An Evening With John Singleton

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You might not be as familiar with the name John Singleton as you would with Steven Spielberg, but everyone’s heard of the movies he’s made: Boyz N The Hood, Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious, just to name a few. And when the CBC partners up with TD Canada Trust, the Canadian Film Centre (CFC), Black Artists Network in Dialogue (BAND), and Clement Virgo Productions to showcase his impressive body of work for one night at TIFF Bell Lightbox, you don’t just say no and miss seeing a key contributor to Black History Month.

At the age of twenty-four, Singleton became the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. Not content to rest there, the University of Southern California graduate was also the first African-American to be nominated for the prize when his movie Boyz n the Hood, a gritty look at life in South Central Los Angeles at the height of street warfare, hit theatres. Typing the script in a computer room mostly used by doctoral candidates working on their dissertations, Singleton would act out the scenes as he wrote them, inevitably disturbing those around him. “The students would turn to me and say, ‘Can you be quiet?’ And I’d turn to them and say, ‘Fuck you! I’m making a classic- Boyz n the Hood!’”

He handed that film in as his senior-year assignment, but his true intention lay deeper. “I’m young,” he recalled. “I don’t have a pot to piss in. I gotta do this for L.A.”

Directing that movie meant it was the first time he and many others worked with a mostly black crew. In order to pre-empt the possibility that fun might take over at the expense of quality, he told his employees, “Listen, mothafuckers. You need to treat me like you’re working for a white man ‘cause I’ll fire you.”

Inside he was happy, but couldn’t show it. “I’m the general,” he said, although he let his guard down briefly when he called the actor who played Ricky, Raymond Turner, the “black chocolate American dream.” His hard work paid dividends when Spielberg, commenting on the scene near the end where Ricky gets shot, said it was his favourite because it made him uncomfortable to watch it. Shot in only two-and-a-half hours, Singleton said it was critical to the film’s success because “[it was a] reflection of a reality that, before this movie, hadn’t been shown onscreen before. I made movies, but a lot of these things were a reflection of life. It gave them emotional depth.” The studio for which he worked agreed, but only to a certain extent. “The movies you see today- they’re more reflective of how the world is today,” he said in reference to increasingly racially-diverse casts, “but [the movie studios] don’t want to hold onto that.” He joked that their response is, “No, the world’s white, mothafuckers.”

Once work on Boyz n the Hood was completed, Singleton didn’t rest on his laurels. “I didn’t allow myself to enjoy the accolades of Boyz because I had to get over the hump,” he said, and Poetic Justice followed soon after. Even though it starred Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur, the director wasn’t quite pleased with his product. “I wrote the script too fast,” he said. But he had one fan, his idol Richard Pryor (the one person in the world who made him ignore Al Pacino when the three of them were together), and told him of his efforts to procure Jackson for the role. “If she comes out with an album, it’ll sell a couple million copies. But if she comes out with a movie AND an album…?” to which Pryor replied, “Are you a little Jewish man in a black body?”

They became lifelong friends until Pryor’s death from multiple sclerosis in 2005, but even that was tinged with humour. “He married a woman named Jennifer who was white. They used to do coke together- a lot of volatile things. And when he got sick, she was his caretaker because when you buy drugs, nobody sees you. He’s got MS and he’s dribbling, and the only one to take care of him was the woman he whupped. She says, ‘You wanna see pictures of his ex-wives?’ And she shows me his ex-wives and they’re all nude and shit. Richard can’t move but you know he just wants to get up and smack her. I don’t get all nigga on him- I could, but I don’t- and I just give him a hug.”

Singleton lived through many deaths of those he was close to, but Tupac’s him particularly hard. “He’d just gotten out of jail and we were gonna talk about [the movie], but he went to Vegas. It hurts my heart to talk about it. And then… I was working on the script when ‘Pac got killed. There was literally a war on the streets- it was like the Wild Wild West.”

Despite his image as a filmmaker who stuck to merely showing audiences how rough life was for a lot of disenfranchised black people, he admitted that, “It wasn’t until I got into the film business that I acted like a tough guy because I was surrounded by them. I had firearms, I went to nightclubs. I’ve never told anyone this, but I kept cool. I was a methodical, cool guy. I was a filmmaker, I was scared. Doing Rosewood saved my life because I left LA and went down to cracker-barrel Florida for two years. I might be talking to you guys from jail [if I hadn’t.]”

The list of A-list names that Singleton has worked with doesn’t get any more impressive than when he directed Michael Jackson’s music video, Remember the Time, especially when he tapped into a side the public hadn’t seen of the musical star. “Everybody’s mad at Michael ‘cause he owns the fuckin’ Beatles [catalogue of songs.] I keep a tape of Richard Pryor in my car, and I’m listening to him with Michael.”

Getting to know him intimately during that time, Singleton had much sympathy for Jackson in light of how the public viewed his attachments to children. “He was a child and performing in burlesque places and women flashed their breasts everywhere. His mother was like, ‘Don’t look at that shit!’ But his older brother would say, ‘Look! Look at this shit!’ And that fucks you up.” Singleton joked that breasts also had a strong effect on him, but not the way they affected Jackson. “The first breasts I saw were Pam Grier’s,” he said, “so now when I see her, I say, ‘You made me want to make movies.’”

In spite of his sense of humour, he has long been disdainful of comedic movies because their humour springs from what he feels is a superficial source, and has mostly stayed away from making them, Baby Boy being a notable exception. “It’s a comedy in the way Billy Wilder made comedies. It has funny moments, but it also has poignant moments. The humour in Baby Boy is the kind of humour that Richard Pryor had- it came out of pathos. I’m not doing it facetious. It’s cathartic. I think [in that movie] I cracked it. I think I finally cracked it with the female characters in this movie- strength and pain. You try to be strong, but you show the pain of it.”

Elaborating further on the themes of manhood, (im)maturity and family, he discussed the two main characters in the film. “Rodney and Jody are two sides of the same coin, but when Jody kills Rodney, it’s like he’s killing a part of himself. It’s tragic, because I’m making a comment on defining what a man is. Does killing make you a man?”

When an audience member asked Singleton how he felt about Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained, subtly referring to both filmmakers’ consistent use of violence and black people in their respective projects, he chuckled and tried to playfully the dodge the question before assuming a serious face. “First of all,” he said, “I feel like I helped make Django. Over twenty years ago, I met this young filmmaker…who’d just made True Romance, and this guy was Tarantino.” Singleton discussed an idea he had for a film, the plot of which was eerily similar to Django Unchained, saying, “we talked for like two hours. He’s from Torrance, I’m from Inglewood. I’m happy he made the movie, it works as a western, but you know he has an obsession with black people. His mother dated black men and she didn’t date Sidney Poitier, you know? She dated niggers.” Also commenting on the media attention surrounding Spike Lee’s criticism of the movie, Singleton said, “I respect what Spike is saying. I think a lot of people speak privately because nobody’s gonna give a black man $100 million to say that shit [that Tarantino does.] But I’m happy- I made Rosewood. Sidney Poitier said, ‘Just because a movie doesn’t make money doesn’t invalidate it.’ I had an old lady come up to me once and tell me, ‘You gotta make this movie because only two people can make this movie, you and Steven Spielberg- and we don’t want Steven Spielberg.”

All too soon, CBC host Garvia Bailey wrapped up the night and the spell cast over the audience was broken. As Singleton and Bailey left the stage, it was to thunderous applause for a man who dared to speak the truth and did so with every talented cell in his body. “If you’re getting millions of dollars,” he advised, “you should make something with weight.”

 

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