On April 28th, John Singleton, the pioneering black filmmaker, passed away after suffering from a stroke. His career was honored by numerous actors and musicians paying tribute his legacy and the impact he had on American filmmaking for, as Ice Cube said, bringing “the black experience to the world.”
The Music Box Theatre, in honor of Singleton, programmed a tribute showcasing several of the director’s most enduring impactful works; Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice, and Rosewood. Programmed under the title of “You’ll Never Be As Important As the Ocean: The Films of John Singleton,” these three films illustrate Singleton’s unique aesthetic style, his commitment to document the experience of black men and women, and his ability to deliver an enduring and relevant social commentary.
Kicking off the tribute was a screening of Boyz n the Hood, Singleton’s directorial debut from 1991. Set and filmed in South Central Los Angeles, and launching the film careers of Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr., Boyz n the Hood is a slice of life drama about living with the violence of gang culture and the systemic forces that perpetuate an endless cycle of death within the black community.
Though a strong admirer of Singleton’s work, I had not seen Boyz n The Hood since high school. Now in my 30s, living in Chicago, and more social conscious of the systemic oppression endured by people of color, this tribute to Singleton became an appropriate time to revisit the film.
As I watched the film, I was amazed by how much I still remembered. Though it had been a long time since I last watched it, Boyz n the Hood had left an indelible effect on me. As a teenager, the film was a window into a world very much unlike my own. Though a narrative drama, watching the film became an education. Now, so many years later and more educated on the systemic oppression the film addresses, the reaction I had to Boyz n the Hood was deeper and more significant. Due to its alarming relevancy, nearly three decades after its release, I left the theater with a heavy heart and walked home thinking about the world’s injustices; oscillating between thoughts on what I can do to help and feelings of hopelessness.
At last night’s screening of Boyz n the Hood, the screening was hosted by Sergio Mims. As the festival Consultant of the Black Harvest Film Festival, an annual celebration of independent films documenting the black experience and now entering its 25th year, Mims discussed the life and legacy of Singleton. Joined by Mims onstage was Joe Doughrity, a production assistant for the film who would then develop a close personal and professional relationship with Singleton and was described by Mims as Singleton’s right-hand man. Doughrity, sporting a Boyz n the Hood crew jacket, talked about meeting Singleton, their mutual love for films, and his experience working on the movie.
The most amazing thing about the production of Boyz n the Hood is that Singleton was only about 22 or 23 when he directed the film. He had written had developed the film initially in 1986 as a documentation of the life he experienced. Though the studio wanted to option the film, Singleton protested that he would be the one to direct.
His direction of the film is most notable for shooting the entire film in sequence. Films are typically shot to accommodate schedules and locations, often staying in one location to get all the coverage before moving onto the next location. The order the film unfolds is exactly how Singleton scheduled the production and as you watch it, you can the director becoming more confident and daring with his directing. Singleton would not only become the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, but he is the still the youngest to hold that distinction.
After all these years, though I remembered a lot from the movie, the scene that has stuck with for the longest is the closing scene of the childhood segment of the film. Set in 1984, the Ice Cube’s and Cube Gooding Jr.’s characters are children and the audience gets a glimpse into the environment and the impact it has on the social and mental development of these children. In the scene, Doughboy, Ice Cube’s character, is arrested for stealing from a local corner store. He is put into a squad car, along with a friend, with the scene scored to the song “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps. As someone who loves music and film, and how the two come together to complement each other, that scene has lived with me for a long time and it was an emotional experience to finally see it on the big screen. And to think that someone in his early 20s could direct such a powerful scene speaks volumes about Singleton’s talent.
The Five Stairsteps, often referred to as “The First Family of Soul,” were a soul group from Chicago comprised of five siblings. They released their first single in 1966 but it is the 1970 release of “O-o-h Child” that has become their most enduring song. The song contains an uplifting message for a community that has suffered so much strife for generations. With the message that “things are going to get easier,” the Five Stairsteps offer comfort to those who have faced adversity. Used within the context of Boyz n the Hood, the song offers a commentary about the societal and racial tensions that lead the arrest of a small child and his detainment in juvenile detention for seven years. Within that context, the uplifting message carries added weight making the song’s theme of things getting better sound simultaneously attainable and impossible.