February 26, 2020
A TRANSFORMATIVE TROJAN
JOHN SINGLETON’S INFLUENCE ON A NEW GENERATION OF FILMMAKERS
By Desa Philadelphia
In Spring 2017, the School of Cinematic Arts’ newly re-launched Council on Diversity and Inclusion initiated a speaker series that was in search of an inaugural guest. It had to be someone able and willing to come to campus, and whom people would show up for. A plus would be if he or she had some association with the School— an alumnus or parent maybe. And, of course, they had to have something profound (or at least interesting) to say about the need for an increased focus on diversity and inclusion at the School, and in the media industry.
As the council discussed who it should invite, a few hot-right-now names emerged. But each would come up short on at least one of the important criteria. Finally, someone said the obvious choice: John Singleton. But would he have the time to come to campus to speak to students? Especially for a no-frills speaker series for which there wouldn’t be much publicity. His answer: He would make the time.
Singleton, who died on April 29, 2019, at age 51, after suffering a massive stroke, always made time for the School of Cinematic Arts and its students. A Los Angeles native, Singleton belonged to every subset of the SCA family. He had been a student, graduating from the Filmic Writing program (now the John Wells Division of Writing for Screen & Television) in 1990. His thesis script, which he insisted on directing because it was based on his own life, became the phenomenally successful film Boyz n the Hood, that had a breakout debut at the Cannes Film Festival and made Singleton the youngest person and first African American nominated for a directing Oscar.
Singleton was also a dedicated USC alumnus, making appearances at many University events, even returning to teach a class. He was the 2006 recipient of SCA’s Mary Pickford Award, given to a distinguished alumnus at graduation each year; and in 2016 he received a Legacy Award from the University’s Black Alumni Association. He was an active member of the SCA Alumni Development Council and was also an SCA parent, having inspired two of his children—daughter Justice and son Maasai—to enroll at the School.
Importantly, Singleton was always enthusiastic in his advocacy of SCA, telling audiences over the years that it was his education at the School that gave him the tools to be the first “Black film brat,” by which he meant that he was the first African-American writer/director who had creative control of his studio-financed projects. At the Diversity Council event, he talked about his storied career and took questions well after the allotted time. He was doing the council a favor by agreeing to kick off the series, but it was apparent that he was in his element, genuinely enjoying himself. His children say that, apart from his directing, the thing Singleton loved most was engaging young people.
Singleton with fellow Trojans at Sundance Film Festival
“To have him as a father was very much like having the cool teacher around because he would always have something that he wanted to teach or he wanted to share that he learned or that he was learning,” says Justice Singleton. “He was very much on his own adventure and he would sort of take us along with him.”
Maasai Singleton agrees. “The term ‘teacher’ is pretty accurate,” he says. “I guess the primary lesson from him is just constantly learning, trying to edify yourself, trying to be the best at whatever you do and study it as a craft.”
It was this dedication to seeking out the best that led Singleton to find USC. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, his mother’s apartment was across from the Century Drive-in. Singleton would watch films from the window, unable to hear the sound but learning how to follow the story through its imagery. The experience was his first lesson in film language and assembly, and sparked his unwavering interest in the medium. As a high school student, Singleton began writing movie reviews for his school newspaper and discovered another influential place: the USC film school. Although it was a part of the neighborhood, USC was a world apart; a predominantly white, affluent outpost that seemed a different, unwelcoming, world to its mostly-Black South Los Angeles neighbors. But determining that it was the best place to learn how to be a filmmaker, Singleton began roaming the halls of SCA, making himself at home by talking to people who worked there, asking questions about how to get in. He would also watch films in the cinema stacks at Doheny Memorial Library with help from the staff who, he said, just assumed he was a student. It was at Doheny that he discovered his favorite screenwriter/director, Akira Kurosawa, and his masterpiece Seven Samurai, which would influence Singleton’s work, especially the way he focused on things like setting, sound, and his characters’ physical gestures in his storytelling. “Even if you don’t understand the dialogue, what happens is very emotional,” he said about the set pieces in the film. “There are various themes that are playing out nonverbally.”
Once he was accepted to SCA, Singleton was determined to do well. He had applied to the Writing program because the intel he had gathered said it was easier to get into than Film Production. But, as one of a few Black students who had ever enrolled, he knew he could make a way for others. “I had a big chip on my shoulder at first,” he is quoted as saying in Reality Ends Here, a book about the School’s history. “I was constantly staving off feelings of alienation, but because of that I felt I had to make sure people knew I was very secure in who I was and where I came from.” Stephen Barnes, a fellow USC alumnus who became Singleton’s friend and lawyer, says there was no doubt Singleton would succeed. “John, by sheer force of will, put himself in a position to go to USC,” says Barnes, adding that Singleton “took pleasure in making sure people knew that the only thing he was missing was opportunity.”
