John Singleton Essay - Critical Essays

Singleton, John


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.

Principal Works

Boyz N the Hood [screenwriter and director] (film) 1991

Poetic Justice [screenwriter and director] (film) 1993

Higher Learning [screenwriter and director] (film) 1995

Rosewood [director] (film) 1997

*Shaft [screenwriter and director] (film) 2000

Baby Boy [screenwriter and director] (film) 2001

*Singleton shared screenwriting credit on Shaft with Richard Price and Shane Salerno.


Peter Brunette (essay date August 1991)

SOURCE: Brunette, Peter. “Singleton's Street Noises.” Sight and Sound 1, no. 4 (August 1991): 13.

[In the following essay, Brunette discusses Singleton's response to the positive and negative critical reaction to Boyz N the Hood.]

Present at this year's Cannes festival for the world premiere of his first film, Boyz N the Hood, a sophisticated if somewhat preachy account of three young boys' violent coming of age in the black ghetto of South Central Los Angeles, twenty-three-year-old John Singleton is clearly enjoying the attention.

When I arrive for our scheduled interview, he is on his way back to his room. He suggests that we talk as we...

(The entire section is 1115 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 2 September 1991)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. Review of Boyz N the Hood, by John Singleton. New Republic (2 September 1991): 26–27.

[In the following review, Kauffman offers a mixed assessment of Boyz N the Hood, criticizing the “patently fabricated” structure of the film.]

Boyz N the Hood (Columbia) is the latest in the New Black Wave, written and directed by the 23-year-old John Singleton. Hood means neighborhood. The picture centers on the part of Los Angeles where Singleton and some of his cast grew up—not ghetto-slummy but nonetheless a war zone.

Singleton tells the story of a black youth growing to late adolescence amid drugs and...

(The entire section is 341 words.)

Mark Kermode (review date November 1991)

SOURCE: Kermode, Mark. Review of Boyz N the Hood, by John Singleton. Sight and Sound 1, no. 7 (November 1991): 37–38.

[In the following review, Kermode offers a positive assessment of Boyz N the Hood.]

South Central Los Angeles, 1984. Unable to control her increasingly wild son Tre, Reva Styles sends him to live with his father Furious, who can teach him to “be a man.” Tre develops a close friendship with neighbouring youths Ricky and Doughboy Baker, two half-brothers—living with their single mother—whose natures are diametrically opposed: Ricky is a tall but unaggressive football devotee; Doughboy a heavy-set tearaway whose headstrong bullishness soon...

(The entire section is 820 words.)

Michael Eric Dyson (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Dyson, Michael Eric. “Between Apocalypse and Redemption: John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood.Cultural Critique 21 (spring 1992): 121–41.

[In the following essay, Dyson commends Singleton for accurately portraying the psyche of inner-city youths in Boyz N the Hood.]

By now the dramatic decline in black male life has become an unmistakable feature of our cultural landscape—though of course the causes behind the desperate condition of black men date much further back than its recent popular discovery. Every few months, new reports and conferences attempt to explain the poverty, disease, despair, and death that shove black men toward social...

(The entire section is 8083 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 23–30 August 1993)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Old Times, New Times.” New Republic (23–30 August 1993): 30–31.

[In the following negative review, Kauffmann criticizes both Poetic Justice and Rob Weiss's Amongst Friends.]

Two new films raise questions that they don't directly address. Poetic Justice (Columbia) is the second picture by John Singleton, the young black writer-director who did Boyz N the Hood. Amongst Friends (Fine Line) is the first film by the young white writer-director Rob Weiss. Both pictures deal with young people—blacks in South Central L.A., whites in the well-to-do Five Towns of Long Island. Both are trite stories as such; both...

(The entire section is 768 words.)

David Rensin (interview date September 1993)

SOURCE: Rensin, David. “John Singleton Talks Tough.” Playboy 40, no. 9 (September 1993): 98–103.

[In the following interview, Singleton discusses his career, political correctness, and racism in both America and the film industry.]

