This month, we reflect on another artist gone too soon. Stories left untold, unseen, unheard, unimagined. Unfelt. He was only 51 years old, so imagine how much Art an artist the caliber of John Singleton had still to contribute. It hurts to think of what he still had to share with us. On this day, we can at least reflect on the work he has left behind.
In 1991, Singleton’s drama Boyz n the Hood was introduced to America in his own voice, from his own experiences in South Central LA. He was a kid when he shared the idea for the screenplay on his USC film-writing program application, was arguably still a kid when he wrote and directed it. At the age of only 23, he saw his own story come to life on the screen to both critical and audience acclaim.
It’s no exaggeration that black filmmakers still weren’t getting their due (or opportunities) in the early 90s when Boyz n the Hood was released. Spike Lee’s impactful Do the Right Thing had only been released a few years earlier, in 1989, to critical acclaim. When John Singleton was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director for his work on Boyz n the Hood, he was the first African American to ever be nominated for the award. In 63 years of Best Director nominations, he was the first (and the youngest).
What John Singleton did was remarkable. Boyz n the Hood was his story to tell, and one to which many audiences could not relate. But instead of maintaining that separation, he connected. Through connection, he provided us with the gift of empathy, of understanding. His film’s successes motivated studios to think about diversity, inspired a generation of filmmakers, and promoted changes that are really only being fully realized now. Change has been so slow in coming that Singleton himself did not even get to fully take advantage of his well-earned success. Still, the legacy of work he left us, from Boyz n the Hood to Poetic Justice to Rosewood and many others, is a legacy worthy of celebration and respect.
In memory of John Singleton, we shared our personal thoughts on Boyz n the Hood below. Please join us in remembering.
Boyz n the Hood, 1991
In memory of John Singleton, 1968-2019
Aaron: I’ll be honest and shamefully admit that I did not see this movie when it first came out because it just didn’t appear to be anything that I could relate to in any way whatsoever. But, in college, I took a course called “Character-Centered Screenplays” and this was one of the first films they showed us. I was pretty well blown away by this movie, and was sort of upset at myself for being so close-minded to different experiences before that I had never given this film a proper chance. This movie really was something special. Over the Christmas break, I went to visit my sister and her boyfriend (who is African-American) and watched this film for the second time as they had not seen it yet (Incidentally, we also watched Do the Right Thing, another gem I discovered in that class). The conversation that ensued afterwards with my sister and my (now) brother-in-law was one of the first real conversations about race I had ever had. The shared experience of this movie– a film he could sympathize with, while I could only empathize– opened a door for me and him to talk openly about the differences in our race. He answered questions for me that I had not quite ever had the nerve to ask. He explained, patiently and compassionately, the differences between active and passive racism, and gave me a better understanding of how often I was an accidental perpetrator of the latter. He and I became very close that evening, understood each other a lot better. I’m not sure we could have had that as early in their relationship as we did without Boyz n the Hood.
Karen: I didn’t see the movie until VHS, probably in 1992. I remember its impact on me so much that the memory of watching it is fused to exact details of my surroundings: my friend’s living room carpet texture and color, bay window, angle of light, TV hutch, hallway leading out of the room. I only knew South Central LA from rap, and even then, I didn’t really know. How could I? I grew up in a sheltered childhood in a Mayberry-esque small town in Illinois. There’s no way I could ever relate. But therein lies the beauty of a film like Boyz n the Hood. Films which masterfully connect their audience to the subject matter allow for some level of understanding. And that is what I felt. On some level, understanding. Empathy. Anger. Sadness. Changed in some small way, and I carry that with me.
Greg: This one hit me, and hit me hard. Seeing it, I mean. We’ll get to the creator’s passing in a minute. As y’all know, I (we) grew up in a town that was closed off to what went on in the world on the other side of those corn fields. In fact, there wasn’t much world to speak of outside our school, our coffee shop, our Main Street, our boulevard, our football games, our Rock’n’Roll McDonald’s, our local grocery store, our two VHS video stores, our hardware store, our radio station, our soybean processing plant, our parents, our chores, homework, and our ignorance. When I saw this movie, I thought to myself, “No way. This isn’t true.” Then I started paying more attention to the news in my adolescence to realize that yes, in fact, it was. “Home is where everyone feels safest,” I believed. Until I realized how lucky I was. I never fully realized how closed my eyes were to “the rest of the world” until I really started getting into movies during my adolescence, and realizing that many of them were trying to prove a point or convey an important message. I’m not now, nor was I then, ever naive enough to believe that what I saw in the movies and on TV is (was) true, but I feel like I’ve definitely been curious enough to try and learn more about what I see and hear in the media and on TV and on the big screen to do my own homework and figure out the syntax between the lines of what I am and have always been fed when I flip that knob on the box to ON. Boyz n the Hood hit me hard, fast, and forever. In the early 90’s, I didn’t have to look too far in the news to decide that this movie was not an exaggeration or a dramatization as much as it was a depiction of a day in the life of people far way from the safety of the cornfields, grocery stores, schools, and brick roads of Central Illinois. The film made me angry and sad at once. But, more importantly, it alerted me to a world, a world full of problems, that existed outside the sanctity of my own little village. And when John passed the other day, I was instantly transported to a time when my ignorance (innocence) was in full force, only to replaced by a much more important, and mature, awareness. Movies like Singleton’s are the ones I cherish the most. Not for their bleak morbidity. But for their eye-popping honesty and sledgehammer-to-the-face wake up call they offer audiences willing to step outside the confines of their own safe havens.