Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Thank You, Filmmaker John Singleton

He was a gift. He was an artist who gave dignity onscreen to South Central L.A. He first did that in his groundbreaking 1991 drama, Boyz N The Hood. Based on his life experiences as a youth in South Central L.A., he made history with his film. He was a graduate of USC. He didn't attend graduate film school. Instead, he charged right into the filmmaking business directing his own film based on his own screenplay. Hollywood offered him $100,000 to walk away from the project and let a more experienced male direct it. Singleton did not walk away. He made his film, his film made money and it got a 20-minute ovation at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. For Boyz N The Hood, John Singleton became the first African American to be an Oscar nominee for Best Director. At age 24, he also made history as the youngest person in Oscar history to be a nominee for Best Director.
He grew up in South Central L.A. So did I. We were of different generations. I'm a product of a previous one. My happiest family outings were when we got into our green Plymouth and went to the drive-in movies. I remember the Century Drive-In in Inglewood when it had a standard sized screen. Then it close for a while and re-opened with a Cinerama screen. We saw movies like Wyler's THE BIG COUNTRY, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in McCLINTOCK! and PATTON starring George C. Scott there.  Young John Singleton could see the Century Drive-In screen from his family's apartment. By then, features had gone from A to B and C quality movies, but they were still movies.

When I was growing up in South Central L.A., after I graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and when I got my first professional broadcast job (thanks to a tip and a great recommendation from my Film Journalism professor) radio, TV and Film and millions of audience members had mainly two images of South Central Los Angeles -- the Watts Riots of the 1960s and the NBC sitcom, SANFORD & SON, which focused on characters in South Central L.A.

Based on images projected on TV and film, you would not have known our community was full of people who were passionate about the arts, spent a lot of time in libraries, went to see good quality films and dreamed of making good quality films. This angered me. There was more to my community than what people were seeing.
I was working in New York City when Boyz N The Hood opened. I went with a buddy to see it during its opening week. The Manhattan theater was packed. The crowd was attentive. The film moved me to such an extent that I could feel my skin tingling. It was the kind of joy you'd expect to feel in church when hearing of a miracle. On the big screen, I was seeing streets that I knew. Streets I'd walked on and rode down with my parents to go to church, the supermarket, the movies, to visit my grandmother and my cousin and to see friends. I was seeing the neighborhoods of my youth, the community and people in my hometown be reflected onscreen with dignity and humanity and truth. He represented us with characters who had dimension. He showed the extraordinary qualities of ordinary people in South Central L.A. The characters were of a different, younger generation but I saw some of my dad in the dad Laurence Fishburne played and some of my mom in the mom Angela Bassett played. Singleton's excellent story was one I understood. I felt proud, privileged and blessed to be in that audience. Boyz N The Hood is a masterpiece. In my opinion, you can place it on the same shelf with Trauffaut's THE 400 BLOWS and De Sica's BICYCLE THIEVES.
John Singleton changed Hollywood stereotypes. He changed Hollywood's image of what Black artists could do in films. He understood that representation matters. With a few feature films, he opened the door much wider so that future artists could enter.  No Black person in TV and/or Film has an easy go of it -- no matter if that person projects a breezy on-air image or not. The off-camera playing field is not level. We often have to work twice as hard to make half as much as white talent, to get equal opportunities and to present ourselves in a dignified light. Young Steven Spielberg loved film. He was in his late teens, sat on a tram for a Hollywood studio tour, got off the tram and hid in a men's room. Then, reportedly, talked himself into the studio offices and into a job at Universal. At age 23, Spielberg was directing veteran Hollywood star Joan Crawford in a prime time network TV production for Universal.  A Black or Latino teen could not do the same thing, sneaking off a Hollywood studio tour bus and into some studio offices to land a job. Security would've been on a Black or Latino teen in a heartbeat.  Singleton, without equal opportunities and early support, steadied his vision. It was unblinking. He did not hand over the directorial duties to someone else. He told his stories with his voice.

When I was a kid, folks at that time were watching SANFORD & SON, as I mentioned. Today, I feel that John Singleton's work opened the door for a sitcom such as BLACK-ISH and for some of the grittier topics that sitcom handles. Laurence Fishburne, the father in Boyz N The Hood, plays the grandfather on BLACK-ISH. He's also an executive producer of the show.  Singleton doesn't leave behind a long list of feature films he directed, not like Spike Lee, Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino. But the films he did direct are significant. And look at the talent in them -- Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Tupac Shakur, Samuel L. Jackson, Regina King, Taraji P. Henson, Mo'Nique, Cuba Gooding Jr., Janet Jackson and Maya Angelou. John Singleton was a trailblazer who opened the door for African American directors Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Dee Rees and F. Gary Gray.

BOYZ N THE HOOD, POETIC JUSTICE, BABY BOY and the under-appreciated historical drama, ROSEWOOD. John Singleton, at 51, died way too soon. But look at the new ground he broke as a director, screenwriter and a film/TV producer. He lifted us higher and into the light. He gave us a masterpiece of a film in his directorial debut. That is his shining legacy. Let us honor it. Thank you, John Singleton.

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