven Daly. “And I said, Hell, no, I’m not gonna let somebody from Idaho or Encino direct a movie about living in South Central Los Angeles. They can’t come in here and cast it and go through the rewrites and know exactly what aesthetics are unique to this film.”
Columbia finally agreed, giving Singleton a $7 million budget. The film, which had its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring of 1991, follows three characters at two different stages in their lives: first at the age of 10, then at age 17. At the beginning of the film, Tre Styles, the protagonist, is sent by his mother, Reva, to live with his father, Furious, in hopes that the unruly boy will learn to be a man. In his new neighborhood Tre meets two half-brothers who live across the street: Rickey and Doughboy. Together, these three characters grow up in an environment where, as David Denby described in New York magazine: “all day, jets heading for LAX come in low over the small tract houses; at night, police helicopters join in the din, training down their lights. The sun shines regularly, but the little boys play football with a corpse lying nearby, and a teenage girl tries to read through the rattling of gunfire.”
What differentiates the direction of the three characters’ lives is that Tre has a father who is present and strong and concerned. Furious’s program for Tre, as Stark delineated it, is simple: “Look people straight in the eye, don’t respect anyone who doesn’t respect you, stay clean, work hard.” His guidance insures that Tre resists the deadly temptations of the street and becomes responsible. Conversely, the two half-brothers lack attendant fathers and their lives are open to jeopardy. Rickey is a gifted athlete and his mother’s favorite, but he must pass his SATs to win a scholarship. Doughboy, disliked by his mother because she hates his absent father, is a complex character “whose intelligence and street eloquence do battle with a penchant for self-destruction,” Bates observed. He is reduced to selling drugs and spewing anger from his mother’s front porch steps.
The quote “One out of every 21 black males will be murdered. Most will be shot by another black male” opens the film. True to this appalling statistic, only Tre emerges at the film’s end, a survivor guided by his father’s teachings, ready to enroll in college and leave the neighborhood. “In the end, Boyz N the Hood asks the all-important question of whether there is such a thing as changing one’s fate,” Maslin pointed out. “If there is—and Mr. Singleton holds out a powerful glimmer of hope in the story’s closing moments—then for this film’s young characters it hinges on the attitudes of their fathers.”
Critical reaction was predominantly positive. Singleton was praised for his recreation on film of the milieu of the neighborhood, the geography of a place heretofore unexplored. Bates found it a “challenging film, a disconcertingly gritty peek into a facet of life to which virtually no white audiences have been privy—and that a fair number of black middle-class viewers will find alien as well.” Denby praised the film’s nuances, how Singleton was able to depict the “insane combustibility in ordinary encounters—the jostling among teenagers that ends with guns blazing. He gets the heat and sass of young women, the despair of the older ones. He presents a coherent picture of a tragic way of life.”
The film’s widespread acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival that year extended to American audiences and critics that summer. Boyz was remembered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences the following February, when Singleton garnered two Oscar nominations: one for Best Original Screenplay and the other for Best Director–becoming the first African-American and the youngest person to be nominated for the latter honor.
His next two films didn’t match the critical and financial success of Boyz — 1993’s Poetic Justice, a surrealistic probe of street violence distinguished by the performance of Janet Jackson and 1994’s Higher Learning, a study of racial polarization in America’s colleges.
Critical acclaim returned with his next film, the 1997 Warner Bros. release Rosewood, but, ironically, the moviegoing audience that made Singleton’s previous efforts popular successes failed to turn out for that film. Those viewers did return, however, for the summer 2000 hit Shaft, a revival of the ’70s Blaxploitation icon, for Paramount Pictures. Between the releases of Boyz and Justice, Singleton helmed the Michael Jackson music video “Remember the Time” in 1992. Singleton returned to South Central Los Angeles ten years after Boyz with 2001’s Baby Boy, from Columbia Pictures. While not an overwhelming box office success, the film garnered Singleton his best reviews since Boyz. He followed that heavy drama with a far different project in 2 Fast 2 Furious, the sequel to the 2001 sleeper hit The Fast and the Furious. Starring Paul Walker and Tyrese, the film was released by Universal Pictures on June 6, 2003 and went on to become a worldwide box office blockbuster and the gritty crime drama Four Brothers, starring Tyrese Gibson and André Benjamin in 2005. He also produced the critically acclaimed indie film Hustle & Flow.
In addition to his own directorial projects, Singleton has developed other projects through his production company, New Deal Entertainment. He served as executive producer on the Daisy V.S. Mayer-directed comedy Woo (1998), starring Jada Pinkett Smith and Tommy Davidson. New Deal’s first independent producing effort, Hustle & Flow, written and directed by Brewer’s following film, Black Snake Moan, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci; Paramount Vantage released the film on March 6, 2007.
Singleton has also appeared in front of the camera, appearing briefly as a mailman in Boyz, a prison guard in Shaft, a bootleg video vendor in Baby Boy, a fireman in John Landis’ Beverly Hills Cop III (1994), and radio DJ “Detroit J” in Mario Van Peebles’s Gettin’ the Man’s Foot Outta Your Baadasssss! (2003).
Singleton received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on August 26, 2003.