John Singleton brought issues of urban poverty and gang violence gripping South Central Los Angeles in the early 1990s to mainstream audiences with his classic “Boyz n the Hood.”
But the themes of his films about African Americans in Southern California also resonated with young people of color, from Native American living on isolated reservations and to Latino communities in Texas and New Mexico.
The 51-year-old Singleton died Monday following a stroke earlier this month.
But DeShuna Moore Spencer, CEO of the black filmmaking streaming service kweli TV, says his legacy continues in the work for black artists who have adopted much of his honest style and many of his realistic themes.
Rapper Ice Cube says Singleton influenced him to become a filmmaker and think about art outside of music.
Director John Singleton brought issues of gang violence, the crack epidemic and police brutality gripping South Central Los Angeles in the early 1990s to mainstream audiences with his classic “Boyz n the Hood.”
That movie and later his work impacted a generation of black filmmakers, launching the acting careers of Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., Nia Long and showed the country an urban culture that many had never seen. His themes about African Americans in Southern California also resonated with young people of color, from Native Americans living on isolated reservations and to Mexican Americans in Texas and New Mexico.
Rap, street fashion and low-riding 1964 Impalas soon made their way from minority-major cities to small , rural towns, transforming American popular culture and exposing the nation to unresolved racial inequalities.
Singleton, 51, died Monday following a stroke earlier this month.
But DeShuna Moore Spencer, CEO of kweli TV , a streaming service for black independent filmmakers, said his legacy continues in the work for black artists who have adopted much of his style and many of his themes. “He showed the authenticity of the black experience. It was honest,” Spencer said. “The truth is sometimes positive. The truth is sometimes gritty.”
That stood in stark contrast with images sought in the 1980s-era television shows like “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World,” which went out of their way to emphasize the experience of the black middle class and avoid issues around the ongoing drug war, gangs and poverty.
Daniel Hernandez, editor of the Southern California newsite LATaco.com , that’s why “Boyz n the Hood” and Singleton’s later “Poetic Justice” starring Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson appealed to young Mexican Americans in Southern California in the early 1990s.
“Those images we saw in ‘The Cosby Show’ were aspirational,” Hernandez said. “The characters I saw in ‘Boyz n the Hood’ were the people we saw in our own communities. Yes, they were black but Mexican Americans identified with them and what they were experiencing.”
Such movie topics also allowed Singleton to cast hip hop artists as actors. Those roles allowed young black artists to evolve from music into other cultural producing roles that helped transform black filmmaking, said Spencer, who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee.
Ice Cube was one such figure. On Monday, Ice tweeted that he credits Singleton for discovering him. “He not only made me a movie star but made me a filmmaker,” tweeted Ice Cube, who went on to write the movie “Friday” and star in other films. “There are no words to express how sad I am to lose my brother, friend & mentor.”
Oscar-nominated actress Angela Bassett, who also starred in “Boyz n the Hood” also credited Singleton with giving her a shot at becoming a movie star.
“I remember his enthusiasm, his voice. I remember how much he loved film, filmmaking, cinema, being on the set,” Bassett said. That was just a watershed moment in cinema, filmmaking history.”
However, it was also the scenes and topics from his films to penetrated a society still dealing with the police beating of Rodney King.
In football locker rooms in Houston, players recovered after practicing to the song “Just Me and You” like Ricky in “Boyz n the Hood.” Young Native Americans on reservations began mimicking Janet Jackson reading the work of Maya Angelou while sporting dark baseball caps.
“‘Boyz in the Hood’ was my first exposure to the inner city black experience,” Ruth Hopkins, a Dakota Lakota attorney and writer who lives in South Dakota. “I was surprised how much I could relate to the issues of poverty, racism and police violence.”
Most last for Hopkins was the character Furious Styles played by Furious Styles. In “Boyz n the Hood,” Furious preaches about creating black-owned business and developing self-respect amid a racist society.
After the movie, Hopkins began reading Malcolm X. When Singleton’s 1995 “Higher Learning” came out, a film about racial and sexual tension on a college campus, Hopkins began thinking about college herself.
At the time, the film was criticized for exaggerating college racial tensions and for suggesting that white supremacists would attend a racial diverse university. In 2019, with white supremacists speaking on campus regular, such themes don’t seem so farfetched now.
“It was forward-thinking,” Hernandez said. “He was forward thinking because he was real.”___
Associated Press reporter John Carucci in New York contributed to this report.