Critic's Notebook: John Singleton Changed How Black America Looked at Itself

Columbia Pictures Corp./Photofest
'Boyz N the Hood' (1991)

The director’s 'Boyz N the Hood' was a cinematic gamechanger, revealing the horror, beauty and humanity of L.A.’s South Central to an unsuspecting America.

John Singleton had an incredible impact on American culture — on black folk, but on white people, too. Singleton is, of course, the Oscar-nominated director of 1991’s Boyz N the Hood, and Boyz is one of the films that changed, as we say, e'rythang.

It is no hyperbole to note that there was life after Boyz N the Hood, meaning of course that there was a different way of being before it. Before 1991, there was no Twitter. The # was a pound sign, not a hashtag. There was no Facebook. But there was Black Planet — not BlackPlanet.com, the social networking site that predated Facebook by two years, but Fear of a Black Planet, the Public Enemy album title that articulated the attitude of a whole generation of white folk still stunned that some kids Straight Outta Compton dared to say “Fuck the Police” on wax. (Yup, before 1991, there was wax.)

That white folk were still salty about NWA in 1991 was weird since by early 1991 the Rodney King beating had been captured and released on video. But the Rodney King riots didn’t take place in Simi Valley, or any other white community for that matter. Yes, in 1991 people generally stayed on their own segregated side of town, and we weren’t zipping across the country from Right Coast to Left Coast and back East again to the same degree that we do today. 

And cable news most definitely wasn’t reporting daily, live from the hood.

So when Singleton showed us South Central L.A., most of us back East were, well, stunned. On the East Coast, shootings were up close and personal; on the West Coast, Jheri curled brothers did drive-bys. On the East Coast, brothers rocked Gumby fades; on the West Coast, brothers rocked pink hair rollers. And the hood? In South Central, the hood had single-family houses, driveways, even palm trees (palm trees!). Where were the high-rise, Good Times-style projects? We wondered, “Out West, they have lawns in the hood — what do they have to be so angry about?”

Boyz’s Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) had an answer for that.

Singleton showed us how our West Coast cousins were living. And, in a stunning cinematic montage, he also showed us how they were dying. We were beautiful in his vision, and each loss was Greek-tragedy tragic. The structure of Boyz N the Hood is classic, and so is the film as it stirs us to mourn the loss of black life, of one particular black boy meant to represent all the others.

Singleton loved the black people he captured on celluloid. That was clear in 1993’s Poetic Justice. The camera lingers on the title character (Janet Jackson) as she twists her braids, shakes hot sauce on her popcorn, cries in the mirror. Just as the boyz in Singleton’s hood were like any other crew in any other neighborhood — despite the whir of helicopters that made the setting uniquely L.A. — Justice was every black girl everywhere and from around the way.

And Tupac — Tupac was our shining prince, the beautiful black boy who could feel all of our homegirl love (decades before #BlackGirlMagic).

Singleton’s black male characters were always getting saved by sisters who could love them to be their best selves. In Boyz, Tre (Cuba Gooding) wasn’t going out like Dough Boy (Ice Cube) because he had Brandi (Nia Long); Dough didn’t even have his own mama (Tyra Ferrell). Tre also had his daddy, Furious, but it was Brandi who held him when the whir of ghetto birds nearly drove him insane. And of course in 2001’s Baby Boy, Jody (Tyrese Gibson) had Yvette (Taraji P. Henson).

Singleton wanted Tupac to play the lead in that film, but by then the media really was covering the hood, badly, inflaming tensions and exploiting black trauma so that before Singleton could yell “Action,” both Biggie and Tupac were gone.

1995’s Higher Learning was a solid film, an examination of white supremacy on college campuses 22 years before white supremacists marched right by UVA, and 2 Fast 2 Furious made, like, a bazillion dollars. But Singleton was at his best when he was in South Central. He was the kid, just 24 when he became the youngest director to earn an Oscar nomination for Boyz, who made his way out of the hood, but never really left it — and certainly didn’t leave it behind.

Not many black folk are going to wrap their tongues around the new “South L.A.” moniker the City Council wants us to call Singleton’s beloved hood. Because really, why would we do that? South Central has never been limited to gangs and riots and loss and death. South Central has also always been love and family and triumph. It has always, always been life.

Singleton’s vision changed the way we looked at the hood, which is to say the way we looked at ourselves — which is to say, again, e’rythang.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of a novel, Crystelle Mourning. Her essays examining African-American culture have been widely anthologized and she has contributed to Essence, The Washington Post, Ebony and The Los Angeles Review of Books.