John Singleton: Rodney King Footage 'Wouldn't Necessarily Have The Same Impact' Today

John Singleton Headshot - P 2011
David Livingston/Getty Images

John Singleton Headshot - P 2011

The director of "Boyz n the Hood" reflects on the "tragic" life and death of the polarizing figure whose beating prompted the 1992 L.A. riots.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Rambling Reporter column of the June 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

News of Rodney King’s death at 47 on June 17 brought director John Singleton (Abduction) back to bystander George Holliday’s video of the 1991 police beating, which emerged the same year as his breakout film about South Central life, Boyz n the Hood. “The video is a time capsule,” says Singleton, who met King in April as part of a discussion on the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots and advised him on joining the professional speaking circuit to augment his income.

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“It happened in a moment when images had more power. There was less desensitization.” While it would be seen even more widely today on outlets like YouTube, adds Singleton, “it wouldn’t necessarily have the same impact because we’re so used to the sensationalism of verite footage.”

As for King himself, the director sees the polarizing figure as fundamentally “tragic,” in both life and death. “He was a misguided kid growing up in white America as a black man with no direction,” says Singleton. “He’d go out and get drunk and commit crimes and before anything happened he was a poster child of white America’s fears of black men. Then this incident happened, which let America know at the time that, yes, black men are still lynched in America — albeit by police. And that one incident changes the tide for Los Angeles.”

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He goes on: “Rodney still had a lot of demons within him that he succumbed to. He was a celebrity in a schizophrenic sense, where he could walk certain places and people would have different reactions. Some people harbor resentment for what he said and what he did, and others sympathized with him. Some people felt that he deserved the beating and others didn’t. He lived with that every day – in his mind. Even if nobody else was thinking about that, he was thinking about it.”