John Singleton Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Singleton 1968-

(Full name John Daniel Singleton) American screenwriter and director.

The following entry presents an overview of Singleton's life and career through 2001.

With the debut of his first film Boyz N the Hood (1991), Singleton joined the ranks of Spike Lee and Matty Rich as one of the most prominent young African-American filmmakers of the 1990s. A critical and popular success, Boyz N the Hood earned Singleton Academy Award nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Director. He was the youngest and the first African-American director nominated for the Best Director award. Boyz N the Hood chronicles the struggles of three African-American friends growing up in South Central, a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. Singleton's vivid portrayal of street-gang violence and his examination of the psyche of inner-city males brought him accolades from both critics and audiences alike. He has continued to make strong, opinionated films on a range of topics including prejudice in American universities and the importance of role models for African-American youths.

Biographical Information

Singleton was born on January 6, 1968, in South Central Los Angeles, California. His father, Danny, was a mortgage broker and his mother, Sheila, was a sales executive. His parents eventually separated, leaving Singleton to spend weekdays with his mother and his weekends with his father. He exhibited a passion for filmmaking at an early age and began working on screenplays in high school. Singleton enrolled at University of Southern California Film School and received his B.A. in 1990. During his tenure in the film program, Singleton won three writing awards from the university and was recruited by the influential talent company, Creative Artists Agency, after graduation. The agency submitted Singleton's screenplay for Boyz N the Hood to Columbia Pictures, who signed him to a three-picture deal. Boyz N the Hood received widespread acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival and the film was a financial success both in America and abroad. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Singleton two Oscar nominations: one for Best Original Screenplay and the other for Best Director.

Major Works

In Boyz N the Hood, Tre Styles and his friends Ricky and Doughboy attempt to survive adolescence despite the constant threat of violence and the temptation to profit from the ever-present illegal drug business. Opening with the statistic that one out of every twenty-two African-American males will be murdered—most by other African-American males—the film emphasizes the difficulty of survival for young adults in the “hood.” The “hood” is a slang term used by characters in the film to refer to their primarily African-American neighborhood. When he is ten years old, Tre is sent by his divorced mother to live with his father, Furious. As Tre grows, Furious teaches him a sense of responsibility and dignity, making him strong and able to resist the lure of gangs and the quick profits of selling drugs. At film's end, Tre, guided by his father's example, manages to survive and go to college, while Ricky and Doughboy—who both lack male role models—are killed. Poetic Justice (1993) is also set in the gang-controlled neighborhoods of Los Angeles, but the film centers on a romance between Justice, a beautician who writes poetry, and Lucky, a postal carrier who has aspirations to become a rapper. The plot follows Justice, Lucky, and two friends as they drive down the California coast. During the road trip, Justice and Lucky begin to open up to each other—she reads her poetry to Lucky, he tells Justice about his relationship with his daughter. The two eventually fall in love and wrestle with the risks involved in starting a new relationship. The poetry that Justice reads during the film was written by renowned poet Maya Angelou. In 1995, Singleton directed Higher Learning, a film set on a fictional college campus dealing with issues of race, violence, and sex. The plot follows an ensemble of characters including Malik Williams, an African-American track star who is convinced the university only wants him for his athletic abilities; Deja, Malik's confident and ambitious girlfriend; Kristen, a white freshman coping with date rape; and Remy, a white student from Idaho who joins a Neo-Nazi group. The students are advised by Professor Phipps, a history teacher dedicated to educating his students and preventing race-related violence on campus. Rosewood (1997) is based on a factual incident of racial violence that occurred during the first week of 1923 in the African-American town of Rosewood, Florida—an incident that had largely been kept secret until a Florida reporter discovered records of the events in 1982. In early 1923 several white inhabitants of a neighboring town, Sumner, burned Rosewood and murdered or tortured many of its townspeople after a white woman falsely accused an African-American man of rape. Two of Rosewood's main characters—a white shopkeeper and an African-American World War I veteran—work together to rescue the women and children of Rosewood who had been forced into the surrounding woods by the white mob. In 2000, Singleton directed a remake of the 1971 classic African-American action movie, Shaft. The original protagonist, an African-American private detective named John Shaft, was a strutting and proud ladies' man known for his strength and skill with the opposite sex. Singleton's version recast Shaft as a police detective who quits the force when a racist white murderer is released under bail after he kills a young African-American. The murderer quickly flees the country, but when he returns several years later, Shaft—now a private detective—seeks vengeance. In 2001, Singleton directed Baby Boy, in which his work returns to the neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles. The film centers around a twenty-year-old African-American man named Jody. Jody lives at home with his mother, Juanita, but has fathered several children out of wedlock. When Juanita's boyfriend Melvin moves in with them, Melvin becomes a role model for Jody. Jody eventually matures and expresses a desire to become self-sufficient and to be a better father to his children.

Critical Reception

Boyz N the Hood received a considerable amount of critical praise during its release. Critics commended Singleton for honestly portraying the harsh and brutal conditions that many African-Americans are forced to endure every day in large urban areas. Reviewers were particularly pleased with Singleton's vivid characterizations and his disdain for the Hollywood cliché of ending conflicts with an “easy” or uncomplicated resolution. Intrigued by this new cinematic trend, critics as well as audiences have responded favorably to Boyz N the Hood. “No first film in the new wave of films by and about black Americans states the case for the movement's longevity more forcefully than Boyz N the Hood,” declared Susan Stark. Poetic Justice and Higher Learning, however, did not receive the same critical praise. Many reviewers found Poetic Justice to be unfocused and pretentious, noting that the film's central romance seemed clichéd and unlikely. Higher Learning was complimented for its challenging subject matter, but most critics argued that the film was too simplistic and direct to effectively achieve its message. Rosewood was embraced by several reviewers, who lauded the film for shedding light on an undesirable portion of American history, but the film was generally ignored by American audiences. Singleton's remake of Shaft was widely criticized for failing to capture the subversive spirit of the original and for succumbing to the simple formulas of slick Hollywood action movies. With Baby Boy, Singleton regained much of the praise he originally received with Boyz N the Hood, although a number of reviewers noted that the plots of the two films are significantly similar.