If John Singleton didn't make movies, he'd be the perfect subject for one. Perhaps too perfect. Who would believe a movie about a kid who grows up in South Central Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a filmmaker? Who lands a slot in USC's prestigious film school, where, as an undergraduate, he twice wins the Jack Nicholson Screenwriting Award? Who, disgusted by Hollywood's cliched portrayal of the gang experience, writes his own script...

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Robyn Wiegman (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Wiegman, Robyn. “Feminism, ‘The Boyz,’ and Other Matters Regarding the Male.” In Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, edited by Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, pp. 173–193. London: Routledge, 1993.

[In the following essay, Wiegman explores how Boyz N the Hood deals with issues of masculinity and feminism within the African-American community.]

When Newsweek featured the street smart hero of blaxploitation films, John Shaft, on its cover in October, 1972, it was marking a new era for Hollywood cinema: ‘All over the country,’ the cover story exclaimed, ‘“bad-ass niggers” are collecting dues with a...

(The entire section is 9005 words.)

Richard Alleva (review date 24 February 1995)

SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. Review of Higher Learning, by John Singleton. Commonweal 122, no. 4 (24 February 1995): 55.

[In the following review, Alleva offers a negative assessment of Higher Learning.]

When I went to John Singleton's feature debut, Boyz N the Hood, I was expecting sociology, but what I got was a work of art. Higher Learning, his new movie about sexual and racial tensions on campus, is not only sociology, but the most naive, flat-footed sort imaginable. It's a work of good intentions, and these intentions seem to have leached every last ounce of originality out of Singleton and much of his intelligence of well. I can't think of any...

(The entire section is 764 words.)

James Nadell (essay date March 1995)

SOURCE: Nadell, James. “Boyz N the Hood: A Colonial Analysis.” Journal of Black Studies 25, no. 4 (March 1995): 447–64.

[In the following essay, Nadell praises Singleton for using his films to address such important and relevant social issues as drugs in African-American communities and the effects of “Euro-American racist capitalism.”]

Although several issues of consequence are addressed by John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood (1991), mainstream, capitalist media inquiry has emphasized the peripheral, sensational events surrounding the film, failing to provide the necessary structural and contextual analyses that Boyz merits. The raw human...

(The entire section is 5845 words.)

Mark Sinker (review date October 1995)

SOURCE: Sinker, Mark. Review of Higher Learning, by John Singleton. Sight and Sound 5, no. 10 (October 1995): 10.

[In the following review, Sinker offers a negative assessment of Higher Learning, although he notes that Singleton is “brave” to take on such controversial subject matter.]

It's a new academic year at Columbus University, and the lives of Kristen and Remy (both white) and Malik (black) intertwine. Remy clashes with Fudge (black) over the latter's loud rap music, and is repeatedly rebuffed and mocked. Kristen meets Taryn (white) who invites her to a feminist meeting.

Professor Phipps (black) teaches Kristen and Malik...

(The entire section is 827 words.)

Ed Guerrero (review date 1997)

SOURCE: Guerrero, Ed. Review of Rosewood, by John Singleton. Cineaste 23, no. 1 (1997): 45–47.

[In the following review, Guerrero offers a positive assessment of Rosewood, complimenting the film for exploring the “collective, national psyche.”]

John Singleton's Rosewood grapples with a powerful, daunting contradiction. Put simply, how does one make a slick, Hollywood action-adventure-entertainment flick, with big box-office expectations, about one of history's ultimate nightmares: genocidal racism? Singleton is not alone in attempting to negotiate this contradiction, since other mainstream filmmakers have attempted to do so before. Posed as...

(The entire section is 2169 words.)

Mensah Dean (review date 21 February 1997)

SOURCE: Dean, Mensah. “Rosewood: Compelling Tale of Bigotry, Envy, and Violence.” Washington Times (21 February 1997): 15.

[In the following review, Dean offers a positive assessment of Rosewood, calling the film “brutal” and “explosive.”]

As if bracing us for the carnage to come, director John Singleton begins his historical drama Rosewood with a panoramic tour of the namesake town.

It would have been so easy, and quite an attention-grabber, to start this fact-based movie with a wide shot of a howling lynch mob, bloodhounds in tow, looking to avenge an alleged attack on a white woman by a black man on New Year's Day...

(The entire section is 770 words.)

David Nicholson (review date 21 February 1997)

SOURCE: Nicholson, David. “Rosewood: A Massacre Transformed into Myth.” Washington Post (21 February 1997): B1.

[In the following review, Nicholson offers a negative assessment of Rosewood, noting that the film “is a failure … albeit a noble one.”]

After making a gangster picture and then one that riffed on '30s romantic road comedies, John Singleton in his newest film turns the 1923 destruction of a black Florida town into a western featuring a sable Shane powerless to save more than a handful of women and children. The result, Rosewood, is a stunning look at the madness of race and racism, and a moving recreation of a shameful incident...

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Benjamin Svetkey (essay date 7 March 1997)

SOURCE: Svetkey, Benjamin. “The Race Question.” Entertainment Weekly (7 March 1997): 20–21.

[In the following essay, Svetkey discusses the question of whether white filmmakers should be allowed to make films that deal with African-American themes and characters.]

Case No. 1: You are a respected white director who makes a serious film about a grim chapter in American racial history—the 1963 slaying of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. But just as you're dusting off the mantel for that Oscar, the reviews slam you for shoving black characters to the sidelines and focusing on a white assistant district attorney. One black critic even labels your movie the most...

(The entire section is 1115 words.)

Robert J. Cottrol (review date April 1998)

SOURCE: Cottrol, Robert J. Review of Rosewood, by John Singleton. American Historical Review 103, no. 2 (April 1998): 636–37.

[In the following review, Cottrol offers a positive assessment of Rosewood.]

If historical films serve an important historical purpose, they do so not because they accurately reproduce the details of the past in ways that satisfy specialists: few do. Instead, films serve history by reminding audiences ignorant of, indifferent, and increasingly even hostile to considerations of past events, of the way people not unlike themselves lived in other times. By that standard, Rosewood directed by John Singleton, is a very valuable effort...

(The entire section is 1060 words.)

Phoebe Flowers (review date 16 June 2000)

SOURCE: Flowers, Phoebe. “Shaft Cops Out Patchwork Script.” Miami Herald (16 June 2000): S32.

[In the following review, Flowers offers a negative assessment of Shaft.]

John Singleton's remake of Shaft casts Samuel L. Jackson, in all his furious glory, as John Shaft, who back in the day was a black private dick doing double duty as a sex machine to all the chicks, but now is just a really, really angry cop with unproven carnal prowess. (Lest there be any confusion, Jackson's John Shaft is not the John Shaft; he's nephew to the character Richard Roundtree made immortal in the 1971 blaxploitation classic.)

It's important to note that...

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Douglas Perry (essay date 16 June 2000)

SOURCE: Perry, Douglas. “He Could Dig It.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram (16 June 2000): B1, B9.

[In the following essay, Perry provides an overview of Singleton's career.]

As he stepped into the crowded room, the inevitable happened: an audible, lustful gasp.

John Singleton, arriving late, wasn't surprised. He glanced up at the sound, then raised his head high, and paused—and in that moment, as they watched a sly smile curl his lips and his penetrating black eyes survey the scenery, every female present knew exactly what he was thinking. Namely, that any one of them—forget boyfriends, crushes or even husbands—would go with him right now if he so...

(The entire section is 1331 words.)

Michael Wilmington (review date 26 June 2001)

SOURCE: Wilmington, Michael. Review of Baby Boy, by John Singleton. Chicago Tribune (26 June 2001): K2649.

[In the following review, Wilmington offers a positive assessment of Baby Boy, commenting that the film will act like “a smack in the face to some audiences.”]

Baby Boy is an uncensored, unvarnished portrayal of African-American life in South Central Los Angeles—the site of John Singleton's 1991 breakout hit Boyz N the Hood. His new film is so violent and full of sex, foul language and woman-trashing dialogue that some viewers will recoil. Others may damn it as another exploitative collection of negative stereotypes.


