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Understanding Black Boyz Through the Empathetic Lens of John Singleton

The director aimed his lens to capture what he saw, such as how a black boy desires beauty and love, too, even if, and especially when, he expresses his rage

When I think back on the life and career John Singleton, who died on Monday at the age of 51, I tend to focus on the aspect that spoke most deeply to me: He made powerful films about how black boys become black men. As he explained in an interview at Loyola Marymount University in 2014, “When you try to make [a film] appeal to everybody then you don’t have anything that’s special. Boyz n the Hood wasn’t made for everybody. It was made for a young black audience that buys hip-hop records. But I knew that if I got as universal as possible, it would cross over.”

This universality through specificity of culture was a consistent theme Singleton touched upon in his interviews. Still, in 1991, the year he made Boyz in the Hood, Hollywood wasn’t very interested in telling stories about Black America. At least, not often. And when the studios did, the movies tended to be comedies, or historic dramas that usually only reinforced stereotypes. Singleton’s films, however, wanted to express the truth of life as he knew it. He wanted his audiences to feel Black American life, to empathize with it. Unfortunately, he spent far too much time fighting the studio system to do that often enough. Even though he was nominated for an Oscar for Boyz in the Hood, Hollywood didn’t fully have his back.

Yet Singleton didn’t succumb to bitterness at this realization. He continued to fight, he continued to be honest. He made nine films, as he also made constant efforts to support other filmmakers who are black. He produced indie films, and he tried to educate his industry on its critical failings at how it serves its audience.

For example, in a 2013 guest column for the Hollywood Reporter, Singleton discussed the failure of Hollywood’s imagination when it comes to race in America:

“What Hollywood execs need to realize is that black-themed stories appeal to the mainstream because they are uniquely American. Our story reminds audiences of struggles and triumphs, dreams and aspirations we all share. And it is only by conveying the particulars of African-American life that our narratives become universal. But making black movies without real participation by black filmmakers is tantamount to cooking a pot of gumbo without the ‘roux.’ And if you don’t know offhand what ‘roux’ is, you shouldn’t be making a black film.”

John Singleton definitely had his own recipe for roux.

There’s no doubt that, like others, Singleton often showed urban violence in his films. But he didn’t casually glamorize it, even when he portrayed it in stylized and often melodramatic ways. At a deeper level, he didn’t portray black violence the way Hollywood so often does, and seems to prefer it — as a personal failing of black people. Singleton showed black violence as the natural result of structural racism. He showed the traps and dangers of structural poverty. He aimed his lens to capture what he saw, such as how a black boy desires beauty and love, too, even if, and especially when, he expresses his rage. Singleton showed black men and boys in ways the studios never imagined them to be. You can’t get to Moonlight without John Singleton.

In 1991, when Boyz N the Hood first dropped into America’s consciousness, it was one year before the L.A. Riots burned. Singleton showed America the why of the riots before they ever happened. And yet, people weren’t ready to believe it, even after the fires were lit. Singleton had a vision that was always ahead of his time.

Early in his career, he earned many comparisons to Spike Lee. In some ways, it could be said he was the Spike Lee of South Central. He told similar uncomfortable truths, only filtered through the haze of his childhood neighborhood and set against the palm trees and post-war homes of his L.A. hood rather than amidst the brownstones of Lee’s Brooklyn. For his part, Singleton was quick to credit Lee’s influence and imagined how he could do a similar thing for his hometown.

As Singleton told the audience at LMU, “The galvanizing moment for me was when I saw Do the Right Thing. I saw what Spike did with that picture. I said, I gotta do it for L.A. I gotta come hard with an L.A. movie. […] That’s Boyz N the Hood.”

As much as Lee may have been a direct inspiration for Singleton, to compare the two filmmakers is unfair to both of them. It suggests that their only true peers are fellow black filmmakers. That’s obviously not true at all. Their work stands among the best of their generation. Singleton is the younger filmmaker, the baby brother, if you will, and as such, his work is also more rooted in the 1990s hip-hop generation. And it shows. After all, he was the man who made Ice Cube a movie star.

But it wasn’t just Cube he saw potential in. Singleton’s cinematic universe often featured young black music talents. In his films, you’ll find Janet Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, Yo-Yo and Tone Loc. Long before Will Smith was the biggest action star in the world, Singleton showed Hollywood that the hip-hop stars they generally wrote-off could become huge stars, which they did. Singleton made Hollywood recognize hip-hop for the creative force it is. Or as Singleton said, “I’m trying to make a movie that is as good as a rap album. That was my thing to shoot for at the time.”

But more than helping Three 6 Mafia win an Oscar for Hustle and Flow, which he produced, Singleton needs to be celebrated for how he showed America to see black boys long before they were interested in doing so. He forced the nation to see our humanity, to spy our vulnerability, to understand through the specificity of our blackness the universality of our stories. Singleton showed America its black sons through his loving and supportive lens, and he insisted his audience see what he saw, and that they imaginatively treat black boys who were about to be men with the same level of empathy as James Baldwin urged we deserved. The fact the nation didn’t always know how to truly see the black men and boys that he showed has less to do with Singleton’s talent and more to do with our nation’s stubborn insistence to avoid the ugliness of racism.

