John Singleton’s place in black history

The death of the film writer and director has highlighted that critics and the movie awards establishment have neglected black narratives

John Singleton was about 22 and fresh out of the University of Southern California (USC) film school when he began filming Boyz n the Hood.

It’s a semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age film set in South Central, Los Angeles, in which the protagonist, Tre, is raised by his single parent, Father, in an area riddled with gang violence and poverty. The film earned Singleton an Academy Award nomination, setting a dual record for the youngest and the first black director to earn such a nomination.

Boyz n the Hood premiered 28 years ago, in 1991, a year before the LA Riots. It is a coincidence that cannot be ignored, because the film is imbued with the very issues that would have Los Angeles in flames following the infamous police assault on Rodney King.

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If Nina Simone and Sam Cooke, among other artists, were seen as the voice of their generation and the forerunners of music with a conscience, we could easily identify John Singleton and his contemporaries – Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins and the like – as the political artistic eye of this generation.

Singleton emerged as somewhat of a counterpoint to Spike Lee, who two years prior had created Do The Right Thing, a reflection of the effect of gentrification on Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York. Both directors used their work to bring to the fore the effects capitalism and white supremacy had on black people from one end of the United States to the other.

In Singleton’s work, we see the lived reality of black people laid bare for what it was. Witness that in men like Doughboy, trying to survive in a world designed to kill them but at the same time complicit in that world in the ways they brutalise each other and women (recall the scene in Singleton’s 1993 film, Poetic Justice, in which Chicago punches Iesha). It is evident also in Justice, who uses poetry as an outlet to push back against patriarchy. Singleton did not fail to provide talking points for reflection of our experiences, encouraging self-reflexivity that is as gentle as it is critical.

Casualties of gang violence

That the protagonist in his seminal work, Poetic Justice, is created out of a critique of the flawed representations of black women speaks to the ways the director applied self-reflection. The film – starring Janet Jackson and featuring poetry from legendary poet, actress and activist Maya Angelou – centres on the black woman grappling with loss and depression as aftereffects of the gang violence to which the men close to them fall prey.

This is important as it is often the case that such women are portrayed as an additional hood-rat burden to the systemic burdens of violence, the prison- industrial complex and death that black men have to deal with, as seen in Boyz n the Hood.

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Singleton’s death after a stroke comes almost a month after the murder of Marathon Clothing Store co-founder and rapper Ermias “Nipsey Hussle the Great” Asghedom. Their deaths, of course, were as a result of very different circumstances. But the latter’s tragic and untimely departure is in a lot of ways reminiscent of the stories Singleton brought to light, particularly of the nameless or lesser-known men and women (such as Yetunde Price, the sister of Venus and Serena Williams) who are casualties of gang violence.

The sense of deep despair in response to Nipsey Hussle’s death, outside his own store, is captured on screen 28 years earlier through Ricky’s murder in Boyz n the Hood, just as he is about to start a new chapter as a college student.

The sense of grief over lost potential is just one of the ways Singleton exposed how the inner city was a place where young black people were let down by the US government, which seemingly turned a blind eye to violent crimes in areas like South Central.

Portrayal of blackness

Singleton’s stellar debut provided much-needed balance given the prior release of the film Colors in 1988, starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall as Los Angeles Police Department officers – a story told through the lens of law enforcement and its perception of gangs.

To a great extent, many of the real-life experiences echoed in Singleton’s work speak to Steve Biko’s claim in his writing and further during the famous South African Students’ Organisation trial of 1976 that survival in the hood or, in South Africa’s case, the township is for most nothing short of a miracle.

Perhaps the news of Singleton’s death reverberated around the world because his work was as universal as it was particular. Black people around the world identified with his characters and the stories they portrayed because we could identify it from our intimate understanding of being marginalised. His work was identified in the words articulated by Steve Biko, Frantz Fanon, bell hooks and Pumla Gqola because of the ways an exploitative capitalist system rendered all our realities synonymous.

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But Singleton’s portrayal of blackness wasn’t limited to the big screen. His directorial debut in music video filming was for the Teddy Riley-produced hit Remember the Time by Michael Jackson.

Jackson’s videography is well known for adapting cinematography for the music video. Jackson had previously worked with film directors John Landis and Martin Scorsese for the Thriller and Bad videos, respectively.

For Remember the Time, we see Jackson tell his musical love story against the backdrop of ancient Egypt, in which the queen of one of the oldest black civilisations falls in love with a jester. Who else but Singleton to translate the vision Jackson had of presenting black people as the faces of a civilisation that is often whitewashed?

The star-studded cast included some of the biggest names in entertainment, with Eddie Murphy as Pharaoh, supermodel Iman as the regal Nefertiti and basketball legend Magic Johnson as one of the guards. Through this visual collaboration, Singleton once again succeeded in guiding a narrative rooted in centring blackness. To an extent he used Jackson’s hyper-visibility as the biggest entertainer in the world at the time to display black people in all their historical glory, doing away (though temporarily) with the notion that ancient Egypt had no black people when in fact it was as much a black civilisation as Mapungubwe.

Black narratives

While it is undeniable that Singleton paved the way for later black directors – such as F Gary Gray (Set it Off and Straight Outta Compton), Jenkins (Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk), Jordan Peele (Us and Get Out) and DuVernay (Selma) – it is unfortunate that his contribution and his proving that black stories can sell has not been enough to fast-track diversity in Hollywood.

Regina King broke into Hollywood by portraying Iesha in Poetic Justice, but despite building a solid resume as a stellar actress, won an Academy Award only in 2019. That long wait speaks to how Hollywood insists on rewarding white narratives no matter how mediocre. The same can be said of other actors who brought Singleton’s work to life, from Laurence Fishburne to Angela Bassett, Taraji P Henson and Jenifer Lewis.

The tide may be turning here and there, but it should have long since turned after a young USC alumnus, maverick writer and director proved 28 years ago the value of black people’s stories and the importance of having black writers and directors at the helm of such narratives.

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