(The entire section is 798 words.)

Eric Harrison (review date 27 June 2001)

SOURCE: Harrison, Eric. “Baby Boy is Passionate and Disturbing.” Houston Chronicle (27 June 2001): F5.

[In the following review, Harrison offers a positive assessment of Baby Boy.]

A decade after Boyz N the Hood, it's easy to forget how impressive an achievement that movie was, especially considering that its writer and director was only 23. Drawing on the circumstances of his own life, John Singleton created a new kind of movie, one that spoke directly to disaffected youths while at the same time offering mainstream America a stirring glimpse into a world rarely shown on film.

It was hardly Singleton's fault that a flood of...

(The entire section is 1169 words.)

Kenneth Turan (review date 27 June 2001)

SOURCE: Turan, Kenneth. “This Isn't Neverland.” Los Angeles Times (27 June 2001): F1.

[In the following review, Turan offers a generally positive assessment of Baby Boy, but notes that the film is “at once too neat and too messy.”]

Given the small number of major studio releases that focus on issues within the black community, let alone the specific segment Baby Boy deals with, it's easy to empathize with the sense of urgency writer-director John Singleton must have felt in making this compelling but problematic film.

Yet that same insistence seems to have influenced Singleton to be more of a polemicist than a dramatist, causing...

(The entire section is 811 words.)

James Verniere (review date 27 June 2001)

SOURCE: Verniere, James. “Singleton's Baby Boy Doesn't Stray Far from the Hood.Boston Herald (27 June 2001): O47.

[In the following review, Verniere offers a positive assessment of Baby Boy, though notes that the film is undeniably similar to Singleton's Boyz N the Hood.]

Boyz N the Hood becomes singular with Baby Boy, John Singleton's hot-button follow-up to his groundbreaking 1991 drama, a debut made when Singleton was a baby boy himself.

His hip-hop filled new film promises to be just as provocative as Singleton's unflinching portrait of the South Central Los Angeles war zone and its effect on...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

David Sterritt (review date 29 June 2001)

SOURCE: Sterritt, David. “Boyz Director Revisits the 'hood in Baby Boy.Christian Science Monitor (29 June 2001): 17.

[In the following review, Sterritt offers a mixed assessment of Baby Boy, arguing that the film “breaks little new ground.”]

“He got a Oedipus complex!” exclaims a streetwise character in the middle of Baby Boy, and that sums up the plot in a sentence. Sophocles should get a screenplay credit for John Singleton's new movie—or maybe Sigmund Freud, who gave modern resonance to the ancient tale of a man who murders his father, marries his mother, and slowly realizes the horror of his life.


(The entire section is 531 words.)

Kristal Brent (interview date 30 June 2001)

SOURCE: Brent, Kristal. “Rocking the Cradle.” Washington Post (30 June 2001): C1.

[In the following interview, Brent and Singleton discuss the visual imagery in Baby Boy.]

When John Singleton—then a “bookworm” 21-year-old film-school student, by his own description—made Boyz N the Hood, his saga about growing up in south-central Los Angeles, he was instantly catapulted into fame and fortune. Made for $6 million, Boyz eventually grossed more than $56 million in the United States, and it garnered rave reviews. Because of it, Singleton became, in 1992, the first African American and the youngest filmmaker to receive an Academy Award...

(The entire section is 1767 words.)

Further Reading


Lane, Anthony. “Blank Verse.” New Yorker LXIX, no. 24 (2 August 1993): 76–78.

Lane offers a negative assessment of Poetic Justice.

Leigh, Danny. “Shaft: The Melodrama.” Guardian (5 September 2000): 14.

Leigh discusses the turmoil that surrounded the filming of Shaft.

Nicholson, David. “Poetic Justice and Other Cliches.” American Visions 8, no. 4 (August 1993): 26–27.

Nicholson offers a negative assessment of Poetic Justice, calling the film “plodding and unfocused.”

Travers, Peter. Review of Poetic...

(The entire section is 218 words.)