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How John Singleton changed the world with Boyz n the Hood

The groundbreaking filmmaker, who died on April 29, transformed how black lives are portrayed on screen.

FX and Vanity Fair Emmy Celebration - Arrivals
John Singleton at the FX and Vanity Fair Emmy Celebration in September 2017.
Rich Fury/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

When John Singleton snagged two Oscar nominations in 1992 for writing and directing his debut feature Boyz n the Hood, he made history twice over. At 24, he was the youngest nominee in Oscar history. And for the first time in its 64 years, the Academy had finally nominated an African-American filmmaker for Best Director.

But Singleton — who died April 29 at age 51, almost two weeks after suffering a debilitating stroke — was no flash in the pan. And though he rose to early fame, in the 27 years following his historic nominations, the director, writer, and producer went on to do something even more significant: He kept making good movies.

And with his films, he endeavored to do something that was radical in Hollywood then, and still radical in Hollywood now: Telling black stories to America.

Singleton shifted American cinema from the start of his career

A native of South Central Los Angeles, Singleton burst onto the scene with Boyz n the Hood in 1991. The film starred Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Laurence Fishburne, Nia Long, Regina King, Angela Bassett, and Cuba Gooding Jr. in his first major role.

Boyz n the Hood is the story of a group of teenagers in South Central, centering on Tre (Gooding) — whose father (Fishburne) and girlfriend (Long) are keeping him on the straight and narrow — and two of his friends (Cube and Chestnut), who are drawn toward the neighborhood’s gangs.

The idea for the screenplay came from an idea Singleton proposed when applying to film school at USC, and Singleton was still a recent graduate when he got the go-ahead to make it. “I was a smartass film student who thought he knew everything about movies,” he said in 2016. “When it got green-lit is when I got scared.”

John Singelton
Singleton, reflected in a poster for Boyz n the Hood, as he visited an exhibition at the California African American Museum in LA in 2003.
Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Reportedly, Singleton was offered $100,000 by the studio to walk away from directing the film and hand it over to someone more experienced. But he refused. “I wasn’t going to have somebody from Idaho or Encino direct this movie,” he said.

The movie screened in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival and premiered in July, almost a year before the widespread unrest in LA around the Rodney King verdict. It cracked open a way of seeing black life in a place like South Central that would have ripple effects for decades, showing not just family and street life, but the death of a young black man in the midst of a story of promise.

“Singleton showed us how our West Coast cousins were living,” writes the critic Eisa Nefertari Ulen, in the wake of Singleton’s death. “And, in a stunning cinematic montage, he also showed us how they were dying.”

One of the most memorable scenes in Boyz n the Hood comes when Doughboy (played by Ice Cube) looks for coverage of his brother’s death on the news, and discovers it hasn’t even registered as news:

“Turned on the TV this morning,” Doughboy says. “... Either they don’t know...don’t show...or don’t care about what’s goin’ on in the ‘hood.” Young black men die, but it’s not headline fodder.

Doughboy’s statement felt prophetic in the early ‘90s, and still does decades later. And Singleton never backed down from showing black American life in his subsequent work, from 1993’s Poetic Justice (which starred Janet Jackson and Tupac), 1995’s Higher Learning, and 1997’s Rosewood to action films like 2000’s Shaft and 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious. In 1992, he directed the nine-minute music video for Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time,” which was marketed as a “short film” and imagined a story about Jackson (as a magician) and the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti. Chance the Rapper tweeted that the video “literally changed my life.”

More recently, Singleton also directed episodes of the TV shows Empire and Billions, and he was nominated for an award by the Directors Guild of America for helming the episode of FX’s Emmy-winning The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story entitled “The Race Card.” He also developed, wrote, and produced the FX crime drama Snowfall, about the crack epidemic in LA in 1983, which is currently shooting its third season.

Singleton was often critical of Hollywood’s tendency to favor white directors to tell black stories, writing blisteringly in 2013 that “even when there are black directors or writers involved, some of the films made today seem like they’re sifted of soul. It’s as if the studios are saying, ‘We want it black, just not that black.’”

A year later, addressing students at Loyola Marymount University, Singleton said that Hollywood “want[s] black people to be who [Hollywood wants] them to be, as opposed to what they are. The black films now — so-called black films now — they’re great. They’re great films. But they’re just product. They’re not moving the bar forward creatively.”

“When you try to make it homogenized, when you try to make it appeal to everybody, then you don’t have anything that’s special,” he continued.

The outpouring of tributes following news of Singleton’s death has made it clear that he, at least, lived up to his own standard. “John Singleton was an innovator - he came with drive & a creative vision when people of color didn’t have the same visibility we do now,” tweeted Halle Berry. “He not only made me a movie star but made me a filmmaker,” wrote Ice Cube.

And Jordan Peele, a pioneering filmmaker of black stories in his own right, added: “John was a brave artist and a true inspiration. His vision changed everything.”