The Writing program had only been established four years before Singleton arrived on campus, and he effectively became its first superstar student. He won the Jack Nicholson Screenwriting Award, given to a promising film school student, two years in a row: first in 1988 for Twilight Time, about women mourning their mother, then the following year for Boyz n the Hood, which he wrote as his senior thesis on a campus library computer. Deri Leong Miller, who was a counselor at the School and formed a friendship with Singleton, said it was always apparent that he was happy to be at USC. “He always said hello, he was always walking around talking to people, and he was very curious,” says Miller. “John was always positive, very grateful to be in the program and he would have gone on to graduate (school) except that Boyz n the Hood led to other things.”
Boyz n the Hood (1991) led to transformative things. It stunned Cannes with advertisements that featured graffiti and a concert by Ice Cube. Made for $6 million, it grossed $57.5 million during its studio run and introduced Hollywood to a slate of then-unknown talent—Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Nia Long—all of whom would become household names. And it gave the world a new version of Los Angeles, one that Singleton described as “sunshine and bullets.”
Singleton with the cast of Boyz n the Hood (left to right), Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut in South Central Los Angeles, 1990. MPTVIMAGES.COM
Boyz also helped the School land an especially important advocate. Frank Price had greenlit the movie for Columbia Pictures and famously thought Singleton could direct it despite his lack of experience. When Price was asked in 1991 to form a Board of Councilors to help the School, he already had a personal connection. As he put it: “If John Singleton was any indication of the kind of talent the School produces, then I wanted to help.” Price, who still chairs the Board and is a USC trustee, has played an outsized role in helping to build the School’s endowment and reputation.
Singleton’s success also created a model for other aspiring Black filmmakers. Rick Famuyiwa, who also grew up in a South Los Angeles neighborhood around the same time and makes films about the city, including The Wood (1999) and Dope (2015), describes Boyz’s success as “life changing,” and Singleton as the example of what living the dream could look like. “His success really planted the idea that it was possible that a kid from my background, which was similar to his, could actually make it. He was this young Black filmmaker that was a product of the hip-hop generation and the same L.A. neighborhoods I lived in. There were two filmmakers that inspired me to apply to USC: George Lucas and John Singleton.”
Producer and director Sheldon Candis, a Baltimore native, said Singleton influenced his choosing to come to the west coast. “I admired Spike. I wanted to be John. When I discovered he went to USC Film School, I had to go there,” says Candis. “(Boyz n the Hood) had the greatest lasting impression on me. It was the first time I had ever witnessed our cultural collective story on screen told so emotionally true and honest with one of us at the helm, authoring our American story. Every character felt like family. The experience was too real. We mourned when Ricky dies. The movie plays on an endless loop in my heart.”
“We all knew what was possible by going to USC. John made it all real,” says Famuyiwa. “John was about four or five years ahead of me, so we were never there at the same time, but his presence and impact were definitely felt. His legend as a film student who wrote Boyz n the Hood and went on to direct it to an Oscar nomination was an inspiration for all USC film students of all races.”
In the two decades since Singleton graduated, filmmakers like Famuyiwa, Candis, Ryan Coogler, Steven Caple Jr., and Tina Mabry, to name just a few, who want to tell stories that are uniquely African-American, have found encouragement at the School. As Famuyiwa points out, the dichotomy between the university and its surrounding neighborhood is still undeniable to students of color when they first find themselves on the campus. “What was always curious and fascinating to me about USC is it was, and I guess to some extent still is, this island of White Privilege in the middle of a Black neighborhood,” says Famuyiwa. “So, there was always a bit of cognitive dissonance associated with life at USC. I was at USC during the L.A. uprising in 1992, so that contrast was very stark.” But Singleton’s success helped lessen that gap, giving space for these filmmakers and others to see themselves reflected in the culture of USC, and for USC to start acting like a more entrenched member of the South L.A. community.
Singleton with fellow alumni (left to right), Jennifer Todd, Stacey Sher and Kevin Feige at the School’s 90th Anniversary Celebration, held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in April 2019.
Justice Singleton says her father’s influence was apparent everywhere they went in the city. “It was almost like a daily thing to learn that you know someone who was inspired by him or in L.A. someone would recognize him or he had students who grew up in Los Angeles who he was mentoring,” she says. “For me it almost felt like he was certainly a Black artist who represented Los Angeles. And that was really special because now that I really think about it there weren’t a lot of Black artists who were doing that in Hollywood and he was one of the only ones who was doing it in L.A.”
