By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
Local and national tributes praise his work and legacy
The great work of Black visionary director, producer and Los Angeles native John Singleton can’t be denied. Many in the film industry were shocked to learn about his passing at the age of 51 on Monday, April 29, even though the announcement had previously been made about him suffering a stroke. It is reported that family members decided to remove him from life support, and at that time released the following statement:
“It is with heavy hearts we announce that our beloved son, father and friend John Daniel Singleton will be taken off life support today,” Singleton’s family wrote. “This was an agonizing decision, one that our family made, over a number of days, with the careful counsel of John’s doctors. We are grateful to his fans, friends and colleagues for the outpouring of love and prayers during this incredibly difficult time. We want to thank all the doctors at Cedars Sinai for the impeccable care he received.”
Singleton’s first film, “Boyz n the Hood” (BNTH), which he wrote in less than a month at the age of 23 while enrolled in the Film Writing Program at USC, served as an entry for him into the world of film and also as an open door for some of the actors who appeared in this groundbreaking movie. After its 1991 release, Singleton was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, becoming the first African-American and the youngest person to have ever been nominated for the award. This film, which showcased the poverty, hardships and reality of a group of “homies” in South Central, Los Angeles, was also selected in 2002 for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant. Also, this film made it easier for similar films such as “Menace II Society,” “Colors” and “Juice,” among other titles, to explore Black youth.
The Crusader reached out to the arts community to get reactions about this loss.
Award winning esteemed actor, director and producer Bill Duke shared thoughts about Singleton’s indelible mark on Black cinema. “John Singleton’s films and his legacy are important for so many reasons – but mainly because he gave a unique perspective of the Black experience that had never been told before. He was a pioneer like many others – Michael Schultz, Spike Lee, Robert Townsend – who gave voice to the voiceless and challenged this monolithic view that the media had about African Americans.”
As it relates to the impact of “Boyz n the Hood,” Duke said, “The media always made kids in the inner city look like these sociopathic monsters, and he gave them humanity that we could relate to.” He continued: “John always wanted to do something that had meaning. I call his films ‘Edutainment.’ They were entertaining, and they would give you something to think about and feel and leave you with a sense of his understanding of our mutual humanity. I will miss my brother and my friend for his unique voice and how he used it to change each of us.”
As Singleton has been credited with giving America a glimpse of life in urban Los Angeles, sports and entertainment journalist for Rolling Out Derrel Johnson shared his sentiments: “John Singleton was a visionary who let a young Harlem man like me know that the plight of my brothers and sisters on the West Coast was the same.”
Chicago filmmaker, owner of 1555-Filmworks, director of “Black and Privileged,” and founder of the Englewood Film Festival, Mark Harris added: “John Singleton was a giant. He
inspired so many. The beautiful thing is, he may no longer be physically here, but through his work, he will live on forever. So, in that sense, he will never die.”
Venus Brady, a cinephile from Chicago’s South Side, paid her respects: “John Singleton singlehandedly made movie producing and directing seem like an attainable career. In his Malcolm X hat and round glasses he looked like my “homies” who I grew up with. He proved that representation mattered before it was a hashtag.”
Actor George Sample III, who grew up in the Midwest, spoke about his connection to BNTH: “As a youth growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, I really connected with John Singleton’s initial claim to recognition. That film opened my mind and eyes to what other people all over the country were dealing with—in regards to gangs, peer pressure, and the disconnect between parents and their children due to drugs and/or institutionalized systems,” Sample said. “Not to be overlooked is the fact that John Singleton helped usher in a host of new actors over the years. Morris Chestnut, Regina King, Cuba Gooding Jr., to name a few. The paying it forward by allowing non actors an opportunity to be a part of BNTH really resonates with me. My first film ‘Cronies’ was executive-produced by Spike Lee, and with that film I have risen to the challenge of being an asset to the arts and never cheating the audience, cast or crew by always giving my all when I perform.” Sample’s current film is called “Goldie,” which screened at the recent Tribeca and Berlin film festivals.
He lost his father earlier this year and mentioned that this loss causes reality to hit you in the face. “The feeling of grief has really been a palpable experience. Singleton’s passing further reveals to me how much every day is special and should be enjoyed as much as possible. Mr. Singleton is not a great “African-American” director, he is a great Director PERIOD. His artistic contributions to the world of cinema will be forever acknowledged as uniquely groundbreaking and sincere.”
Other local media and arts celebrities also offered accolades: “John Singleton was a prodigy, who distinguished himself in an era that shunned African-American excellence in filmmaking. Thankfully, talent detests a vacuum. His gifts, his art, his fortitude, will continue to speak to the human spirit, for eternity,” commented Felicia Middlebrooks, veteran journalist/WBBM Newsradio and Principal, Saltshaker Productions LLC.
Chicago native and Hip Hop artist Psalm One shared her sentiments about “Higher Learning,” another one of Singleton’s films. “In 1995, the movie ‘Higher Learning,’ with its ensemble cast, incredible soundtrack and nod to rappers as actors, cemented Singleton as
a director that ‘got’ it. As a youngster, I remember really feeling and understanding what Singleton was doing. I felt represented in cinema in a way I hadn’t before. His work is so important and should be regarded in the upper echelon of Black film culture.”
Another veteran actor also offered his sentiments about Singleton and that watershed film. Thomas Jefferson Byrd, who has starred in “Ray,” “Clockers,” “Get on the Bus,” “Chi-Raq,” among others, said: “John Singleton (in my opinion) put forth a film that spoke volumes to us both literal and most importantly metaphysical in that ‘Boyz n the Hood’ offered to us a look into ‘the first beginnings’ of things. It touched us in ways that many could not respond to immediately. And I am indeed grateful for this—his masterpiece. I miss him, I appreciate him and thank God for John Singleton.”
And finally, Golden Globe winning actor, veteran director and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre’s most produced artistic associate playwright Regina Taylor offered her thoughts: “Visionary
director John Singleton’s legacy is of challenging the images and expanding the lens of how African Americans are seen—from ‘Boyz n the Hood’ to ‘Poetic Justice’ to ‘Baby Boy’ to ‘Higher Learning’ and ‘Rosewood’—Singleton championed bringing the stories to the screen of those previously unseen and unheard,” Taylor said. “He brought to life these incredibly diverse stories of biases of race, gender and sexuality unapologetically—with braveness and a ferociousness. Paving the way.”
Singleton’s other films, as director or producer, include “Shaft” (2000), “2 Fast 2 Furious” (2003), “Hustle & Flow” (2005), “ and “Four Brothers” (2005), among others. He has a great body of television work, and his current show “Snowfall” can be seen on cable station FX.
In the press statement, hIs family offered advice to the Black community: “More than 40 per cent of African-American men and women have high blood pressure, which also develops earlier in life and is usually more severe. Please recognize the symptoms by going to Heart.org.”
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book info, e-mail, [email protected].