Tuesday 21 May 2019

In memoriam: John Singleton (Telegraph 02/05/19)

John Singleton, who has died aged 51, was a filmmaker who came to Hollywood prominence as both the first African-American and youngest person ever to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar. The nomination was for Boyz N The Hood (1991), a stunningly powerful coming-of-age drama set amid the gang violence of South Central Los Angeles, which featured indelible performances from Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube. Singleton instantly caught cinemagoers’ imagination, while setting astonished critics to wondering how an unknown 23-year-old could have gathered the film’s hard-won life experience. Roger Ebert, a career-long Singleton admirer, wrote: “By the end of Boyz N The Hood, I realised I had seen not simply a brilliant directorial debut, but an American film of enormous importance.”

Singleton had had to fight to make it. Columbia Pictures paid him $7m for a script that promised to match the explosivity of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), intending to hand it over to a more experienced helmer. Yet Singleton persisted (“I’m not going to let somebody from Idaho or Encino direct a movie about living in South Central”) and the resulting film, released into the uneasy calm between the Rodney King beating of March 1991 and the Watts riots of 1992, gained in prescience with each week. It sparked a cycle of films depicting inner-city tensions – Juice (1992), South Central (1992) and Menace II Society (1993) all followed in Boyz’s wake – even as Singleton struggled to figure out how to convert his sudden success into the sustainable careers enjoyed by his white filmmaking idols.

He was born John Daniel Singleton in L.A. on January 6, 1968 to realtor Danny Singleton and pharmaceutical sales rep Sheila Ward-Johnson. Though his parents divorced shortly thereafter, the young John enjoyed a steady childhood, shuttling between his mother’s home, serendipitously adjacent to a drive-in cinema, and a father cited as the inspiration for Laurence Fishburne’s nurturing Jason “Furious” Styles in Boyz. After graduating from Blair High School in 1986, the bald-headed, burly Singleton spent the summer working security on the set of TV’s Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (where he met Fishburne), before enrolling on USC’s screenwriting course. His autobiographical script “Summer of 84” – the basis for Boyz – landed him representation with powerful agents CAA before his sophomore year was out.

An off-the-bat masterpiece like Boyz would loom over most careers, and Singleton’s honeymoon period lasted not much longer than the extravagant nine-minute promo he fashioned for Michael Jackson’s 1992 hit “Remember the Time”. Despite promising elements (Janet Jackson in the lead, Maya Angelou verses), Poetic Justice (1993) met with widespread indifference; Higher Learning (1995), a snapshot of the American college system, was ambitious but dramatically unpersuasive. Tough lynch mob drama Rosewood (1997) drew more favourable responses, but was dumped by studio Warners (“they were afraid of the picture”). In 1999, Singleton pleaded no contest to punching and choking the mother of one of his children; he was sentenced to three months’ probation, and ordered to make a short film on domestic abuse.

His standing within Hollywood was lifted thanks to summer hits with Shaft (2000), a slick, Samuel L. Jackson-starring update of the 1970s blaxploitation flick, and dumbly enjoyable dragracing sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003). Between these works-for-hire, Singleton returned to Boyz territory and form with the self-penned Baby Boy (2001), a mellow, engaging, gently floated thesis about the infantilization of young black men in inner cities. No such elevated claims could, however, be made for Four Brothers (2005), the aggravating actioner Singleton filmed in Canada with the pointedly Caucasian Mark Wahlberg in the lead; the sense that career traction had been irretrievably lost was only compounded by Abduction (2011), a nonsensical runaround conceived as a showcase for toothy Twilight pin-up Taylor Lautner.

With his long-planned Tupac Shakur biopic shelved indefinitely, Singleton switched to television, shooting episodes of Empire and Billions, and co-creating the L.A. drug trade drama Snowfall (2017-18). He appeared in last year’s BBC documentary Black Hollywood: They’ve Gotta Have Us, mulling over the inclusive strides the studios have taken in the quarter-century since his breakthrough. A sufferer of hypertension, he succumbed to a stroke on April 17, before being taken off life support.

Twice divorced, he is survived by his parents and seven children: a daughter, Justice, and a son, Maasai, from his first marriage to Tosha Lewis; a daughter, Hadar Busia-Singleton, from his second marriage to actress Akosua Busia; and by three daughters, Selenesol, Cleopatra and Isis, and a son, Seven, from later, undisclosed relationships.

John Singleton, born January 6, 1968, died April 29, 2019.

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