It would first take Rodney King, followed by the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, to make the nation’s structural racism and systemic police violence something white people were willing to admit is inarguably happening. Such rampant injustice was still invisible to most white Americans when Singleton made Boyz n the Hood. He even had Ice Cube (as Doughboy) say as much at the end of the film: “I turned on the TV this morning, they had this shit on about… about living in a violent world. Showed all these foreign places… I started thinking, man, either they don’t know, don’t show or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.”

Singleton tried with all his creative might to show America new ways to see what black boys must go through to become men. He showed black boys as flawed heroes, ones armed not only with weapons but with street poetry and allegiances to their hood. He told stories of black boys trying to make sense of a mad world while still keeping their dignity and their tenderness.

While in the latter half of his filmography he became known for concocting thrilling seat-of-your-pants action set pieces for films like 2 Fast 2 Furious, as well as Shaft and Abduction, he was also still capable of making audiences feel the full gravitas of a historical melodrama like Rosewood (which is a criminally underwatched film). But if we focus on the power of his stylistic effect, it vastly oversimplifies and undercuts his work, and it obscures how he could also delicately use poetry to show a black man’s sensitivity as he did with Tupac in Poetic Justice.

Or consider Laurence Fishburne’s performance as Furious Styles in Boyz N the Hood. He wasn’t just a righteous, conservative black dad fighting a war to save his son from a nation that couldn’t give a damn about his boy, he was a vital symbol. Furious Styles stood as an oracle of the ancestors, a source of tough love and caring for all the young black men of his hood and in the film’s audience. He was a needed emblem of trustworthy black wisdom.

To ignore Singleton’s deeper impulses, to focus on the surface of his thematic messages, is to fail to understand why Ice Cube wasn’t just a tragic gangsta. He was a violent street poet who begs the questions: What might he become if he were as valued by society as a Chad or a Becky in Malibu? What could Doughboy do if he were raised anywhere other than a systemically-depressed hood and doomed by economic violence stacked against him and his family?

These weren’t the sort of questions America was prepared to consider in 1991. Three years after Boyz n the Hood debuted, current presidential candidate Joe Biden was in the Senate telling violent stories of his own, portraying young black men as super-predators, as he argued for greater state powers to criminalize black men and boys. Biden’s fear-mongering became his 1994 Crime Bill, a federal law that led to two generations of mass incarceration of black lives. Singleton’s work, in theaters at that same time, was an urgent call for America to see her sons and daughters differently, to empathize with them rather than criminalize them for being black.

A year later in Higher Learning, Singleton importantly showed how a scared, insecure white boy could be drawn to white supremacy, how he gets radicalized by those looking to weaponize his fear and how this dynamic can result in tragic violence, like a school shooting. At the time, America was unprepared to believe what Singleton’s work portended. In fact, Janet Maslin in the New York Times called the film’s climactic violence “histrionic.” “Remy (Michael Rapaport), a white misfit, is picked on by his militant black roommate, Fudge (Ice Cube), until he falls into the clutches of skinhead Aryan supremacists,” she wrote. “These guys, loathsome even by skinhead standards, resort to every stock villainous gesture short of twirling their mustaches.”

Unsurprisingly, late film critic Roger Ebert seemed to be the only one who had any sense of what Singleton was grappling with in his narrative documenting the dire nature of life in America. As he explained, “Fudge sees himself at war with white America, and quizzes Malik [Omar Epps] on whether he would stand during the National Anthem ‘in a football stadium, with 60,000 eyes on you.’ Taryn [Jennifer Connelly] believes men can basically not be trusted. The skinhead envisions race war as a worthy goal, believes the campus is a good place to start and suspects his freshman recruit might be crazy enough to pull a trigger. All of these groups with all of their agendas are headed for a collision. Singleton does a good job of cutting back and forth between many stories; this is not a ‘black movie’ but sees the whole campus population as its subject.”

Ebert correctly seized upon what Singleton was saying and what the following decades have only made abundantly evident. (Notice how Singleton also presaged Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protest against police violence by two decades.) Now the picture is so familiar no one would see it as melodrama or “histrionic” to focus on the explosive hate simmering beneath the surface of American society, especially among angry young white men.

This is the danger in labeling someone as a “black filmmaker” rather than a “filmmaker.” It not only marginalizes them, it also changes expectations of what their film is saying. So while I will always love Singleton for how he made black films about black boys, I would hope that people would call him a filmmaker, one who makes films from a black perspective.

Either way, the underlying theme and soul power of his work, particularly his early South Central L.A. trilogy –– Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice and Higher Learning — can be summed-up with a line from a poem by Singleton’s friend, Tupac:

Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.

John Singleton showed America its black boys not as gangstas but as sidewalk flowers who grew thorns for protection. No different than a rose. His work asked America to see itself in its black citizens, to care about its black boys and to finally know “about what’s going on in the hood.”