No one elevated South Central Los Angeles to the point of universal conversation like the late John Singleton. Filmmakers such as Melvin Van Peebles and Charles Burnett had both set their stories on this terrain previously. But Singleton, with his films, forced the world to take note of an area ravaged by violence and neglect, yet abundant with cultural distinction and richness. The director’s narratives are cinematic bildungsromans, canvases for young black men and women to discover their identities, to shape and come to terms with their inner selves, to fall in and out of love, to fight and reconcile, to evolve. He was our first hip-hop filmmaker, expressing vernacular and urban culture in a way that had not been so uniquely championed until he arrived on the scene in 1991 right out of USC film school.
When considering Singleton’s brilliance and influence, the example used most frequently is his debut feature Boyz n the Hood—and rightfully so. In this semiautobiographical work, Singleton brought attention to the disparities of life in South Central for young black men, a theme captured by one of the film’s most famous lines: “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.” Through Boyz’s central characters, Singleton counters the negative portraits of black masculinity with a celebration of fatherhood and black consciousness.
As powerful as Boyz proved to be—earning Singleton Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay—the wunderkind would stray from this formula for his sophomore project. His 1993 follow-up, Poetic Justice, wasn’t the lightning rod that Boyz was, but it deserves equal consideration when discussing his canon. The film featured the young superstar Janet Jackson in her first starring movie role, playing a hairdresser plagued by grief after witnessing the retaliatory gang killing of her boyfriend. It presents a softer side of South Central and its inhabitants, a movie that the film critic Odie Henderson said “meandered like Éric Rohmer and swore like Richard Pryor.” Poetic Justice debuted after the Rodney King riots, when much of Los Angeles was in disarray and in need of rebuilding. With this in mind, Singleton shifted the narrative focus toward romance, family, and friendship.
Justice was also Singleton’s way of responding to critiques that he had largely diminished the experiences of young black women, namely single mothers, in Boyz, with one-dimensional characterizations. The late media critic and director Jacquie Jones, writing in Cineaste in 1991, said that the women in Boyz were cast “to symbolize the oppressions facing black men, as either barriers or burdens … Here, the female characters have carefully calculated, though secondary, roles which affirm the central theme of their blame and ineptitude.” Jones goes on to say that “as long as the humanity of young black men rests on the dismissal of black women, we, as black people, are not making progress—cinematic or otherwise.”
In creating Justice, Jackson’s character, Singleton had a definite vision. During a 1993 interview with The Washington Post, he revealed that the idea for Justice germinated from his thoughts about the girlfriends left behind once their partners’ lives were claimed by gang violence. In his book, Poetic Justice: Filmmaking South Central Style, Singleton wrote that he asked himself, after dealing with the insecurities of black men in Boyz, “Why not do a movie about a young sister and how all the tribulations of the brothers affect her?” He attributed that inspiration to his observation that “some of the most complex, sexy, diverse, three-dimensional women I’ve ever seen in my life all came out of my neighborhood. They all had a certain mold of substance.” From this vantage point, Singleton fashioned a black woman rarely seen on-screen to sit at the focus of his screenplay.
Singleton was similarly precise in his rendering of Justice’s style—the right image was essential. The box braids she wears were the collaborative choice of the director, Jackson, and two female choreographers he had worked with while directing Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” music video. Singleton also drew inspiration from the works of Italian neorealist filmmakers—most notably Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women, which he used to recreate Sophia Loren’s natural makeup look for Justice.
In a recent Essence essay, the writer Melissa Kimble asserted that Justice’s iconic hairstyle was a character in and of itself, not only marking Justice’s emotional transformation, but also symbolizing the beauty of black women. My cousin Heather, who died at the young age of 34, was a hairdresser as well, and she put serious wear on her Poetic Justice videocassette while braiding, hot ironing, and perming hair in her kitchen. I honestly believe her pursuit of a cosmetology license might have had as much to do with the representation she saw in Justice’s character as it did with her own talent.
I am not suggesting that Singleton successfully answered all of his critics. Michele Wallace, in a 1993 critique in Entertainment Weekly, questioned whether the film had a clear, relatable female perspective, expressing that she hoped the film would “stir further discussion in the black community.” Still, the sincerity and relevance of Justice speaks to Singleton’s ability to tap into a part of the culture in desperate need of visibility. Kimble wrote that for her, the character marks “the first time I’d prominently seen a Black woman onscreen, openly dealing with grief and depression after tragically losing a loved one to violence … Even in the complexity of his subject matter—violence, racism, and poverty—Singleton made space for the resilience of Black women.”
Singleton wasn’t an auteur, so to speak—his visual and screenwriting styles were not flashy or complex. In his view, what was more vital and necessary than style was substance: telling the long-compromised stories of the men and women of South Central Los Angeles through layered characters. “[I am not in it] to right the wrongs of American cinema,” he wrote in his book. “I love movies. Period. Classic structure. Classic characters … I direct to protect my vision … I am a storyteller consummate.”
Poetic Justice’s focus on the trauma and recovery of young black women in urban environments defied traditional expectations of who can be at the center of cinematic narratives. That John Singleton had the tremendous foresight to incorporate these experiences into film is more valuable than any trick of the camera. As the movie critic A. O. Scott wrote in The New York Times earlier this week, comparing Singleton and the Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, “[They] are directors whose primary motivation is their unstinting love for the people they conjure into being.” This is the work that makes for an indelible and long-lasting legacy—one that John Singleton so deftly and richly crafted.