In Spring 2016, Singleton brought his mentorship to campus, teaching a class in the Division of Cinema & Media Studies titled “Emergence of Multicultural Cinema.” Alumnus Steven Taylor, who came to the School from Trinidad & Tobago, said the class was best when Singleton talked about his own experiences on set and in the industry. Soon stories about his stories started making their way outside the classroom. “Everyone wanted to be in John’s class even if they weren’t registered,” says Taylor. “I actually had to arrive early to grab a seat because the class size kept growing once word got around.” Taylor says Singleton also told the students they could ask him anything, so they did. “He set a tone that was rid of egos. Honestly his classroom represented USC’s widely diverse student populace and provided a safe space for us to examine the industry.”
Recent graduate Star Victoria (MFA Production, 2019) had heard that Singleton was a great mentor and decided to reach out to him when she started work on her thesis film, La Ruta, about a young Mexican mother trying to make the brutal desert crossing into the United States with her young daughter. Victoria had always been drawn to Singleton’s second feature, Poetic Justice (1993), because the film featured the poetry of Maya Angelou, whom she loved. “Seeing a movie that intertwined Maya Angelou’s poetry with story was so cool to me. I wanted to know all about the director who created such a dope movie; that’s when I began to know who John Singleton was,” says Victoria. The Production Division pairs students with industry mentors to help them through the thesis process and once Victoria’s project got approval, she started dreaming about who that person might be. “One night while trying to craft my story, I was having a writer’s block moment, so I took a break and decided to watch Four Brothers (2005), another favorite of mine,” she says. “After it ended, it had gotten in my mind that I would like to have John as my mentor. So, I took to the internet, went on his IMDB Pro, hit the contact button and low and behold, his email was there. So, I emailed him.” Victoria got a response from Singleton’s assistant saying he would be in touch but after a month passed with no further contact, she decided to try one more time, thinking nothing would come of it. “The next day I got an email from John and he gave me his phone number. I text him right away and asked him when the best time would be for me to call and he said, ‘right now is good.’”
After Singleton died, School of Cinematic Arts Dean Elizabeth Daley reached out to his family and offered the School as a location for his memorial, which was held at Bovard Auditorium on May 21 and attended by a Who’s Who of the industry. “He was a beloved son of the School and he will always be,” says Daley. “He really loved this place and loved the students, and we will always be grateful for that.”
Deri Miller says the loss will indeed be felt across the School because Singleton interacted with everyone. He never gave up his practice of roaming the halls and talking to people, she says, even sharing secrets about the next big project he was working on. When Miller retired a few years ago, she initially said she didn’t want a retirement party. But Singleton kept calling the School asking when there would be a celebration, so eventually she gave in. “He has got to be one of the most dedicated alums ever,” says Miller.
In a 2017 interview with The Television Academy Foundation, Singleton said his greatest achievement was that, “I’ve been in this business for over twenty-six years and I haven’t lost my soul. I had my highs and my lows and I’m happy.” In the same interview, he acknowledged that Spike Lee had cracked the door that he then came barging through. “Spike did so much in opening doors, and Gordon Parks and all those people, and when I came along everybody was looking for an alternative, which was me,” he said.
With his career it’s as if Singleton was saying to the generations that follow him: Forget trying to get a foot in the door, Hollywood should be holding the door open for you. This is especially true for the students who roam the halls at SCA; halls adorned with posters from his films.
Perhaps the secret to Singleton’s success as both a filmmaker and a teacher was that, deep down, he always remained a student at heart. “When he was learning something, he’d want to share it. That impulse to want to better yourself and want to learn is related to the impulse to teach. To want to share knowledge with others as well,” says Maasai Singleton, adding that SCA played an important role in his father’s lifelong education. “I felt like USC was both his playground and how he became disciplined. Because he realized as a person of color at that School, he had to be very rigid (to succeed).”
23 year old John Singleton on set of "Boyz n the Hood"
SCA always remained Singleton’s home. On April 11, 2019, just three weeks before he died, he took the stage of the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with fellow alumni, producers Kevin Feige, Stacey Sher and Jennifer Todd for “An Evening with Distinguished USC Alumni,” an event celebrating the School’s 90th anniversary. He spoke of returning to the School often, slipping into one of the back rows of Norris Cinema Theatre. When class was over, he would stick around to chat and answer questions. Where other filmmakers would quick-exit to avoid students’ questions about getting their scripts read or that first on-set job, Singleton would make his presence known, quickly gathering up an entourage.
“Nine times out of ten, the kids don’t know who I am or whatever. But if they do we sit and talk,” Singleton recalled fondly. “They are just like we were. They have a fresh excitement, if they don’t have a vision right now, for finding out what they want to do within this industry, and that’s really good to be around.”
The School of Cinematic Arts and the USC Black Alumni Association have established the John Singleton Scholarship for the Arts at USC to support students of color who are pursuing degrees in the arts at the university. For more information and to contribute to the Scholarship fund, visit cinema.usc.edu/singleton.