To say that John Singleton was an influential director would be an understatement. The iconic African American filmmaker was a major name in the industry that helped draw attention to urban life in America in the 90s and early 2000s. Sadly the world said goodbye to Singleton on Monday, April 29 after suffering a stroke days earlier. His death sent shock waves through the entertainment industry as countless tributes to his works and contributions to film began to appear almost immediately. So today I’m going to add my own tribute to the list with the latest In Memoriam and look back as the career and legacy of John Singleton.
Born in Los Angeles to a real estate specialist and a pharmaceutical sales executive, Singleton knew early on he wanted to follow film as a career choice. After graduating Blair High School he moved on to Pasadena City College and eventually graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts where he took part in the school’s Filmic Writing Program. This program was designed to help writers and director prepare specifically for Hollywood careers and proved to be a leg up for Singleton as an aspiring filmmakers. Singleton found himself influenced by films like “Star Wars” and the works of Steven Spielberg and it didn’t take long for his own career to take off as he debuted on the scene with his most iconic picture in 1991, “Boyz n the Hood”.
The inner city drama proved to be a huge success and eventually became an iconic piece of early 90s cinema for its representation of urban life at the time and the impact of gang violence on communities. This film immediately made Singleton a household name and led him to become the first African American director to ever earn a Best Director Oscar nomination and the youngest nominee for the award in history, a record that still stands today. Since his nomination four other black filmmakers have been nominated although none have won the award as of yet. Just over ten years after its release “Boyz in the Hood” was enshrined into the United States Library of Congress and the National Film Registry as a film deemed culturally significant.
Over the course of his career Singleton would direct nine more films from 1993 through 2011 and produced and wrote many more. He continued his success in the early 90s with the classic “Poetic Justice”, “Higher Learning”, and “Rosewood” but the 2000s would provide many of his most iconic works in pop culture since “Boyz in the Hood”. He wrote, produced and directed “Shaft”, a sequel to the 1970s film of the same name, and led the creation of “Baby Boy”, “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Four Brothers”. “Baby Boy” became his final writing credit in 2001 while “Abduction” was his final director credit for a fictional cinematic work in 2011. The final film directed by Singleton is a 2019 documentary celebrating the 25th anniversary of “Poetic Justice”. He also contributed to the 81st Academy Awards in 2009 directing a segment called “The Biggest Movie Event of the Year”. He also dabbled in television programs over the years including directing a “30 for 30” special and episodes of “Empire”, “American Crime Story”, Rebel”, “Billions” and several episodes of “Snowfall” a series he created, produced and wrote for.
Singleton’s personal life away from the camera had its shares of ups and downs. He married once to actress Akosua Gyamama Busia for one year having a daughter with her during that time. Years later in 2017 he was accused of sexual assault by journalist Danielle Young who had interviewed the filmmaker. He was also a harsh critic of Hollywood in general over the years. In 2014 Singleton became one of many African Americans in the business to criticize the lack of diversity in Hollywood. He directly called out popular studios for refusing to let black filmmakers direct black-themed films and made his thoughts known during a speech to students at Loyola Marymount University. His comments claimed that executives want blacks to be portrayed as “what they want them to be.” He did note that many black films (led by white directors) at the time were good, but they were creatively inferior in his eyes. Among Singleton’s most well-known incidents was a 2007 car accident where he struck a jaywalking pedestrian with his vehicle. Singleton remained on the scene until police arrived and was not under the influence, however the victim, Constance Russell, died at the hospital. No charges were ever filed against Singleton in the case.
John Singleton had one hell of a career and was responsible for paving the way for some of the best directors of the last two decades. His story is one of undeniable success as he graduated and immediately found success in the industry with an iconic film and broke barriers as the first black man to earn a Best Director Oscar nomination. Singleton left behind a slew of classics focusing on action and the black and urban life experiences in America and while he might have been critical of the lack of diversity in Hollywood he helped break those barriers and inspire the industry to trust African Americans with their own stories. His legacy will live on through his classic films. To him I say Rest in Peace and thank you for breaking down barriers long overdue.