John Singleton, renowned writer, director dies at 51

A giant of black, and L.A., cinema,Singleton’s ‘Boyz N the Hood’ depicted city life few filmmakers had shown before

By Bob Strauss | rstrauss@scng.com @bscritic on Twitter

John Singleton was a Los Angeles original, and he showed us his hometown in ways for which this city of wayward angels should be eternally proud.

The 51-year-old writer-director- producer died Monday after he was taken off life support at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, more than a week after a massive stroke left him unresponsive.

Singleton was a singularly amazing talent.

It’s widely known how Singleton, who attended Rialto’s Eisenhower High School and graduated from Pasadena’s Blair High and the revered USC School of Cinema-Television,made history with his first, self-written feature. The 1991 “Boyz N the Hood” led to him becoming the youngest person (at 24) and first African American nominated for a directing Oscar.

That chronicle of L.A. gangsta life, observed as never before by a young man who grew up adjacent to it during much of his younger days, also started the movie acting careers of N.W.A rapper Ice Cube, this year’s supporting actress Academy Award winner Regina King, and Morris Chestnut — all, like their director, Southern California locals. The movie also kicked into high gear the career of future Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr.

John Singleton, the first African American nominated for a directing Oscar, died Monday after suffering a massive stroke. He was 51. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Singleton gave two other music stars, Janet Jackson and the late Tupac Shakur, their first and most charming film roles, respectively, in his second feature, “Poetic Justice” (1993). He gave L.A.’s Tyra Banks her movie start in his third film, “Higher Learning,” in 1995.

Another music star (and Angeleno), Tyrese Gibson, first proved his movie-acting mettle in Singleton’s hilarious 2001 deflation of urban tough-guy stances, “Baby Boy.” That one also boasted Taraji P. Henson’s first substantial film role.

The list goes on, but it tells you something unique about Singleton: He had an eye for spotting talent that matched his own, and he didn’t care where it came from. That complemented the empathetic quality of his work. That was — arguably more than the shocking aspects and accolades — the thing that made “Boyz N the Hood” such an astounding early statement.

Black life in L.A. had been examined by a handful of earlier filmmakers such as Charles Burnett (“To Sleep with Anger”). And others had joined New York’s Spike Lee in creating the new African American cinema before Singleton came on board.

But something about “Boyz” touched everybody regardless of race or socioeconomic background — a universal humanism that didn’t sacrifice life in the hood specifics, nor water them down for delicate white sensibilities.

It would be wrong to say that, with this one film, Singleton showed the way for black directors of this decade’s mass successes such as “Straight Outta Compton,” “Get Out” and “Black Panther.”

But he did show them it could be done. And with passion, not compromise.

Yes, some might argue that that lack of compromise got a little goofy in Singleton’s subsequent films such as “Justice” and “Baby Boy.”

In retrospect, who cares? They depicted unique aspects of life around here that no one else was bothering to observe.

And I still wonder why Singleton’s fine 1997 historical tragedy “Rosewood” doesn’t have more of a reputation today.

Singleton became more of a director-for-hire after the turn of the century, but he brought his sly humor and street-hardened yet all-embracing sensibility to “2 Fast 2 Furious,” “Four Brothers” and the 2000 remake of “Shaft.”

Recently, his work had been mostly for TV, but I think it’s safe to say that his wide-ranging — and yes, open-hearted even at its angriest — auteurist’s sensibility can be detected in everything he made.

Perhaps as important, his influence on the city that so influenced him is likely to continue long after he’s gone. This came from Singleton’s alma mater late Monday afternoon: “We will forever be grateful for John’s unwavering love of the School of Cinematic Arts and its students,” Elizabeth Daley, dean of what USC calls its film school now, wrote in a news release that also mentioned countless workshops and panels Singleton participated in there. “John brought South Los Angeles into SCA, inspiring other talented filmmakers from the neighborhoods around the school to come through the doors. He bulldozed his way into an industry that was not always welcoming, and did so with projects that reflected his community, his culture, and his passions. He is a giant in our hearts.”

Singleton brought South L.A. to all of his California neighbors — regardless of which part we live in — and the world.

His films enriched our understanding of life here, in all of its sad and silly, dangerous and poetic colors.

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  • Posted On: 4/30/2019 8:32:57 AM
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