John Singleton Changed How Hollywood Sees Black America

The Boyz n the Hood director, who died Monday at 51, ushered in a renaissance of black film in the 1990s.

Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP

When the 22-year-old director John Singleton was reportedly offered $100,000 to back away from directing his 1991 feature film, Boyz n the Hood, the newly minted film-school graduate balked in the Columbia Pictures office. “I said, ‘Well, we have to end this meeting right now because I’m doing this movie,’” Singleton recalled in a 2003 documentary about the film, Friendly Fire: Making an Urban Legend. “This is the movie that I was born to make.”

The director, who died Monday afternoon at the age of 51, stunned studio executives and audiences alike with the nuanced drama about a group of young black men growing up in South Central Los Angeles. The film was released in the months following the videotaped beating of Rodney King, and subsequently served a dual function: For many black viewers, Boyz was one of precious few cinematic representations directed by someone with a personal knowledge of—and investment in—the wrenching material on-screen. For others watching, the film was both emotionally gripping and explanatory without being didactic.

Singleton would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for directing in 1992, becoming the first African American—and the youngest person of any race—to receive the distinction, at only 24. “I always feel like I got nominated because Spike [Lee] was passed over for Do the Right Thing,” the director told The Hollywood Reporter last year during a roundtable conversation among the only four African American directors to have been nominated for the award at that point. (Singleton was also nominated for a screenwriting Oscar in 1992, and the prolific Lee would go on to win the Best Adapted Screenplay award at the 2019 Oscars, for BlacKkKlansman.)

But Singleton’s legacy extends far beyond his own honors. The director would go on to make eight more films following Boyz, and ushered in a renaissance of black cinema in the 1990s. After Boyz came Ernest Dickerson’s Juice, Allen and Albert Hughes’s Menace II Society, F. Gary Gray’s Friday and Set It Off, Singleton’s own Poetic Justice, and a host of other now-classic entries in the canon of African American filmmaking. An ongoing series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which celebrates the extent to which “the 1990s witnessed a historic number of films made by African American directors who forever altered what we thought of ‘black aesthetics,’” cites Boyz as the “granddaddy of ’90s hood dramas.”

With Boyz n the Hood, a film that incorporated violence without ever seeming to exploit its characters’ suffering, the decidedly un-grandfatherly Singleton didn’t just put black actors on screen. Like the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, the director lent grace and reverence to the triumphs and pain of black life in America—and especially in South Central. “I didn’t know how we grew up was even interesting enough to be a movie,” the actor and N.W.A. rapper Ice Cube, who played Doughboy in the film, told Vanity Fair in 2016. “But the way John captured it, it was like cinematic beauty.”

The actor Laurence Fishburne, who met Singleton before the director had even graduated from the University of Southern California, similarly marveled at Singleton’s ability to telegraph loss and humanity with boundless compassion. One of the film’s most memorable scenes, for example, sees Doughboy’s beloved USC-bound brother, Ricky (played by Morris Chestnut), killed in a drive-by shooting. “The moment where Ricky realizes he’s about to get shot, everything goes into slow motion, the sound drops out, and he starts running,” Fishburne said in the same Vanity Fair interview. “He is so beautiful and so innocent—and he’s the fucking Goody Two-shoes! He’s not supposed to get killed! I wept when I read the script. I think about my own kids. I think about kids everywhere.”

Singleton took his subjects seriously. The 1997 historical drama Rosewood, for example, depicts the events of the 1923 massacre in which a lynch mob from a neighboring town terrorized the black residents of Rosewood, Florida. Singleton incorporates a fictional character who inspires the town’s residents to fight back against the racist violence—a narrative choice that contributed to the director’s reputation as a somewhat militant auteur. (In his final interview, earlier this month, Singleton laughed at this characterization: “I think I’m a pretty charismatic dude … I just don’t like people trying to subvert my vision of what I’m thinking. I’m kind of a goofball, I’m funny, I’m self-effacing and everything, but I’m very serious about telling the narrative that hasn’t been told before.”)

Boyz n the Hood may be his most acclaimed film, but the director’s later work is no less insightful: See 2001’s Baby Boy and 2005’s Hustle & Flow (the latter of which he produced). Following Singleton’s death, actors who worked with him have emphasized a common refrain: The director had an unmatched commitment to rendering the contours of black life, and the loss of his talent—and heart—is tremendous. “You gave me my first big break in #BabyBoy and again in #HustleandFlow you believed in me when Hollywood did not get me at all!!!” the actor Taraji P. Henson wrote in a dedication to Singleton on Instagram. “Throughout my career when I needed advice it was YOU I called and you answered EACH AND EVERY TIME with sound advice. YOU NOTICED MY FUNNY AND COMEDIC TIMING LOOOONG BEFORE HOLLYWOOD CAUGHT ON.”

To call Singleton a pioneer of black cinema—and of film more broadly—feels like a colossal understatement. The director expanded the realm of possibility for black storytelling with a rare force and vigor. He saw black people. That Singleton remains so peerless is a testament to both his talent and the industry-wide blind spots he spent his career confronting.