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by Jason Frank Koenigsberg

Maverick director John Singleton passed away today at age 51 following complications from a stroke he suffered earlier this month. He was a trailblazer for African-American voices in motion pictures by making films that were meant for African-American audiences and not for the masses. His stories represented realistic slices of African-American lives and their culture and paved the way for other young black filmmakers like Barry Jenkins, Steve McQueen, and Lee Daniels to finance and secure their visions to be told on the big screen. Singelton broke the color barrier for black directors being nominated for Best Director. 

John Singleton was born in Los Angeles and he exploded onto the scene at a very young age with his directorial debut Boyz N the Hood (1991). To this day he holds three Academy Award records all achieved for that film despite the fact Singelton never won an Oscar. One of those records will never be broken since he will always remain the first African-American to be nominated for Best Director. So far no black director has won but five others have been nominated since including most recently his mentor and inspiration Spike Lee for last years Blackkklansman. Singleton is also the youngest filmmaker to ever earn a Best Director and Best Screenplay nomination at 23 when he directed Boyz N the Hood, although he was 24 at the time the nominations were announced. An incredible feat that could be broken someday but has not to this date. 

Boyz N the Hood was the motion picture that broke through into the mainstream and was a historical event in cinema. It succeeded in ways that Spike Lee’s outstanding Do the Right Thing (1989) was unable to do two years prior. It was a hit during the summer of 1991 holding its own up against blockbusters like T2 and Robin Hood. In fact in terms of the producer’s investments Boyz N the Hood was the most financially profitable film of 1991 at the box office making $56 million on a budget of $6.5 million. Critics praised it and both Siskel and Ebert had it very high on their top ten lists of the year. In fact, I placed Boyz N the Hood at #9 on my Best of the 1990’s list. This movie was an insightful look into how people live that was not often seen in major motion pictures. It was also a sharp message movie about increasing peace and attempting to end gang violence and systemic racism. As much as things have improved in the United States since its release in 1991 sadly all of those themes are still very relevant today. It launched the acting careers of Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, and Cuba Gooding, Jr., as well as furthering the now prolific careers of Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett at a time when they were all just up and coming actors. Boyz N the Hood remains one of the finest films and landmark in all of their careers and was recently honored by Congress and selected into the National Film Registry. 

Singelton was never able to top the success he had with his debut film which now seems as if it may have been impossible to ever duplicate considering the style, messages, and themes found in all of his works. After Boyz N the Hood he followed it up with the highly anticipated Poetic Justice (1993) where he continued to look at life in South Central L.A. as he did with his first film, this time through the eyes of a female poet on a road trip to Oakland. It was met with mediocre reviews and middling box office receipts, not the follow up many may have been hoping for after the phenomenal groundbreaking success of Boyz N the Hood. He did continue his trend of casting rap and hip hop artists in major acting roles as he did with Ice Cube in Boyz N the Hood and used Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur in Poetic Justice. Singelton would continue this trend throughout the rest of his career. 

His third film Higher Learning (1995) was also a disappointment on a commercial level and even more so on a critical level. It was an attempt to paint de facto segregation at a diverse university but a lot of the characters came off as racial cliches. It found an audience and certainly has its defenders. His fourth film Rosewood (1997) would also massively underperform at the box office and was largely ignored by critics but I am one of the few loud defenders of Rosewood. A film based on a true story about a horrific lynch mob attack on a predominantly black village in 1923 Florida. One viewing of Rosewood and you will understand why the Great Migration of African-Americans fleeing the South for job opportunities in big cities up North took place during this era of American history. It is an unflinching film about the terror that black families faced just for existing in the South. Rosewood remains a powerful and underrated historical drama with terrific performances from Jon Voight, Ving Rhames, and Don Cheadle. 

In retrospect, it should make sense that Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, and Rosewood all were largely ignored by the masses and critics. These films all contain difficult subject matter and were not meant to be easily consumed by audiences. They are about the harsh realities that black people face or the racial horrors that they used to face. Films about injustice and prejudice are complex themes to tackle and after he managed to succeed so surprisingly with his debut he was never able to harness the same magic that embraced Boyz N the Hood after its release.

After three underperforming films in a row and one a downright flop, John Singleton decided he wanted to try and make a hit for a major studio and so Paramount backed him to direct a remake of the Blacksploitation hit Shaft (1971). Originally meant to star Wesley Snipes in the title role John Singleton chose to cast Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft and his Shaft (2000) was once again a misunderstood picture that underperformed at the box office. It furthered the careers of its supporting cast including Christian Bale, Mekhi Pfeifer, Geoffrey Wright, and music artists turned actors Vanessa Williams and Busta Rhymes. I found Singelton’s Shaft to be a lot of fun and a great action movie of its time. But even though it made back it’s budget it did not earn enough for the studio to greenlight the planned sequel. 

