September 2, 2022

Celebrating John Singleton

By Amaya Nakpodia

In 1989, a student of what was then called the Filmic Writing Program (now the John Wells Division of Writing for Screen & Television) won the Jack Nicholson Screenwriting Award for the second year in a row. His script, Boyz N the Hood, was a realistic yet poignant coming-of-age story that explored the ramifications of race and power in South Central Los Angeles. The student, John Singleton, had written it on a campus library computer as his senior thesis. The rest is history. Boyz N the Hood is now considered a classic, enshrined in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. And Singleton received two Oscar nominations for his work on Boyz: Best Director and Original Best Screenplay. He was only 24 at the time, becoming the youngest person ever nominated for Best Director and the first African American nominated for the award. 

Singleton, who died in 2019 at age 51, was a film director, screenwriter, producer, and proud USC alumnus. His films melded profound character studies with important commentary on social and cultural issues. His fruitful career in filmmaking redefined the depiction of race relations in American films. In Singleton films, Black Americans, who all too often saw themselves miscast as the villains of 5 o'clock newscasts, reclaimed possession of their images, and the stories of their multifaceted lives.

Without equivocation, Boyz N the Hood is one of the best films to come out of USC, and Singleton is one of the best storytellers the School has trained. On September 9th SCA will kick off a retrospective of Singleton’s career with a screening and discussion of his seminal film. 

John Singleton: A Celebration will be a screening and discussion series, presented by the School of Cinematic Arts, USC African American Cinema Society, and USC Visions & Voices. It will run throughout this academic year. The tribute will also feature screenings of Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, Rosewood, Shaft, Baby Boy, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and Four Brothers, and will also commemorate the cherished filmmaker through conversations with notable cast and crew members and other people who knew him well. “John’s voice and influence live on within the SCA family and we are forever grateful for his contribution to cinema,” says Alex Ago Ago, Director of Programming for the School of Cinematic Arts. “With this retrospective, we celebrate a true master of the art of storytelling”    

It is not hard to see the profound effect that Singleton had at the School of Cinematic Arts. While still a student, he founded the African American Cinema Society with fellow classmate David L. Watts. Throughout his career, Singleton remained a dedicated alumnus. Indeed he was always eager to speak on a panel, lecture a multicultural cinema class, or even hang out and talk film with current SCA students. In 2016, he received a Legacy Award from the University’s Black Alumni Association. His career inspired several other black SCA alumni, such as Rick Famuyiwa, Sheldon Candis, Ryan Coogler, Steven Caple Jr., and Tina Mabry, to name a few, who continue to follow in his footsteps.

“For me, he represents the potential that all emerging filmmakers possess,” says Isaiah Simon, the current co-president of the USC African American Cinema Society, who finds inspiration in the life and work of Singleton. “He was eager to tell stories that were meaningful not only to him, but the communities he frequented.” Like many students of SCA, Simon also sees the influence that the school had on Singleton’s work. “Even as an industry professional, John Singleton always honored his roots. Now it’s our turn to honor him.” 

Immediately following the Sept 9th screening of Boyz N the Hood, esteemed filmmaker Robert Townsend will moderate a conversation with select cast and crew members. Confirmed guests include Frank Price, former CEO of Columbia Pictures, who mentored Singleton and guided the film into production, Kojo Lewis, the film’s location manager, and Singleton’s mother Sheila Ward. 

“Our goal is to go all out and bring communities together,” says Simon. “We want to touch the hearts of those who knew Singleton personally while introducing him to the next generation of SCA storytellers.”

John Singleton was an extraordinary creative with a knack for telling stories that Black Americans, and other minorities, could proudly identify with. In honoring him, SCA will continue his legacy of inspiring the filmmakers of tomorrow and reimagining what cinema can be.