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John Singleton: maverick director with a radical edge

Boyz N the Hood sent audiences reeling and marked the start of an uneven career for a writer-director whose films were rooted in lived experience

By Peter Bradshaw | The Guardian | April 30, 209

Hollywood wasn’t ready for John Singleton when he exploded on to the movie scene at the age of 23 – and maybe it’s been unready ever since. When Singleton was nominated for the best director Oscar for his sensational 1991 debut Boyz N the Hood (for which he also wrote the original screenplay), he was the first African American film-maker to have been entered for the category – and the youngest person ever.

He didn’t win. But as Singleton sent audiences reeling out of theatres with Ice Cube’s How to Survive in South Central over the closing credits, it seemed to many that here was a young master, with a compelling film about young men growing up in South Central Los Angeles, something to be compared to Scorsese’s Mean Streets or Fellini’s I Vitelloni. Yet despite the respect and affection for him, despite a strong professional work rate, despite continued creativity and focus – resulting most recently in a new TV crime series Snowfall – Singleton arguably did not have the fully realised directorial career that others had.

Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood.

Imperious debut … Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia

But most other directors couldn’t boast of anything approaching the ferocity of his Boyz N the Hood, a masterpiece that seems to thump, judder and pulse with police helicopter rotor blades, or semiautomatic gunfire, or music in the streets. Cuba Gooding Jr plays Tre; Ice Cube is his troubled friend Doughboy and Morris Chestnut is Doughboy’s brother Ricky. Tyra Ferrell is superb in the role of their mother and Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne play Tre’s estranged parents.

One of the film’s most riveting set pieces is Fishburne’s enraged aria on the subject of gentrification: it points out a property ad billboard to a couple of kids on a street corner and gathers a crowd with his ensuing speech: “I’m talking about the message. What it stands for. It’s called ‘gentrification’. It’s what happens when the property value of a certain area is brought down … They can buy the land at a lower price. Then they move the people out, raise the value and sell it at a profit. What we need to do is we need to keep everything in our neighbourhood, everything, black.”

John Singleton in 1991

Sensation debut … Singleton in 1991. Photograph: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis via Getty Images

Another type of film-maker might have been content to evoke the scary-neighbourhood horror of South Central for ghetto credibility. But Singleton gives it a political analysis. Rarely, if ever, has “gentrification” been attacked so articulately in a movie. And Boyz n the Hood is one of great humanity, heart and idealism; these are the factors that survive the violence.

Singleton’s follow-up, again as writer-director, intrigued and fascinated moviegoers and confirmed his artistic seriousness. Poetic Justice (1993) is a more easy-going, freewheeling romantic drama that attempted to see South Central from a woman’s viewpoint. Justice (Janet Jackson), is a poet (Maya Angelou contributed poems) who falls for a guy played by Tupac Shakur.

Singleton’s next movie completed what was effectively an LA trilogy, and again this writer-director’s high-mindedness and charm were apparent. Higher Learning (1995) was about three young students, one black, two white, at the fictional Columbus University (with resemblances to UCLA), and had earnest thoughts about the relationships between black and white.

After that, Singleton got his radical groove back with Rosewood (1997), starring Ving Rhames and Jon Voight, the true story of a attack against a black community in 1920s Florida. It was a powerful, unflinching film.

Jeffrey Wright and Samuel L Jackson, foreground, Singleton’s 2000 film Shaft.

Jeffrey Wright and Samuel L Jackson, foreground, in Singleton’s 2000 film Shaft. Photograph: Eli Reed/Paramount/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

From here, some of Singleton’s work, although commercially successful, passed me by. His updating of Shaft in 2000 went over reasonably well, but he had apparently succumbed to studio pressure to desexualise the 1970s hero. His coming-of-age drama Baby Boy (2001) was heavy-handed; his 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) was merely competent franchise work; Four Brothers(2005) was a pretty strident reimagining of the western classic The Sons of Katie Elder. Latterly, his 2011 film Abduction was a moderately efficient thriller in which Taylor Lautner discovered his parents were spies.

What endures is the mastery and excitement of the glorious Boyz N the Hood, and the heroic way Singleton strove to build on it, with new themes, approaches and ideas. Poetic Justice, Higher Learning and Rosewood are strong, idealistic movies rooted in Singleton’s lived experience. Singleton had passion, he had stories to tell – and he had true cinematic inspiration.

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