He followed that up with another incredibly personal film that was clearly only intended to be a message for young black men and women with Baby Boy (2001). A story about a grown man who is in his twenties has children from different baby mamas and still womanizes shamelessly as he lives in his mother’s apartment in his childhood bedroom. A film about an African-American manchild who refuses to grow up and the women who enable him despite all of the problems that his lifestyle creates. Baby Boy was a modest hit during the summer of 2001 and launched the acting careers of Tyrese Gibson, Snoop Dogg, and Taraji Henson (the first two of those three names being notable musicians). 

After that Singelton went back to his attempt to make a hit with the highly anticipated first sequel to The Fast and the Furious (2001) with the dubiously titled 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003). It was a medium-sized hit at the summer box office but helped enable the Fast and Furious franchise to become the dominant box office force it is today. It also suffered from losing the star power of Vin Diesel who refused to do the sequel since he thought he was above the fast car movies. Instead, to join Paul Walker, John Singleton brought along his buddy Tyrese Gibson as well as rapper Ludacris and made a blockbuster his way. It may seem like a huge step down that twelve years after his breakout hit Boyz N the Hood John Singleton was making 2 Fast 2 Furious for a big paycheck, but you never know how your career is going to go. 

After that John Singleton would only release two more films theatrically and both were more along the lines of Shaft and 2 Fast 2 Furious as attempts to make hits but still stay true to his style and themes he first explored with Boyz N the Hood. Four Brothers (2005) was a loose remake and urban update of the John Wayne western The Sons of Kate Elder (1965). It told the story of four men trying to avenge the death of the woman who adopted and raised them. It was a star vehicle for Mark Wahlberg and once again gave huge roles to Tyrese Gibson and hip hop star Andre Benjamin aka Andre 3000 from Outkast. Four Brothers was another John Singleton style hit, not a big $100 million blockbuster but earned back its budget and made over $70 million about the same as his Shaft film did and the critics were kind to it, but once again a long way from the reviews he received during his Boyz N the Hood breakthrough. 

His final film before he turned to basically solely working in television was the 2011 Taylor Lautner action flick Abduction. This was the biggest flop of Singelton’s career and died quickly at the box office and curtailed Lautner’s career as a viable leading man after his exposure from the Twilight franchise. The reviews were not any better and were probably the worst critical notices of his career. Sadly Abduction was the last time he directed a theatrical film but found success after he transitioned to producing and directing television episodes for Empire, Billions, American Crime Story, and most recently Snowfall on FX which he served as a writer, director, producer, and showrunner. Snowfall was renewed for its third season and tackles similar subject matter Singelton worked with in Boyz N the Hood about how drugs (mainly crack cocaine) infiltrated and decimated African-American communities in 1980’s Los Angeles. 

It is a real shame that John Singelton passed away so suddenly and so young. Between his untimely death and Luke Perry’s a few months ago at age 52 these strokes are a warning sign about our mortality and that no matter your race or wealth sadly when your time on this world is up there is not much that anyone can do. What makes me particularly sad about John Singleton is that his career never got to rebound and get back on the trajectory it was after his first film was such a knockout hit. The way Spike Lee had such a success with Blackkklansman and finally won an Academy Award after about a ten-year lull in his career, it is a shame that John Singleton will never get that chance. Cinema has changed and is continually changing to honor more faces of color and minorities with representation in movies. Just over the past few years with films like Straight Outta Compton, Moonlight, Get Out, Blackkklansman, and even Green Book it was only a matter of time before someone would have given John Singleton his Blackkklansman moment or his chance to use his sensibilities and crossover into mainstream Hollywood with another successful motion picture that could have brought about a career renaissance for him. He never got his Oscar-winning moment and sadly audiences will never be blessed with another John Singleton film. 

Regardless of what could have been Singleton left his mark on as a pioneer for African-American voices in cinema and etched his place in movie history as the first black man and youngest person to earn a Best Director nomination. He paved the way for other filmmakers of color including his inspiration Mr. Spike Lee. Boyz N the Hood remains an important classic American film and one that will continue to be treasured for decades to come cementing John Singleton’s legacy as a maverick filmmaker. 

Despite most of his work is very serious dramatic fare. John Singleton also directed the multi-million dollar music video for Michael Jackson’s ‘Remember the Time’ during the peak of Jackson’s popularity. He also managed to get superstar Eddie Muphy, NBA star Magic Johnson, and Supermodel Iman to all dress up in Ancient Egyptian garb to appear in the short film. You can watch it below.

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