This article originally appeared in the August 1991 issue of SPIN.
John Singleton’s like a kid in a candy store. The neophyte auteur is stalking a Los Angeles mall with a sense of purpose. “I got to have that,” he mutters at frequent intervals, filling his shopping cart with copies of Jaws, Annie Hall, the Terminator X and the Valley of the Jeep Beets album, and 3rd Bass’s single “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
His retail rampage is abruptly halted at the video-games department when the saleswoman informs that a new shipment isn’t expected until the following week. “I’ve got all those,” he says, glancing disappointedly at the hundreds of titles on display.
This isn’t so much an exhibition of conspicuous consumerism as a determined effort to make up for lost time. A little over a year ago he was holed up in a dorm room deprived of must outside cultural stimuli. Twelve months later he finds himself the only USC college student to graduate from the film school with an agent at Creative Artists Agency, a three-movie deal at Columbia, and a first feature in the bag.
Boyz N the Hood, Singleton’s message-heavy debut, kicks off like a South Central Stand By Me, then proceeds to ditch all preconceptions in a movie which features one of the strongest father-son relationships seen onscreen for years, a startling performance by Ice Cube (“See AmeriKKK’as Most Wanted laugh! And cry!”), plus the visual and narrative skills necessary to back up Singleton’s assertion that “nobody’s ever handled a story about the streets in a poetic way like this.”
While the rapid ascendancy that made Singleton the toast of Cannes has been attributed to Hollywood’s sudden hunger for the young black director du jour, the director points to his own personal determination.
“I went into film school with a certain focus. I was going to make films about my people in a way that was never done before. I was going to be like a filmic soldier. I was going to learn the importance of subtext, of character, and of plot. I was going to learn everything I needed to know and to be a bad mothafucka coming out of film school. I just internalized it. I said over and over, ‘This is what I want.’ And it happened that way.”
Singleton describes himself as a writer who directs to protect his vision. Militant in his insistence on directing Boyz N the Hood, he went on record as saying there was no way he was about to let some hick from Kansas screw up a movie about his neighborhood.
“That already happened,” he growls. “It was called Colors.” Does that mean no white director could tackle a black subject? “If they were raised in a black neighborhood, if they had black parents, but if they’re not from the environment, how they going to make a film about the environment?” he asks.
So would he ever tackle a white subject? “I think black people in America know more about white people than white people know about black people,” he explains. “I could do it if I wanted.”
Back at the video store, he pauses and picks up Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. “You know, I’d really like to do a black version of this. America isn’t ready for it yet. But one day…”