' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: John Singleton

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

In Memoriam: John Singleton

Roger Ebert wrote of Spike Lee: “He puts human beings on the screen, and asks his audience to walk a little while in their shoes.” John Singleton did that too with his monumental “Boyz n the Hood”, released in 1991, unbelievably when the director was fresh out of USC film school and, by his own admission, still learning how to make a movie. A lot of black men were familiar with those shoes, it it goes without saying, in South Central L.A., where “Boyz” was set, and in so many other American neighborhoods. But to a white pre-teen in small town Central Iowa, I can tell you, being given a chance to walk a little in those shoes was moving, eye-opening, necessary. “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care what’s going on in the hood,” Ice Cube’s Doughboy memorably concluded. And too frequently in the world where I lived, I realized, his words rang true. Released ten months before the L.A. Riots, “Boyz n the Hood” was perhaps something of a cosmic precursor, suggesting so much of what led to that indelible six-day civil disturbance had been baked into society for so long. Singleton’s third feature film, the ambitious if inconsistent “Higher Learning” (1995), was similarly prophetic, set on a fictional college campus where people of differing races and ideologies divided into their separate camps, which seen through the prism of time goes to show how the incendiary partisan divide so frequently cited in the present has been there all along.

“Poetic Justice”, Singleton’s 1993 “Boyz” follow-up, which my sister and I ripped from a VHS rental and watched over and over and over, was a romantic road movie where the boy (2Pac) does not win the girl (Janet Jackson) until he learns to treat her with respect. That very idea gave credence to its obvious and ancient formula, culled from a thousand movie romances before it, which Singleton knew, evinced in his movie-within-a-movie opening, something called Deadly Diva, a Hollywood send-up with Billy Zane and Lori Petty, in the throes of foreplay, giving heightened, comical performances. And when Singleton transitioned to his movie’s reality, where Justice, watching this movie-within-a-movie with her boyfriend Markell (Q-Tip), endures his murder in a gang shooting. Those movies up there, Singleton was saying, routinely failed to acknowledge this reality.

That’s what Singleton could do, intertwine entertainment and truth. Even his 2000 “Shaft” sequel did it. If the film was explosively exciting, with crackerjack set pieces and orbiting around three performances (Samuel L. Jackson, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale) of extraordinary charisma, Singleton also made its villain a rich, entitled white guy (Bale) who commits murder and cockily assumes he can get away with it because the system is slanted in his favor. It suggested mainstream fare as something more than mere content to consume, which was K. Austin Collins addressed in his mandatory Singleton obituary for Vanity Fair, how the erosion of cinema’s middle class has made for a near total absence of thought provoking, tough minded studio movies by minority filmmakers, opting for product wrought from formula, which Singleton addressed in a 2014 interview at Loyola Marymount University and sent up way back when in that “Poetic Justice” prologue.

And in these sad days after his death from complications from a stroke at the too-soon age of 51, I find myself hoping filmmakers do not merely acknowledge and praise his legacy but honor it by resisting Hollywood’s insistence on homogenization, putting more human beings on screen, and asking to walk a little while in their shoes.

No comments: