Director John Singleton broke new ground with his Boyz ‘N’ the Hood, which launched the career of Cuba Gooding jnr. Now, 10 years later, Singleton returns to the Hood with his Baby Boy, which ironically co-stars Cuba’s younger brother. Paul Fischer sat down one-on-one with Singleton, to ponder on change, Black cinema and what is that is wrong with mainstream Hollywood.
10 years ago, in the not-so-brave-world of Hollywood, a new and audacious young Black filmmaker took Hollywood by storm. At 23, recent USC graduate John Singleton re-defined the direction of Black cinema, and catapulted movie audiences into his world of gang violence and faint optimism. The movie was Boyz ‘n’ the Hood, shot in his own real-life neighbourhood. Now, at age 33, Singleton has returned, bringing to the screen the story of a young Black man afraid of responsibility and the need to leave behind the safety net of his mother, in Baby Boy. A decade on, Singleton ponders the extent to which he has changed. “I think I’m more focused and mature as a filmmaker and definitely more mature as a person”, Singleton explains while nervously fidgeting with his new two-way pager. “I think my approach to creating what I do, as a director, has matured as well.” With Baby Boy, Singleton wanted to make a film that he says realistically portrayed a world which he was familiar, in this story of Jody, an unemployed young man (played by singer Tyrese Gibson), living at home and coping with life, fatherhood and the impact of his own sense of irresponsibility. Singleton describes his central character as being “the flip side of me. He’s me if I’d never left my mother’s house, if I’d gone to jail and if I’d done nothing with my life”. Singleton adds that he knows “a lot of Jodies and it’s more often the norm than not that these guys never leave their homes”.
Born January 6, 1968, in that same South Central L.A. neighbourhood he would later immortalize on celluloid, Singleton was the son of a mortgage broker father and a company sales executive mother. Raised jointly by his divorced parents, he went on to attend the University of Southern California, where he majored in film writing. The director says that while directing, for him, was a realistic aspiration, “it wasn’t something that was shared by my peers, as most everybody wanted to be a basketball player or footballer”. But it was cinema that inspired young John. “All I really knew was film., he recalls. “I used to ditch school and go to the movies all the time. I just grew up in the cinema”. He revelled in the world of cinematic fantasy, “and went to see every adventure or horror film I could find”. An ironic admission given the more naturalistic films we have come to expect from Singleton. “That’s because I’ve basically found my own voice as a filmmaker, and what I do does not fit into a straight genre. I won’t pigeon-hole myself that way, I’m my OWN genre”.
While a student at U.S.C., Singleton won a number of writing awards that led to a deal with the Creative Artists Agency during his sophomore year. At the age of 23, he wrote and directed Boyz ‘N the Hood, a coming-of-age drama that centered on an intelligent 17-year-old’s (Cuba Gooding Jr.) efforts to make it out of his neighborhood alive. Featuring a strong cast that included Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, and Laurence Fishburne, and deft direction that humanized the violence of South Central L.A. rather than sensationalized it, the film was a major critical and commercial triumph. One of the highest-grossing films in history to have been directed by an African American, Boyz ‘n the Hood also made history with its twin Best Screenplay and Best Director Oscar nominations for its young writer/director. In addition to those nominations, Singleton was also honored with the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best First-Time Director.
Singleton followed Boyz ‘N the Hood with Poetic Justice in 1993. Starring Janet Jackson as its heroine, a South Central L.A. hairdresser coping with the shooting death of her boyfriend, the film boasted magnetic performances from its entire cast, which also included rapper Tupac Shakur as Jackson’s love interest. The director followed that film with Higher Learning (1995), also fared rather poorly among critics. A drama about racial, gender, and political conflict on a college campus, it benefited from the performances of its ensemble cast, which included Omar Epps, Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube, and Kristy Swanson.
Ironically, it was Singleton’s most critically appreciated effort since Boyz ‘N the Hood that was virtually ignored by audiences. Rosewood, a powerful drama based on the real-life 1923 massacre and destruction of an African-American town in Florida by whites from a neighboring community, was widely considered Singleton’s strongest film since his directorial debut.
In 2000, Singleton returned with his biggest project to date, a glossy, expensive remake of Shaft. Starring Samuel L. Jackson as its titular, Armani-clad hero, the nephew of original Shaft Richard Roundtree (who had a cameo in the new film), the film earned decidedly mixed reviews but was a summer audience pleaser, putting its director back on the map. It was also a chance, explains the director “for me to just let loose and have some fun, without anyone putting the whole message/filmmaker label on me. It was cool for me because I had a lot of fun making it”. What was NOT cool was the studio’s insistence on cutting out any explicit sex scenes, “because they were afraid of Black actors having sex on film”. Singleton says that if there is a sequel, “Sam [Jackson] and I will insist in our contracts that we can have as much sex as necessary”.
Which is why with Baby Boy Singleton does, in fact, go further. “I really wanted to show these guys doing their thing without any constraints, and I was determined to be honest”. It is this penchant for honesty that drives Singleton to make audacious films, decrying the conservatism that exists within Black cinema in this country. “I think Black cinema has become very conformist and very much Holllywoodised, formulaic and same old, same old. There’s nothing culturally specific about Black film anymore. There’s no AUDACITY in film anymore”. So enter John Singleton. “I can go from making a big Hollywood movie like Shaft, that won’t necessarily be stupid, and then make a FILM like Baby Boy, which is something I REALLY want to do”.
Singleton may not be the sole voice of audacious Black cinema, but he is trying to reach out in a way few filmmakers of his generation attempt to do.