John Singleton’s storytelling legacy will live on for generations to come
As the first black filmmaker nominated for best director at the Oscars, Singleton helped pave the way in Hollywood
Perhaps John Singleton’s biggest contribution to popular culture isn’t the gripping, relatable portrait that is his 1991 instant classic Boyz n the Hood. It’s that he introduced so many talented players to the Hollywood cinema landscape — both on camera and behind the scenes.
That film, in all its glory, was a first for so many significant voices in this industry. It was Ice Cube’s first film. Regina King’s first film. Morris Chestnut’s first film. It gave Angela Bassett and Cuba Gooding Jr. their first major film roles. And, as Singleton excitedly quipped before giving a pound to a nearby friend as he watched the 2019 Academy Awards telecast from the Dolby Theatre bar earlier this year, it was Peter Ramsey’s first. When Ramsey, who collected an Oscar for Spider–Man: Into the Spider–Verse, stood up onstage to accept his accolade, Singleton rushed to the TV monitor and quieted most of the people around him (celebrities included) and hooted and hollered at the appropriate moments. It was the second time that night that someone from Boyz got up on Hollywood’s biggest stage (King picked up the first award of the night for her work in If Beale Street Could Talk) and collected the town’s most beloved token.
He was a proud papa that night, as he should have been.
Since his own nomination at the 1992 Academy Awards, Singleton has been a constant presence at Hollywood’s big to-do. At 24 years old, his dynamic portrayal of South Central Los Angeles — and, if we’re being honest here, Any ‘Hood USA — was rightly acknowledged. He didn’t walk away with a win that night all those years ago, but he walked away with something much bigger: an important voice as a storyteller and a person who accurately portrayed familiar situations that were at times, yes, tragic — like young Ricky Baker, who was moments away from landing a football scholarship to better his family when he was senselessly gunned down.
Moments like those, and the talent, were epic.
Sadly, this year would be his last Academy Awards ceremony. On Monday, Singleton died at 51 after suffering a major stroke, the family said in a statement according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Yes, his legacy will live on — for generations to come. The gifts that he leaves behind are rich. Singleton, at 24, was the first black filmmaker nominated for the best director Oscar and the youngest. He paved a way. Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele and Spike Lee have since been nominated.
A win for best director by a black person has yet to happen.
But the loss didn’t deter Singleton one bit. He wrote and directed 1993’s Poetic Justice, the iconic pairing of Janet Jackson and rapper Tupac Shakur (which also gave King a co-starring role). The 1995 movie Higher Learning rounded out back-to-back films, this one putting Ice Cube (who was beginning to break out big post-Boyz) on a college campus with King, Tyra Banks, Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Laurence Fishburne and Michael Rapaport, among others, and highlighted clashes, date rape, racism and the student-athlete struggle.
Singleton’s train didn’t slow down.
He also directed films Rosewood (1997); Shaft (2000); Baby Boy (2001), which introduced us to Tyrese Gibson and Taraji P. Henson; 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003); and Four Brothers (2005).
And as much as Singleton has done, it felt like he was only just beginning.
This was not the way Singleton’s story was supposed to end. Most recently, the creator threw us back to 1983, where he homed in on how the crack epidemic has culturally impacted Los Angeles with his most excellent series for FX, Snowfall, which was renewed just last year for a third season.
Singleton had more to give. And he — like Gooding, King, Ramsey, Bassett and Henson, now all Oscar winners or Oscar-nominated actors to whom he helped give a leg up — deserved more time to put out a project that allowed him to get up on that big stage, thank the appropriate people and take a bow.
At times like these, we often kick ourselves for not handing out flowers to people who deserved them. Certainly, the Hollywood voting body failed Singleton, considering his contributions beyond just the culture. His cinematic landscapes have been plentiful, layered and, in many cases, excellent. But perhaps he was OK with where his impact really mattered: in having a vote to cast for the past 27 years — long before April Reign’s viral #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which opened the door for other people of color to have a say in what Hollywood’s best work should be — and in having that sharp eye for good and, yes, black talent.
And truthfully, considering how excited he was as we high-fived one another in the little room off the lobby — the place where for the past 12 or so years I’d get up out of my seat and gather to watch the Oscars and would see him there every year as well; and as Ramsey’s name was called, I reminded him that a win for King (his former USC classmate) and Ramsey and all the others he helped to hone also was a win for him — I think he got it.