Barry Jenkins Pays Tribute to John Singleton: 'Boyz n the Hood' Was "My Life"

Barry Jenkins and John Singleton-Split-Getty-H 2019
Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Annapurna Pictures; Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The Oscar-winning writer-director of 'Moonlight' describes how the late helmer, who died April 28 at age 51 following a stroke, showed him what was possible: "For a long time, it was just John and Spike Lee."

I was aware of John Singleton before I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was just a kid going to the multiplex, seeing movies like Coming to America and Die Hard and Terminator 2. And then one day I walked into a theater and saw Boyz n the Hood and thought, "Holy shit, that's my life! This is about my world!" I literally remember saying, "I didn't realize you could make films like this."

I grew up in the projects — Liberty City, Miami — which didn't have as organized gang violence as South Central, but crack cocaine hit there the same way it hit everywhere. And there were certain elements of Boyz n the Hood that you could walk out of the theater, go home and see those same stories playing out right on the block. Even without knowing who the hell John Singleton was, it was clear that a black person had written and directed that film, someone who had intimate knowledge of what it was like to be black in America.

The first time I met John, he gave me an award. He presented me the best director prize at the African-American Film Critics Association in 2016. So I've only known this man for about three years. But the thing about John was that everybody was on the same level. He was just as happy to see you as you were to see him, the legend John Singleton. And that energy was infectious, because there's a version of this world where we all feel like we're in competition, and John just cut through all that. For a long time, it was just him and Spike Lee, but then there was Jordan Peele and Steve McQueen and others. And instead of John feeling like people were encroaching on his territory, he was like, "How can we get eight dozen more of us in here?"

I was down in Savannah, doing preproduction, when I heard he'd died. I was sitting in a cafe trying to write, and I couldn't do a damn thing all day. He was just such a lovely man. He made an impression. He absolutely made an impression.

This story appears in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.