When news emerged yesterday afternoon that John Singleton had passed away following a massive stroke last week, audiences and filmmakers from around the world braced themselves to mourn one of the community’s hardest working and most inspirational figures; an artist and storyteller who throughout his work and career had shown a new path through the entertainment industry for young and diverse filmmakers, acting as a frequent mentor and always being generous with his Hollywood experiences—experiences that weren’t always pretty.
“I feel like an artist of any type should be like the jazz musicians were, where they interact with each other and share ideas and concepts and information about how to get to the next level,” he said in an interview with Film Independent in 2012.
Singleton’s journey through the film business was an extemporary study in artistic integrity and entrepreneurial hustle. His feature debut, 1991’s landmark Boyz N the Hood (made when Singleton was still fresh from USC film school) made him the youngest filmmaker ever—and the first African American—to be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars.
“I still ended up getting fucked by the studio,” Singleton would later say, in his candid 2012 Film Independent Forum keynote conversation. “That kind of does make me an independent filmmaker, if only independent-minded.”
“We’re all in this thing trying to get our vision out to the world, and there’s no paradigm set in stone for how to do that,” he said in 2012. And Singleton’s path as a filmmaker, at least initially, came from observation, growing up in Los Angeles. Watching firsthand the deterioration of black neighborhoods throughout the 1980’s via crack and gang violence.
Taking cues from midcentury Italian neo-realism and the socially conscious black cinema of forbearers such as Charles Burnett and Spike Lee, Singleton created with Boyz the era’s definitive portrait of inner city struggle, setting a new template that other “urban” films would consistently revisit for decades.
Rather than repeat himself, Singleton followed Boyz with the 1993 romantic drama Poetic Justice, starring the wildly charismatic pairing of Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur.
The film would earn Jackson an Academy Award nomination for best song and go on to become a much-loved 1990s cult classic. Justice was followed by two more critically acclaimed efforts informed by Singleton’s strong sense of social justice: 1995’s collegiate ensemble Higher Learning and 1997’s incendiary historical epic Rosewood, about the massacre of the titular majority-black Florida town in 1923.
“What I’ve learned the most is really to try to do things because I want to do them…I want to be passionate and stay true to myself,” Singleton would say in a 2011 panel discussion of Boyz N the Hood at the LA Film Festival.
But Singleton’s passion wasn’t channeled solely in the direction of weighty projects like Rosewood. Like any film student, Singleton had an easy affinity for genre, a fact that would manifest itself in such projects as the director’s lively 2000 remake of Blaxploitation classic Shaft and the multi-racial 2005 revenge actioner Four Brothers. Not to mention the Fast and the Furious franchise, of which Singleton helmed the second installment, 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious.
Singleton also exerted his influence beyond the canvas confines of the director’s chair, acting as a producer on such notable indie hits as Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan. His most recent credit as an executive producer was Through a Lens Darkly, Thomas Allen Harris’s 2014 documentary about black photography.
“I knew in the back of my mind that I would be an independent filmmaker, because what I wanted to do at the time, there was no real precedent for it,” Singleton said in his 2012 Forum keynote. “So I said, ‘I’m going to learn how to make films, to write them and make them myself.”
His parting piece of advice? “Just make it and don’t give a fuck.”