Even in today’s Hollywood, when studios, the Academy, and other industry gatekeepers tout diversity and inclusion, it’s difficult to imagine a 23-year-old first-time director getting a chance to make a major semi-autobiographical film about growing up amidst poverty and gang violence. But that’s exactly what John Singleton did in 1991 with Boyz n the Hood, becoming the youngest and first African-American ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar.
Singleton, who died Monday at age 51 after being removed from life support, following a stroke, is rightly recognized as a trailblazer, as the film helped show Hollywood that movies about black characters can achieve critical and commercial success. The movie grossed $57.7 million on a budget of $6.5 million without a huge star. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morris Chestnut were relatively unknown at the time and rapper Ice Cube had never been in a movie before. As Singleton said, Cube’s musical fame as a solo artist and former member of N.W.A. did nothing to help the film get made.
“The studio didn’t have a clue who NWA were,” he told Vice in 2016. “If anything, it was the success of Do the Right Thing two years previous that helped more. Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle had also come out. Those were small measures of success – new black voices coming through. So the studio thought they had to make their own star. So I was sort of made as a filmmaker as a counterpoint to what Spike Lee was doing.”
The heart of the movie’s success, really, is that Singleton tapped into universal feelings about coming of age and the environments that shape you. It’s why he sought out The Breakfast Club director John Hughes to read the script. “Thing is, [Boyz N the Hood] is still a teenage thing. I grew up watching his teenage movies. The folks don’t look like me – but I infused the whole thing with teenage angst,” Singleton told The Guardian in 2016. “This movie is still a very a teenage movie.”
Prior to Boyz, the streets of South Central Los Angeles had only been portrayed in a big film in 1988’s Colors, which starred Sean Penn and Robert Duvall as LAPD officers in the area. While successful, it didn’t nearly portray life in the area as poignantly as Singleton’s film, which was shot on location and had many similarities to his own life with a single father and forging a path out of the cycle of gang violence, poverty, and police brutality to college. Boyz then paved the way for other highly successful, resonant films to come out of the area, like South Central, Menace II Society, and Friday, while Singleton himself would go on to release the Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur romantic drama Poetic Justice in 1993 and Higher Learning in 1995, covering violent racial strife and sexual assault on a college campus.
Following the remake of Shaft in 2000, Singleton went on to helm successes like 2 Fast 2 Furious and Four Brothers and produced 2005’s Hustle and Flow, which earned a Best Actor nomination for Terence Howard and a Best Original Song win for Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” When that movie struggled to find financial backing—executives “couldn’t see past the stereotypes and see the humanity in these characters,” Singleton told The New York Times in 2005—he invested $3 million of his own money to get it made.
That moment is indicative of Singleton’s passion for getting films made by and about black people to wider audiences. In 2018, only 16 of the year’s top 100 movies had black directors and acclaimed movies from previous years, such as 12 Years a Slave and Selma, had difficulty getting studios to finance them. In 2011, before the success of Black Panther, Singleton told Black Enterprise, “I think there is less opportunity now in making big mainstream pictures [for] black filmmakers making films for black audiences. It’s harder for us to get a movie made in that vein because they kind of compartmentalized and made it open for just a few people to make pictures.” He’d later call Hollywood’s state of minority filmmaking “abysmal” and said there was no way a studio would ever back Boyz n the Hood today.
More recently, though, he saw hope in Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther becoming Oscar-nominated box-office hits. As a director who prided himself as a “storyteller that was still accessible to folks,” he particularly loved what Peele did with the former film.
“Even though there’s America and there’s black America, there’s a pluralism in entertainment right now,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “Jordan’s film is not a full black cast, but it’s a black movie and it’s also not a black movie. It’s a piece of popular culture. He can go do a movie with anybody. He can do a movie with a full cast of different types of people. ”
“American film is becoming more and more popular because it’s become more American, it’s become more multi-ethnic. And that’s what I really love,” he told The Daily Mail in 2018 when discussing the idea of minority movies not being successful. “Despite whoever’s behind the camera, they’re making a melange of what the American experience is and that’s what we need. We need more of that.”
He was right then, of course, just as he was right in 1991. Audiences will show up for unique stories and authentic voices, no matter who’s in front of or behind the camera. It’s a lesson Hollywood should have learned after Boyz n the Hood and hopefully, through the efforts of Singleton and the Peeles and Cooglers who’ve followed in his footsteps, one it won’t need to learn again.