John Singleton, Pioneering Director Of 'Boyz N The Hood,' Dies At 51

Apr 29, 2019
Originally published on April 30, 2019 3:01 pm

Less than two weeks after John Singleton suffered a massive stroke, the trailblazing filmmaker has died in Los Angeles at the age of 51. The director, who made history with 1991's Boyz n the Hood as the youngest person and first African American ever nominated for a best director Oscar, died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Hospital after his family took him off life support.

"This was an agonizing decision, one that our family made, over a number of days, with the careful counsel of John's doctors," the family said in a statement released to NPR, adding that he "passed away peacefully, surrounded by his family and friends."

"John Singleton is a prolific, ground-breaking director," they said, "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 wasted little time leaving his mark on the film industry. At just 23 years old, fresh out of the University of Southern California's film school, the young filmmaker launched into the project that would become his signature achievement: Boyz n the Hood.

The film was an ode to the neighborhood where he grew up, South Central LA, an area notorious for its pervasive poverty and gang violence. The film's stars grapple with that environment onscreen, trying to make sense of the community tensions that helped catalyze the riots that erupted in LA the following year.

John Singleton, seen in Los Angeles in July 1991, not long after the release of Boyz n the Hood. The movie earned the young filmmaker two Oscar nominations.
Bob Galbraith / AP

Among those characters is Doughboy, played by rapper Ice Cube. Doughboy's half-brother is gunned down — a fate that Singleton himself feared while growing up, as he told NPR around the time the film was released.

But Singleton, the son of a pharmaceutical sales rep and a mortgage broker, also explained that he probably shared more in common with Tre Styles — played by a young Cuba Gooding Jr. Like the character, his mother sent him to live with his father to keep him out of trouble.

"My father, you know, just did what he could do to set me straight, and you know, because it's only so far you can go, you know, with your mom. Moms just like will rationalize what she [asks] — but Pops will say, 'No, you do this because I said do this,' you know?" he said in 1991. "And a lot of my friends didn't have that."

What they had instead, Singleton added, was a model rooted in the hopelessness of life in the 'hood.

"It's like: 'My brother went to jail. My daddy went to jail. I know I'm going to go to jail.' You know what I'm saying? That's the mentality," he said. "It's like it's a given. It's like there's no future."

The film earned him Oscar nods for director and screenplay. Singleton was the first African American to be nominated for directing, and at just 24, he was the youngest nominee in that category's history — a record that stands today.

In 2002, more than a decade after the film's release, Singleton reflected on the sincerity of his project — and how that differed from some of the imitators born of its success — on NPR's The Tavis Smiley Show.

"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 explained. "I'm making you feel something for this environment. I'm not exploiting it."

His seminal first film was far from his last.

Among other films, Singleton went on to direct 1993's Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson and a 22-year-old Tupac Shakur, and the 2000 blockbuster remake of Shaft. More recently, he shifted his attention to the small screen, directing episodes of Empire and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. He also co-created Snowfall, an FX drama about the crack cocaine epidemic that returned Singleton to his roots in South Central LA.

Throughout, he continued to challenge the film industry to tell the kinds of stories — and see the kinds of faces — he never had the opportunity to see when he was a film student. And he didn't forget to enjoy himself while he was at it.

"I've been in this business for over 26 years, and I haven't lost my soul." Singleton told the Television Academy Foundation in 2016. "There are a whole lot of people who are very, very successful that they don't even know which way is up anymore, right? And I feel really cool that I've had my highs and my lows and stuff — and I'm happy, you know what I mean?"

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Filmmaker John Singleton has died after suffering a stroke. He was 51 years old. Singleton wrote and directed the 1991 film "Boyz N The Hood," and he made history by becoming the youngest person and the first African American nominated for a best director Oscar.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this remembrance.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: John Singleton was just 23 years old and fresh out of film school when he made "Boyz N The Hood," an ode to the impoverished and notorious neighborhood where he grew up, South Central LA.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOYZ N THE HOOD")

ICE CUBE: (As Doughboy) We got a problem here?

DEL BARCO: He showed South Central's young black men trying to make sense of the gang violence around them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOYZ N THE HOOD")

CUBE: (As Doughboy) That's why fools be getting shot all the time - trying to show how hard they is. Ignorant.

DEL BARCO: The film starred rapper Ice Cube as the character Doughboy, whose brother is gunned down...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

DEL BARCO: ...And a young Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays Doughboy's friend, Tre Styles.

The film showed audiences some of the conditions that would lead to the LA riots the following year.

When the movie came out, Singleton told NPR that, growing up in the hood, he was always afraid of getting shot and that joining street gangs was a rite of passage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHN SINGLETON: If you have the absence of a father, then people create their own rituals, and joining a gang is one of them.

DEL BARCO: Singleton was born in LA in 1968, the son of a pharmaceutical sales rep and a mortgage broker. Like his main character, his mother sent him to live with his father so he would stay out of trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SINGLETON: My father, you know, just did what he could do to set me straight and, you know, because there's only so far you can go, you know, with your mom. Moms will just, like, will rationalize with you - but pops will say, no, you do this because I said do this. You know? And a lot of my friends didn't have that.

DEL BARCO: Singleton urged other black fathers to man up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SINGLETON: Brothers have to be responsible for their children. That's all we're saying with this film - you know, that we have to, you know, nurture - especially our sons - you know, nurture them into manhood.

DEL BARCO: "Boyz N The Hood" depicted all of this and was a hit among critics and audiences. Singleton made Oscar history with his best director and screenplay nominations.

In a talk he gave at Loyola Marymount University in 2014, Singleton reminisced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SINGLETON: "Boyz N The Hood" wasn't made for everybody. It was made for, like, a young black audience that buys hip-hop records. But I knew that if I got as universal as possible, it would cross over.

DEL BARCO: John Singleton went on to make other films. "Poetic Justice" starred rapper Tupac Shakur, whose biopic Singleton planned to make one day. It also starred singer Janet Jackson. Singleton directed a 1992 music video for her brother, Michael.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REMEMBER THE TIME")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Vocalizing).

DEL BARCO: Singleton also directed the 2000 remake of "Shaft" with Samuel L. Jackson, and he produced the 2005 movie "Hustle & Flow." For television, Singleton directed episodes of "Empire" and "The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story." And Singleton co-created the series "Snowfall" for the FX network. In 2016, he told the Television Academy Foundation he was happy with his career.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SINGLETON: I've been in this business for over 26 years, and I haven't lost my soul (laughter).

DEL BARCO: But he never stopped challenging the industry to be more diverse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SINGLETON: Everybody's so interested in black culture, but they ain't letting the black people tell the stories.

DEL BARCO: At least John Singleton got to tell some of his. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABRIELLE CHILLMARK'S "FOREST AIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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