Less than two weeks after he suffered a massive stroke, John Singleton died yesterday in Los Angeles at the age of 51.
“John Singleton is a prolific, ground-breaking director,” his family said in a statement, “who changed the game and opened doors in Hollywood, a world that was just a few miles away, yet worlds away, from the neighborhood in which he grew up.”
Singleton made history as the youngest person and first African American ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar for his 1991 hit, Boyz n the Hood, a searing exploration of growing up black, bold, ambitious, and expendable in South Central LA.
Boyz inspired a lot of imitators in the years following its release, but Singleton was unmatched in his ability to craft a story that told a very specific truth.
“If you see the films I make and if they are in an urban setting, I basically have an agenda to not only entertain, but for you to feel something and to say something. Because this is where I’m from, you know what I mean?” he told talk show host Tavis Smiley in 2002. “I’m making you feel something for this environment. I’m not exploiting it.”
Singleton went on to a long career in film and television. While many people know and love him for introducing them to a 22-year-old Tupac Shakur, who starred alongside Janet Jackson in the 1993 film Poetic Justice, it was one of his lesser-known films that first came to mind when I heard he’d passed.
Rosewood was a 1997 historical drama, set about as far away from the ‘hood as you could get. It’s a lightly fictionalized account of the Rosewood massacre, a 1923 race riot that destroyed a semi-affluent black community in a rural Florida county. The precipitating event was the alleged rape of a white woman by a black “drifter” – the community attempted to defend themselves after several black neighbors were lynched by a mob. As many as 150 black people may have been killed. No one was held accountable at the time, but in 1993, the state of Florida became the first state to offer monetary reparations to the survivors and their descendants.
As you can imagine, the film is difficult to watch in parts, though Singleton does a masterful job bringing all the characters to life, including the ones who commit vile acts. (You will see parts of Jon Voight you ain’t ever seen before, I promise.)
But as a slice of history, the film offers an intimate look at how people learned to thrive despite caste tensions and Jim Crow barriers, and how quickly those tensions could ignite to destroy everything in its path.
It is only one of the many true American stories that made Singleton’s South Central possible.
Though the film didn’t deliver at the box office, it was a critical success.
Writing for the New York Times, critic Stanley Crouch called the sweeping ensemble piece “Mr. Singleton’s finest work.”
“On an epic scale, it moved the Afro-American experience into the kinds of mythic arenas in which John Ford cast his work, where the real and the mythological stood together, where authenticity and poetic exaggeration reinforced each other, where real characters and archetypes spoke to one another and worked together.”
It’s a good addition to any Singleton-themed viewing party you may be planning.
In his last interview before he died, the director reflected on his own reputation in the industry. He seemed to enjoy the question.
“Part of my reputation that I don’t like is that I’m some, like, black militant guy, really serious and I don’t like white people,” he said, laughing. “And it’s just like, 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.”
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