John Singleton, 51, the director and visionary behind the acclaimed 1991 film “Boyz n the Hood” died on Monday. The filmmaker, who had fallen into a coma after suffering a stroke earlier this month, was removed from life support — a decision made by doctors and family members over the preceding weekend.
Singleton is survived by his parents, and his children: five daughters and two sons. He also leaves behind a collection of films that is arguably one of the richest filmic depictions of black American life. He was certainly not the first to bring an inconvenient truth to the big screen, but his movies altered the landscape and paved the way for other black storytellers to follow in his footsteps.
If anything, Singleton’s work was noteworthy in one important regard: America wasn’t ready for it.
The soundtrack for the opening credits for “Boyz n the Hood” — the movie that assured Singleton a place in the pantheon of cinematic greats — include gunshots and shouts from a crowd. The very first scene of the movie finds a group of children discussing the latest shooting in their neighborhood. One of the kids, reflecting on a mother’s admonition about the capricious nature of gun violence — “Bullets don’t have names on them” — speaks with bluntness about a world in which anyone could end up getting shot and killed: “I’m not afraid to get shot.”
In very little time, Singleton draws the viewer into the bustle of this working class black community, filled with average American strivers whose lives stand out in only one regard: They must contend with the daily menace of gun violence, as regular and as certain as the seasons changing.
Singleton also confronted moviegoers with an unforgettable statistic: “One in twenty-one Black American males will be murdered.” According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control, homicide remains the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 34. And according to research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2018, “Between 2008 and 2016, black men were more likely to die by guns in homicides.”
In this way, Singleton’s movie tells a timeless and tragic story that reflects the real world.
But despite the fact that the film was met with great critical acclaim upon its release, movie theaters championed a false narrative about the film — one that threatened to obfuscate Singleton’s message.
Throughout the early weeks of the film’s opening, there were reports of violence breaking out in theaters around the country. This, in turn. led to the movie being pulled from some venues due to claims that the film was not the gritty, real-life crime drama it purported to be but rather a movie that glorified gang violence.
A week after the film’s release, Newsweek reported that the goings-on were a “bad omen for black movies,” contending that “films that address the violent element of urban America… risk bringing that element out.”
“For young filmmakers determined to show the breadth of African-American life on the screen,” Newsweek wrote, “that’s a problem.”
In one such reported incident of violence said to be connected to the film itself, a movie patron in Chicago was shot and killed leaving a showing. The victim, Michael Booth, was just 23 years old; so was Singleton at that time.
But Booth’s untimely death only underscored the point Singleton was trying to make in the first place. Michael Booth was the father of two young children who worked as a security guard. A friend interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times confirmed that Booth wasn’t involved in gang activity. As Singleton made the rounds, doing press for the movie and speaking about what it was like to have escaped his own tragic end, what happened to Booth underscored how fragile that sense of safety really is.
“Boyz n the Hood” introduced Americans to the kinds of characters that normally go unremembered after the violent headlines pass from view, treating their fictional lives with compassion and dignity. We see these young men when they are rambunctious boys wrestling in the front yard, when they’re teenagers looking to meet girls and get dates, and when they’re dreaming about going to college. We get to come within touching distance of their humanity. What we learn about these boys is that they’re really not very different — or better, or worse — than anyone else.
In the end, there wasn’t much of a meaningful difference between Singleton, the kid who escaped the violence of his neighborhood to make it as a filmmaker, and Booth, who was cut down in the modest prime of his life after taking in Singleton’s work. In this country a person can do the right thing all their lives and still end up murdered at the movies. It was a crucial lesson that many people missed at the time of the movie’s release.
Singleton did not allow his movie to be held responsible for violence. “I didn’t create the conditions which make people shoot each other,” he stated.
He’s of course right. His film chronicled the problem; it was not its cause. It was merely one voice, trying to have a larger conversation that the nation wasn’t prepared to have at that time, one our country still barely discusses even now.
The gun violence that plagues a place like South Central, now known as South LA, isn’t inspired by video games, films, or rap music. It is also not the master plan of some evil entity or force. It’s the symptom of a lack of resources and opportunity. It’s a public health crisis. It’s an economic issue. It’s always passed off as a burden. It is how Singleton captured it so many years ago.
The compassion that Singleton’s film shone on the lives of its characters left a strong impression on one of the film’s stars in particular. O’Shea Jackson, better known by his rapper name Ice Cube, initially found it hard to believe that the story of the upbringing of people like himself was worthy of being centered in a major motion picture. In retrospect he still appreciates what the movie was trying to do, and what sort of impact it had.
“You had to feel for the boys in the hood,” Ice Cube said. “You had to finally have a feeling other than ‘they’re hoodlums, they’re gangbangers, they get what they deserve.’ These are kids, these are youngsters, these are boys.”