- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
John Singleton’s first directorial and screenwriting feature, Boyz N the Hood, a tale of violence, hope and despair in South Central, Los Angeles, was an astonishing debut garnering him an historic Academy Award nomination for Best Director and another for Best Screenwriter (screenplay written directly for the screen).For his sophomore film, Singleton defied expectations and crafted a smaller and more intimate conversation of a film featuring a strong cast, including Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. The film was a hit and helped solidify Singleton as a director with an interesting cinematic voice and a willingness to expand the conversation of human experiences.
Over the course of his career, he has directed a variety of stories, including Higher Learning, a thriller and drama set in a college where race and ideology explode, and then Rosewood, the story of a small community of nearly 350 people, mostly black, in Levy County, central Florida, where over several days, white mobs attacked, killing many of the black residents and burning most of the buildings in the settlement – a despicable tragedy. He went on to helm important films, like Baby Boy, and directed the first sequel in the Fast and the Furious franchise (2 Fast, 2 Furious).
Singleton spoke to Home Theater Forum from Los Angeles about his early directorial works and his desire to continue expanding his storytelling canvas.
Poetic Justice and Higher Learning are now available on Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
“I asked myself, "Okay. Here's “Boyz N the Hood.” What about the girls in the hood?" And that’s [where “Poetic Justice”] came from.”
HTF: Most filmmakers who make as big a cultural and cinematic impact as you did with the extraordinary and powerful Boyz N the Hood tend to stay thematically or setting-wise in the same sandbox. I am sure there were offers, or even pressures, for your follow up to stay in that same space, but you were much bolder, choosing more a romantic drama [in Poetic Justice]. You upended expectations and grew in interesting ways the canvass you were then able to tell your stories on. Was that deliberate choice?
John Singleton: I just wanted to do something different after that first picture. I wanted to do something more intimate, I felt, and with that protagonist. And that was an active choice for me, really, to tell a story with a female [lead]. And I think it's kind of a simple thing that I asked myself, "Okay. Here's Boyz n the Hood. What about the girls in the hood?" And that’s [where Poetic Justice] came from.
HTF: There is a sad, fairytale tone to most of Poetic Justice, the way you opened the film with the film within a film, and the "Once upon a time" card. Was that important to you that this film explore and examine innocence and trials in tonally different ways than you did in Boyz N the Hood?
John Singleton: Well, for me it was a loss of innocence in that, basically, people may have a prejudice of what happens in these urban environments. And so I was like, "You know what? People do fall in love in various places." That was my whole thing.
HTF: And Lucky and Justice both learn about themselves over the course of the films. And they learn that snap judgments they make about each other are very problematic. Was that also an important concept that you wanted to explore? That we all have stories if we just ask.
John Singleton: Yeah, well, that was [certainly my young mind] and not very understanding much about relationships with knowing stuff on a very simple level, what I thought worked and what didn't work. You know what I mean? I'm just writing what I thought would work in terms of a good relationship and how men and women kind of dance around each other trying to find each other and try to find a common ground.
HTF: Yeah. And there's an innocence in the way that the conversations go. I'll tell you, I may be in my mid-40s, but I can remember that romantic dance. I grew up in England and [the conversations did] resonate with me, that dance around each other. So I think it is able to connect with audiences, at least across the pond.
John Singleton: Well, thank you very much.
HTF: Let's talk about that cast because Janet Jackson exudes an innocence in her portrayal, and Tupac was magnetic. Joe Torry was fun, but he was emblematic of someone who seemed unable to imagine a life beyond the small piece he’d carved out. And then of course, Regina King, who was just nominated for an Academy Award for If Beale Street Could Talk, was tragic in the way she struggled through her drinking. Talk about working with that group of actors on this story, and, in particular, what you thought Tupac could have achieved had he lived? Because his performance in this film was filled with such an admirable vulnerability.
“I think Pac could've done anything that he wanted to do. He could've acted more. He could've been a director. He could've been a screenwriter. It's just that the demons of the world, I say, honestly, took him down.”
