LAFF: John Singleton Talks Tupac Biopic, Tells Filmmakers 'Don't Be Afraid to Be Black'
"Don't be afraid to be black," writer/director John Singleton told a largely-black, standing-room only audience at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Saturday. The filmmaker -- who received two Oscar nominations for Boyz N the Hood and who is currently developing a Tupac Shakur biopic -- spoke on diversity at a session moderated by Elvis Mitchell that was held at the Conga Room in downtown Los Angeles.
"Don't try to be something else," Singleton urged. "Everyone's gonna copy our shit anyway. I made the blackest Fast and Furious, I made Paul Walker say 'Cuz' in the movie. I elevated it. You can't front that [black films] don't make money. I haven't lost anybody money. People said, 'Twelve Years a Slave, I don't want to feel bad, oh, that's a hard sell -- $178 million, so what the f--- is commercial, you know?"
Singleton deplored black actors too scared to take risky or violent roles. "They tuck their balls up under their ass to be accepted, you know what I mean?"
Said Mitchell, "I know exactly what you mean." Singleton added, "A lot of people were afraid to take that Jamie Foxx part in Django Unchained, but it's Quentin's most profitable movie, $425 million. It has negritude in it." Singleton explained that critic Stanley Crouch turned him on to the concept of "negritude," a black-pride movement begun in Paris that became part of the Harlem Renaissance.
Executives "want directors they can control," said Mitchell. "Yeah, that's why I haven't worked as much as I could've," said Singleton. "I'm gonna be commercial in my way." Singleton, who met Shakur in 1991 at a New York hiphop club with Queen Latifah, said he's screening classic films driven by "singular performances" to prepare for his new film: All That Jazz, Scarface, American Gangster, Wolf of Wall Street, Taxi Driver, Tupac's movies, and F.W. Murnau's box set.
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"Ice Cube didn't want to play a romantic role in Poetic Justice," said Singleton. "When I said, 'Tupac, do you wanna be in a movie with Janet Jackson?' he said, 'N----r, what?'"
Singleton sounded even more excited about his potential Showtime series about cocaine, Snowfall.
"I think they're gonna take it. It's set in 1981, before cocaine hit L.A. It's in the hood, but it's also in the Valley and East L.A. It's about a courier for the cartel and a CIA guy who gets the government in the cocaine business. It's got negritude, but it's also La Raza, and there's a Fast Times at Ridgemont High element in the Valley. I'm not just in a black bubble, I can tell different stories."
Taking questions from the audience, Singleton laughed when a friend of his from USC Film School razzed him about almost dropping out of college to work on [Spike Lee's] Do the Right Thing.
"We joke about it now, because Monty Ross, Spike's right-hand dude, wouldn't accept my calls in summer '88. Now I tell them, 'Thank God you motherf-----s didn't hire me!' I met Spike when Boyz N the Hood and Jungle Fever were at Cannes, and we sat on the water of Southern France and made a pact, no matter what the media tried to do putting us up against each other, we were gonna support each other as filmmakers and as men."
Singleton's USC pal said, "I remember when you wore a Jheri curl." Replied Singleton, "I had a Jheri curl too. I cut mine before college, though."
Singleton told another questioner the secret of a successful pitch meeting. "If you can get people laughing, you're winning. It's the oral tradition of African storytelling -- you spin a yarn. Guillermo del Toro, he can tell a story. Steven Spielberg, sometimes he can tell a story verbally better than the movie."
And one more thing is key, added Singleton.
"Somewhere in the pitch, say, 'It's not gonna cost that much.'" Singleton says that he got his first movie greenlighted by saying the police helicopters hovering over the hood wouldn't be real helicopters, just the sound of helicopters -- very cheap.