Nationality: American. Born: John Daniel Singleton in Los Angeles, California, 6 January 1968. Education: Graduated from University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, 1990. Family: Married Akosua Busia (an actress), 12 October 1994 (divorced, 15 June 1997); children: one daughter, Hadar. Career: Director and writer; directed Michael Jackson's video "Remember the Time," 1992. Awards: Jack Nicholson Award (twice) and Robert Riskin Writing Award, University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television; New Generation Award, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, 1991; New York Film Critics Circle Award for best new director, 1991, and MTV Movie Award for best new filmmaker, 1992, both for Boyz N the Hood; ShoWest Award for screenwriter of the year, and Special Award for directorial debut of the year, ShoWest
Films as Director:
Boyz N the Hood ( Boys in the Hood ) (+ sc, ro as mailman)
Poetic Justice (+ sc, pr)
Higher Learning (+ sc, pr)
Shaft (+ ro as bored cop with coffee cup)
Beverly Hills Cop III (Landis) (ro as fireman)
Your Studio and You (Parker) (ro as himself)
Woo (exec pr)
By SINGLETON: book—
With Veronica Chambers, Poetic Justice: Film-Making South Central Style , New York, 1993.
By SINGLETON: articles—
"Introduction," in Like Judgment Day: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood , by Michael D'Orso, New York, 1996.
"Look Who's Talking" (interview), in Interview (New York), June 1996.
On SINGLETON: articles—
Essay in Karl Schanzer and Thomas Lee Wright, American Screenwriters , New York, 1993.
Greene, R., "Higher Ground," in Boxoffice (Chicago), vol. 131, January 1995.
Dauphin, G., "Ashes and Embers," in Village Voice (New York), 21 May 1996.
Stevens, J., "John Singleton," in DGA (Los Angeles), vol. 21, no. 5–6, 1996–1997.
"The Complicated Men," in Vanity Fair , April 2000.
* * *
John Singleton, who grew up on the fringes of the black ghetto in South Central Los Angeles, graduated from the prestigious film school at the University of Southern California to begin his career at an interesting moment in Hollywood history. For the early 1990s witnessed, albeit on a small scale, a revisionist revival of the blaxploitation movement that had so energized Hollywood cinema in the 1970s with its anti-establishment celebration of African-American ghetto culture. Blaxploitation classics such as Superfly , The Mack , and Coffy had sometimes glorified the drug dealing, organized crime, and sexual promiscuity they ostensibly condemned, thereby providing a weak critique at best of a dysfunctional culture in the process of being destroyed by middle-class flight, decaying municipal infrastructures, and systemic racism. The spectacularly successful New Jack City , a 1991 film directed by Mario Van Peebles, can be similarly faulted for an exploitative political rhetoric. It is hardly remarkable, therefore, that the four-wall exhibition of New Jack City proved dangerous for theatergoers and theater owners alike. Gang-bangers in attendance reaffirmed their commitment to the lawless lifestyle appealingly depicted on the screen by, in part, shooting up the place and each other.
Violence also greeted the initial screenings of John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood , but this 23-year-old wunderkind had not authored and directed a film that could be blamed for anything more than depicting, accurately and movingly, the coming to manhood of a group of young black men in South Central. Gang life, and the endemic violence and police reaction it fosters, is hardly romanticized in the film, but pointlessly destroys the lives of some. Tre Styles is the exception to this iron rule. He is the only one of the homeboys lucky enough to benefit from a father's correction and instruction. With his father's example providing an alternative, Tre chooses to save himself by refusing to go along on a vengeance-prompted drive-by. Like his girlfriend, brought up strictly by a respectable Catholic family, Tre escapes the 'hood for the blessings of a college education. Thus, the film's ideological center is Tre's father, the aptly named Furious Styles, who advocates a rigorous program of self-improvement and self-control (occasionally tinged by Farrakhanesque paranoia) for both his son and community.
Didactic and overly conventional at times, Boyz N the Hood offers more than a political program. The film is also a portrait in depth, both loving and critical, of a community in crisis, where almost no one prospers and where the line between the good and the bad is almost impossible to draw. A self-made entrepreneur who makes the most of his hard work, Furious Styles bequeaths to his son—and the film's audience—hope for the future that depends on individual effort rather than institutional reform. It is notable in this regard that Tre's future looks positive precisely because he has left behind the dangerous South Central neighborhood where he grows up. With this film, John Singleton established himself as a filmmaker with commitment as well as cinematic talent. Like Spike Lee's Crooklyn , Boyz N the Hood adroitly negotiates between commercial demands for engaging melodrama and the director's desire to deliver a timely message. It was certainly an auspicious debut.
None of Singleton's next three films has met this very high standard of accomplishment. Poetic Justice is more or less a Janet Jackson vehicle, with the popular singer playing a homegirl from South Central who takes to the road in an attempt to assuage the pain of a broken heart and escape the violence of her neighborhood. In this instance, Singleton's script suffers from a lack of direction and narrative energy; the result is somewhat unaffecting soap opera with the beautician heroine, who also writes poetry, hooking up with a mailman and his daughter after the tragic killing of her boyfriend. The story finds little of interest to do with the characters-driven-together-by-fortune structure that it initially develops. Higher Learning , also scripted by the director, suffers from similar problems. It treats racial and gender tensions at the mythical Columbus U., which is proposed as a metonymy for American society. Unfortunately, Singleton's screenplay creates characters who are neither particularly plausible nor attractive, and the narrative in which they are plunged is needlessly fragmented and uninvolving. As in Boyz , Singleton puts an African-American father figure at the ideological center of the story, though this character, a rather aloof and prissy professor of political science, has no real depth. In Rosewood , Singleton wisely secured the services of a competent screenwriter, Gregory Poirier. But this at times exciting and moving re-creation of an historical event, an anti-black pogrom in a 1920s Florida small town, still suffers from structural problems: too many main characters; too much time and energy devoted to setting up the central actions the film will treat; too much of an emphasis on emotions handled with the predictable sentimentality of soap opera. In this film, Singleton shows flashes of directorial brilliance, and it is undoubtedly an improvement on its two immediate pedecessors. Unfortunately, Rosewood demonstrates that as the 1990s ended Singleton had still proven unable to move effectively beyond the authentic recreations of his adolescent experience that made Boyz such a critical and popular success.
—R. Barton Palmer