John Singleton: Well, I mean, really what I got out of working with the four of them was-- we were all very, very young, and we were friends. We was just having a really good time, feeling lucky making a film. We were just so blessed that we were in this business. And we were expressing ourselves and being paid for it. And that's just all the way from Janet to Tupac to Joe to Regina. And we felt we were just starting.
Janet, she'd been working the longest of anyone. She been working since she was a kid in show business, but she was just really just one of us. In terms of Pac, I think Pac could've done anything that he wanted to do. He could've acted more. He could've been a director. He could've been a screenwriter. It's just that the demons of the world, I say, honestly, took him down.
HTF: Do you think that there is a story to be told about Tupac, to really examine who the man was, yet to be told? I mean, there have been surface documentaries, but nothing that really gets to who he is.
John Singleton: Yeah. There's so much more to that story that could be told. I'm just giving it some time and some space and maybe explore it later on.
HTF: When you look back on Poetic Justice, what's the thing that stands out to you most today?
John Singleton: [That] I was young. I was [just] 24 years old when I directed that picture.
HTF: Have you seen it recently?
John Singleton: Yeah. I saw it about two months ago, yes. I watched the whole thing. It was great. Just to be able to watch. I'm not in the movie, but I see a lot of myself 45 years ago, you know?
HTF: I'm sure it brings back memories of your experience and yourself more.
John Singleton: It really does. It really does.
HTF: Did you feel the pressure following up Boyz N the Hood with your next project?
“I felt a lot of pressure. I thought I had to make a hit movie no matter what. No matter what because “Boyz” was such a huge, outsized hit that I had to make sure the second one would at least became some kind of commercial success.”
John Singleton: Yeah. I felt a lot of pressure. I thought I had to make a hit movie no matter what. No matter what because Boyz was such a huge, outsized hit that I had to make sure the second one would at least became some kind of commercial success. And it did.
HTF: What do you think of the state of cinema exploring black stories today versus the sort of late '80s, early '90s, when you emerged on the scene? To me the '90s and into the early 2000s, I saw a real galvanization of the exploration of black stories from black filmmakers. And I think it sparked largely from Do the Right Thing. And then there was different kinds of stories being told. It was a small expansion, but you got films like Soul Food and Love Jones and Dead Presidents and The Wood and The Best Man and Brown Sugar, different kinds of stories that, really, cinema hadn't embraced before. Do you think that was an important period in cinema and the expansion of the kinds of stories we got to see?
John Singleton: [Yeah!] And it was great that they were able to make pictures that didn't, I'd say, have to attempt a meaning or be as conscious. They were just romantic comedies, or a comedy where people would want to laugh and fall in love. I mean, it's like, that's part of the experience when it comes down to it. It inspires people. People go on dates. Part of the mating ritual in America is usually taking somebody you're interested in to see a romantic movie and talking about it afterwards.
HTF: And then in Higher Learning, which was your third film, was that an active effort to broaden the kinds of characters that you wanted to explore?
John Singleton: Well, I had that idea before Boyz in the Hood was even made. I was hired to write that screenplay while I was in college. And once I did Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice was coming up. And I [thought], "Hmm, I can take that idea out and turn it into something." So for me, it was really just a kind of a maturation of trying to find different ways and different stories to tell, you know?
John Singleton: Going into the film, I wouldn't necessarily be the urban director, you know what I mean? Like, yeah, I can go and explore other stories.
HTF: That's what I love about your filmography is that it seems like a continuous reinvention of what it is you want to show the world that you can do. And I love that you directed Rosewood, which is one of my favorites of your films. And I love that you did 2 Fast, 2 Furious. And I love that you even did Abduction. Does that come from a desire to be creatively challenged, to change from historical drama to contemporary drama to action and so on?
John Singleton: I guess I don't really enjoy being [seen] as a one-note person in anything, you know? I can play different things. I can do a picture, you drop me in place with a different culture and I'll find a story in there.
HTF: You know, I think one of the genres I would love to see you work in is science fiction, and I'll tell you why. My appreciation for the wonder of humanity has always come through the prism or through the allegory of science fiction…
John Singleton: Interesting!
