It was nearly three decades ago when writer-director John Singleton’s freshman film “Boyz N the Hood” gave us a compassionate and deeply human story about growing up black and ambitious with a life that is sadly expendable — long before Black Lives Matter rewrote that narrative. He earned not one but two Academy Award nominations for helming the movie and penning the script. Though he didn’t win, “Boyz N the Hood” is still talked about as one of the best and most tragically honest films about young black men, cementing its place in cinematic history and in the hearts of audiences across the globe.
Black humanity was Singleton’s signature, as he went from a story about young black men in the hood to a 1993’s “Poetic Justice,” a moving romantic tale about the relationship between two lyrical underdogs — Justice (Janet Jackson) and Lucky (Tupac Shakur) — who come together through tragedy and a shared perseverance to rise above it. Though not a perfect film, it became an instant cult classic for highlighting young black love. “Poetic Justice” also earned acclaim for its use of poems penned by the late icon Maya Angelou (who also has a role in the film) — recited and written by Justice in the film — to underscore the talent and heartbreak of a generation that had for too long been marginalized on screen.
Singleton, who died Monday at age 51, later turned his sights to black students on campus that are not much older than his protagonists in “Boyz N the Hood” in 1995’s “Higher Learning.” This third film, released just four years after his debut feature, packed a lot of important themes, including systemic racism, neo-Nazism, sexuality and rape culture confronted by politically conscious young black and white people in an academic space. As with his two prior films, Singleton was also great about giving up-and-coming black actors a platform, including Tyra Banks in her big screen debut as straight-A student Deja, who tutors protagonist Malik (Omar Epps) before becoming his love interest.
While the filmmaker continued to push against the status quo in movies like 1997’s “Rosewood” and 2001’s “Baby Boy,” which has become another beloved classic, he’s also responsible for reviving the Baddest Mutha Shut Yo Mouth, John Shaft (originally played by the great Richard Roundtree), on the big screen in 2000.
This time the film focused on the legendary cop’s son, aptly played by cinema’s other cool motherf—er, Samuel L. Jackson. In addition to those two actors, “Shaft” boasts an all-star cast including a pre-Oscar bait Christian Bale and the always wonderful Toni Collette and Jeffrey Wright. It’s filled with great one-liners and features Wright as a tattooed, slick-haired gangster, but the root of most Singleton films remains — fighting injustice.
Singleton was passionate about disrupting overwhelming whiteness on screen by highlighting the diverse world we live in, including in 2003’s “2 Fast 2 Furious” and 2005’s “Four Brothers,” proving that he could maintain his message while giving us lighter, purely entertaining fare. Because he knew what too many other storytellers are still afraid to say: The absence of white supremacy is an act of resistance in and of itself, no matter how subtle.
It’s why back in 2013 he asked the question that’s been on so many people’s minds to this day as we continue to debate films like “Green Book” and “Best of Enemies” that have filtered the African American experience through white protagonists: Can a white director make a great black movie?
For Singleton, it wasn’t so much about condemning white storytellers (some of whom he quite admired for their movies about black heroines) but interrogating how their pervasive opportunities further marginalize black filmmakers whose more intimate relationship with the material could provide context and nuance their counterparts wouldn’t be able to offer. At the end of the day, it went back to how Singleton challenged inequality both on and off screen.
Singleton will be remembered for being a pioneering voice who helped catapult black stories onto the screen where they belong.