Through film, John Singleton preserved the reality and beauty of black American life
Films like ‘Boyz n the Hood,’ ‘Poetic Justice’ and ‘Higher Learning’ were gateways to real black stories when white Hollywood wasn’t checking for us.
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While still stunned by the untimely death of John Singleton at the age of 51, the world is forced to look back at his greatest work when it seemed like he had so many more important stories brewing inside of him. The filmmaker temporarily left the director’s chair for the season three filming of his FX series “Snowfall” — a series chronicling the effects of the crack epidemic in mid ’80s L.A. — to take on a feature film about Emmett Till starring Taraji P. Henson. It was this kind of commitment to black legacy that made Singleton a remembered, and necessary, figure in black culture.
Each decade since the early ’90s, Singleton left us with his own time capsules of black history by giving us cinematic evidence of the black experience throughout different eras. Sadly, we can’t talk about being black in America without mentioning the racist ills of the modern century. But, Singleton carved out a niche to remind us that we are more than just our pain. We watched Tre from Boyz n The Hood drown out noisy peer pressure and forge his own path. We saw Justice and Lucky process grief, and dig their way out of depression in Poetic Justice. No matter how many times we ladies roll our eyes in memory of a similar fuck boy, we’ll never grow tired of watching Jody stumble through his immature ways to become a man in Baby Boy. These raw and relatable films accurately used the harsh realities of the times — police brutality, mass incarceration, gentrification and everything in between — as a backdrop. Unlike major motion pictures that sought to stereotype us, Singleton humanized us. He also created black icons. We first fell in love with stars like Nia Long, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Taraji P. Henson because Singleton’s scripts allowed black actors to show the full depth of their talents, as they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.
These stories mean so much to me and many other black millennials because they served as the soundtrack to our coming of age: losing your virginity, getting over your first heartbreak, having your ass handed to you by your mama, getting up out of the hood. They were told honestly and without a whitewashed agenda attached. Perhaps that’s why I take comfort in knowing that Singleton wasn’t afraid to call bullshit when Hollywood started patting itself on the back for its newfound fascination with diversity. While speaking to a group of students at Loyola Marymount a few years ago, he bluntly called out the industry’s surface level obsession with inclusion. “They want black people to be who they want them to be, as opposed to what they are,” he said. “The black films now — so-called black films now — they’re great. They’re great films. But, they’re just product.”
Looking back, Singleton gave us more than product. He showed us that being black in America is unfair, but it’s also beautiful. You didn’t need to be from South Central L.A. for that beauty and that pain to resonate with you, either. Singleton was able to masterfully tap into the universal feeling of trying to thrive against all odds, and it paid off tenfold. His films weren’t only successful commercially (according to Fortune, Boyz n the Hood grossed $57.7 million on a budget of $6.5 million and without a household name as star), but they birthed scenes, catchphrases and idioms that have proved to be mainstays in black culture.
At a time when Hollywood had little to no interest in black movies, Singleton blazed a trail, giving us timeless black classics to hold on to. Best of all, he did it while being — as Lena Waithe eloquently put it — “black as he wanted to be.” If anything, let Singleton’s legacy be a reminder that we never have to trade authenticity for profit, and there’s always a way to make sure the black American footprint gets its rightful place in the vault of time.
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