On April 28, 2019, the world lost Academy Award-nominated director and South Central, Los Angeles native, John Singleton. Singleton was an expert at depicting the nuance of Black life. He labored to show that Black people, specifically Black Men, are not monolithic and he wasn’t afraid to make his tough guys emotional. His social awareness and poignant themes in his works show why he was the youngest director nominated for an Academy Award at 24.
Throughout his film career, Singleton enlisted bubbling acts who would develop into some of Hollywood’s brightest stars. During his time, Singleton brought Tupac, Ice Cube, Tyrese, and Taraji P. Henson to the big screen. He made a concerted effort to open the doors for our hip-hop stars to cross over into Hollywood since his mainstream debut Boyz n the Hood. Recruiting Ice Cube at the height of his prominence for the certified classic was just the first move into bringing our hip-hop icons into the fold of mainstream entertainment.
Since his breakout in Boyz n the Hood, Ice Cube has been one of the most ubiquitous stars of the silver screen. He’s gone on to star in the hit Friday series, All About the Benjamins, the Barbershop trilogy, Are We There Yet?, 21 and 22 Jump Street, Ride Along and Fist Fight. Tyrese, who got his big-screen break as Jody in 2001’s Baby Boy, has gone on to join two of the highest grossing film franchises ever appearing in Transformers and Fast and Furious and is set to star alongside Jared Leto in a Spider-Man spin-off film titled Morbius set for release in 2020. These opportunities came because John gave them both the spotlight to truly act and emote instead of simply playing a popular rapper in a cameo role. Ice Cube displays a myriad of emotions in both Boyz n the Hood and Higher Learning showing the world that he’s more than just his signature scowl.
Due to the heaviness of the topics he tackled, Singleton wouldn’t allow these musicians to rest on their laurels in the acting world. He put each of these stars through the emotional gauntlet when it came to their scenes. The different forms of grieving in Boyz N The Hood reflect the diverse personalities seen in the Black community. Where Ice Cube opts for revenge, Cuba Gooding Jr. puts on a powerhouse performance: crying, bawling, and swinging haymakers at the specter that taunts him. Everyone remembers Ice Cube’s heart-wrenching speech as Doughboy following the death of Ricky, played by Morris Chestnut, where he espouses “either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.”
The emotional undertaking of Poetic Justice starring Tupac and Janet Jackson is equally as heavy. Justice (Janet Jackson) is a virtual shut-in after the shooting death of her boyfriend played by Q-Tip and Lucky (Tupac) is a single dad working tirelessly to provide for his daughter after having to forcibly remove her from the custody of her drug-addled mother. Tupac is able to flip through emotions just as expertly as the seasoned Jackson; at times he’s vulnerable, at others he’s lashing out. If Tupac were still alive, his star as an actor would surely be shining as bright as Ice Cube, today
All of his projects were poignant and timely, yet no film was as ahead of its time as Higher Learning. Higher Learning has relevant contemporary commentary as if could have been made in today’s climate. It speaks about white bystanders calling the police on Black people just trying to have fun, white nationalism, school shootings, and sexual assault. Higher Learning features more examples of Singleton’s penchant for complex characters. The eventual school shooter Remy, played by Michael Rapaport, is a lost youth hypnotized by the words of his peers. Omar Epps character arc as Malik is also painstaking.
We watch as he starts college as a wide-eyed freshman and learns there’s more to him than what the world perceives only to have his girlfriend taken from him by violence. Though Malik and Remy clashed several times and even came to blows, Remy is burdened by the immense guilt of his actions and chooses to take his own life right in front of Malik, who just watched his girlfriend die moments before. Higher Learning is said to have a bit of a dark legacy thanks to it’s, unfortunately, relevant topics, but that’s part of the course with all of Singleton’s films. Higher Learning leans in as it’s hinged on the hotbed topic of white nationalism.
The emotional journey of Baby Boy’s Jody is one of Singleton’s most complex journeys which Tyrese truly handles with aplomb. Jody goes through so much emotional and physical trauma as he tries to navigate his way through life as a father of two living at home with his mother. Jody’s temper and love for the ladies often get results in violence. He fights with his mother’s boyfriend Melvin (Ving Rhames), narrowly avoids being killed by a lover’s ex-boyfriend Rodney (played by Snoop Dogg). When his friend Sweetpea (Omar Gooding) gets vengeance on Rodney by shooting him, Jody has an existential crisis and nearly attempts suicide until he’s saved by his mother’s boyfriend with whom he has a contentious relationship.
John Singleton was one of the greatest to ever hold a camera and Boyz n the Hood’s preservation in the National Film Registry is the seal of approval. Singleton’s filmography still features topics that we struggle with today: school shootings, gang violence, abortion, police brutality, and white nationalism. Despite most of his films being set in his hometown of South Central, LA, Singleton made it normal for his tough guy characters to be vulnerable. He subverted the stereotypes to which Black male characters are often subjected. He succeeded in giving his characters multiple facets that didn’t fall flat nor were forced. Singleton never comprised having a heart in his work.