“I was interested in science fiction. I just haven't had the opportunity to do anything because it's very difficult to do on a lower budget or a modest-budgeted project. Growing up, I was very inspired by it, the science fiction works growing up, so I love it. But we'll see.”
HTF: And I think when you have a storyteller like yourself that has a really strong command of what makes humans tick, when you layer in the science fiction genre, which is sort of easy to write-off I think ( The Academy doesn't [tend to] favor science fiction), but I think it's a really accessible way to understand the human condition in what I'll call abstract ways. Is that anything that you've considered diving into?
John Singleton: Yes. I was interested in science fiction. I just haven't had the opportunity to do anything because it's very difficult to do on a lower budget or a modest-budgeted project. Growing up, I was very inspired by it, the science fiction works growing up, so I love it. But we'll see. Science fiction films speak to the fears of whatever time it is. Whatever people are really fearful [of] in that certain time, that's what's popular in science fiction films.
HTF: Oh, you are exactly right. I also wanted to ask you about the music in your films, not necessarily the songs, but the scores. You worked with Stanley Clarke a number of times. You obviously worked with the legend of John Williams for Rosewood. I was listening to the Rosewood soundtrack before we started talking today because it's one of my favorite soundtracks.
John Singleton: Oh, wow!
HTF: I have the expanded edition from La-La Land Records. I don't know if you have a copy, but I'm assuming you do.
John Singleton: Well, no, I don't. Wow. Is that available on iTunes?
HTF: No, it's one of the boutique labels, La-La Land Records. It’s an expansion of all the music that was used in Rosewood.
John Singleton: I got to look for it. How'd you find that?
HTF: Well, I am a soundtrack collector, so I stay connected to La-La Land Records and the wonderful soundtracks they produce.
(Available here: https://lalalandrecords.com/rosewood-limited-edition-2-cd-set/)
John Singleton: [I need to] find that. I'll find that!
HTF: I hope you do because it's magnificent. So, when you're considering the score, do you always think of a [composer] you think you would be great for this story? Or do you meet with people and together creatively come up with the sound aesthetic that you then want in that picture?
John Singleton: I mean, usually, I work with the composer and defer what to the composer feels is right for it, musically. But I tell them mostly what I'm going for, you know?
HTF: And you're scoring the emotion of a moment, not the action in a moment, I'm assuming?
John Singleton: Yeah, the emotions, going for the emotions. I mean, it was an honor to be able to work with Johnny Williams. I listened to his soundtracks since I was in high school for inspiration when I was doing my homework. So, just to sit up with him and be able to score a picture with him was an honor. One of the pleasures of my whole life.
HTF: Finally, I wanted to ask you about Maya Angelou and the poetry she provided for the film, which was sublime. I am a lifelong fan of poetry, and I have always found her expressions to be deeply emotional. How did you approach her to provide her powerful words? And, of course, she has a cameo in the film. How did you first get her onboard?
“[Maya Angelou] was such a grand, grand, grand lady. And her stories were phenomenal, and we were all humbled by her. It was Pac who had read all of her stuff, was humbled by her. She was our African-American queen.”
John Singleton: Well, I told her, I knew that I could never write in the voice of a young black woman. And I said, "I would like to use some of your poems that you've written as the voice of this fictional character. Do you mind?" She said, "Okay." She looked at the script and she gave me her approval. And I said, "You know what, I think I want to put you in the movie too? Would you mind acting in the movie?" And then it was great, one of the pleasures of my career to be able to direct her. And, of course, I'm not writing any lines for her to say. I'm feeding her lines to say. I wrote some of the scene, but I let her improv most of the scene.
HTF: Oh, that's interesting!
John Singleton: She was such a grand, grand, grand lady. And her stories were phenomenal, and we were all humbled by her. It was Pac who had read all of her stuff, was humbled by her. She was our African-American queen.
HTF: Absolutely, no denying that. Well, John, it was a great pleasure talking to you today. I'm so glad that Higher Learning and Poetic Justice are both coming out on Blu-ray finally, so all the very best to you and congratulations.
John Singleton: Thank you very much!