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John Singleton Was a Beacon of Authenticity

From ‘Boyz n the Hood,’ which he wrote and directed at age 22, through ‘Poetic Justice’ and ‘Higher Learning’ and beyond, the late filmmaker infused his stories with the richness and depth of black America

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

To be a visionary—to recognize the shape things will take moving forward—is to have an acute grasp of what’s happening in the present. John Singleton, blessed with this sixth sense, was always outspoken about the material situation black people face in America. Singleton died Monday at the age of 51 after suffering a major stroke on April 17. He saw the beauty, nuance, and influence of black people, and made it his life’s work to tell those stories on the biggest possible stage.

“We make up 20 percent of this country, but we make up 95 percent of what’s cool and hip about this country,” Singleton told film critic Barry Norman in 1995. “Every time something comes up that’s like, down and cool, we’re on the hub of it, right? And then the dominant culture gets a hold of it, right, and by that time we’ve moved on.”

Portions of that interview will float around the internet often this week, and it’s far from the first instance of Singleton being frank about the reality that black Americans have long shaped popular culture. The writer, director, and producer was characteristically honest about it following the release of his highly influential debut film, Boyz n the Hood, in 1991.

“Everybody else copies young black men,” he told Rolling Stone. “If I reach them, everything else will fall into place.” Although that sentiment ignores the deep and profound influence of young black women, Singleton sought to reach black people as an audience, a community, and a whole. While black culture has become popular culture, the other edge of that sword is that the masses want access to the good that comes with being black (i.e., the perceived coolness Singleton spoke about) without also carrying the accompanying burden (i.e., the pain and trauma, often inflicted by the masses). Through Boyz n the Hood, Singleton made it impossible to engage the former without facing the harsh reality of the latter. He left it as a chilling parting thought in the film’s final scene.

Singleton, speaking through Ice Cube’s character, Doughboy, was right. America, at large, didn’t know, show, or care about was going on in its forgotten neighborhoods during the post–Gulf War era. So Singleton, all of 22 years old, showed them. He showed them black teenagers trying to outrun the Grim Reaper in pursuit of a better life, and showed them that, for even the most gifted, that outcome is often impossible. In doing so, Singleton became one of the country’s most important filmmakers less than a year after graduating from the University of Southern California.

From the start of his career, Singleton was adamant about telling stories authentically. “A lot of the films that were made prior to Boyz n the Hood that deal with black subjects that weren’t made by black people, it’d be very difficult for those films to get made,” he told Norman in that same ’95 interview. “Mississippi Burning—crap like that. Those condescending movies about other cultures and everything. When those movies come out, and they’re not made by someone who is within that culture, people will just dismiss them.”

Despite writing the script for Boyz n the Hood while he was still an undergrad with only a few Super-8 projects on his résumé, Singleton insisted to Columbia Pictures that only he, a 22-year-old black man from the same South Central Los Angeles his script depicted, could direct a film named after an N.W.A song. “I wasn’t going to have somebody from Idaho or Encino [Los Angeles] direct this movie,” he told The Guardian in 2016, in observation of the film’s 25th anniversary. Singleton was driven to create what he felt was absent: an aggressively realistic coming-of-age tale about black teens. Though widely accepted as one of the preeminent films in the “‘hood cinema” canon, Boyz n the Hood is also a teen movie. “Thing is, [Boyz n the Hood] is still a teenage thing,” Singleton explained to The Guardian. “I grew up watching [John Hughes’s] teenage movies. The folks don’t look like me—but I infused the whole thing with teenage angst.”

The difference, of course, were the dire circumstances Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy faced. After ripping away the safety net waiting beneath most teen-movie protagonists, Singleton showed the world that the only things keeping Tre from becoming Doughboy (and vice versa) are beyond their control. They couldn’t be reduced to binaries; they were three-dimensional characters. For his depiction of kids trying to survive a wasteland, Singleton became the youngest person—and the first African American—to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Boyz n the Hood now resides in the National Film Registry. It shines brightly as Singleton’s greatest accomplishment, and its aim of providing an accurate portrayal of black life opened the general public’s eyes to what was happening in black communities. This became a constant theme in Singleton’s work.

Where Boyz n the Hood paid specific attention to the plight of black boys as they fight to reach manhood, 1993’s Poetic Justice highlighted the issues black women face while examining the discord between them and black men. That Singleton chose for his leads Janet Jackson and 2Pac—two artists with career arcs steeped in resistance—was no coincidence. In her now-infamous 1993 Rolling Stone cover story, Jackson said Singleton told her he wrote the part of Justice with her in mind. In an interview with The Daily Beast earlier this year, Singleton said he cast 2Pac because he needed someone to complement Jackson: “[Ice] Cube didn’t want Poetic Justice. And I knew I had to get a real dude that guys would like and girls would like opposite Janet.” The scope of his films grew as his career progressed.

Higher Learning, released at the beginning of 1995 and just before the start of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, captured the nation’s tension mid-decade. Singleton wasn’t subtle in his use of a college campus as a microcosm for America while focusing on issues that still plague the nation nearly 25 years later: racism, sexual assault, and school shootings. The sharp turn toward neo-Nazism by Remy, played with gaunt awkwardness by Michael Rapaport, is prescient considering the current rise in online radicalization of young white men. Still, Higher Learning was anchored by the story of Omar Epps’s Malik, as he’s enlightened to his place in the world as a black man. Long before Colin Kaepernick sacrificed his career by refusing to stand for the national anthem in protest of systemic racism, Singleton addressed the contentious subject in a pivotal scene.

After spending the early portion of his career examining the state of the world in the present, Singleton dipped into the past to examine racism in America through 1997’s Rosewood. The fictionalized account of 1923’s Rosewood massacre, rooted in white resentment, stands out as one of Singleton’s most powerful and ambitious films, despite its commercial underperformance. In 2000, he merged the past and the present with his Shaft sequel, modernizing a symbol of Black Power. Its follow-up, 2001’s Baby Boy, revisited Boyz n the Hood’s coming-of-age space. For all of its comedic exploration of an immature couple’s chaotic relationship (much of it the result of Tyrese Gibson and Taraji P. Henson’s chemistry), the film underscores how pathological resistance to adulthood often leaves women—black women, specifically—pulling more weight than they should have to.

In a 2001 profile for Vibe, Singleton admitted, after some prodding, that Baby Boy was “loosely” based on his life. The level of care he put into his work was a reflection of the love he had for black people. It came across in the music he chose for his films, the people whose careers he helped kick-start or those he helped evolve, and every detail in his nine-minute, star-studded, ancient Egypt treatment of Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” short. It came across in the clothes he wore. It came across in his love of hip-hop, which he told Rolling Stone he was “a child” of, along with film. “What was a subculture when we were coming up is now pop culture,” he told The Daily Beast in February.

Throughout his career, Singleton excelled as a storyteller because of his connection to those stories. His work communicated the fact, which is often still misunderstood, that black people are not a monolith. His characters felt real because viewers knew them as well as he did. They were flawed because he understood that people are inherently flawed.

We knew John Singleton loved us because he showed us, along with the rest of the world, at every opportunity. For that, we have no choice but to thank him.

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, The Fader, Pitchfork, SB Nation and many more.