The Inspirational Director, John Singleton, has died. We take a look back at his legacy on film.
The death of John Singleton has been announced. He had been in a coma after a stroke in the past fortnight. All deaths are sad, of course. But this was a relatively young man with more movies to make. So it’s tragic. However, he is now at peace and one presumes he died with minimal pain or awareness. It is also worth noting that he leaves a body of work behind him which, in many cases, set precedents still relevant today.
I have loved his work not only as a fan of movies but also, as a teacher, seeking the best lesson tools to deploy. Kids of all ages and abilities, especially in inner city environments ‘got’ your stories and images, immediately, be they as starter task clip or way into a discussion /task: Thank you, Mr Singleton!
It’s difficult not to think of John’s contribution to Cinema when seeing something as momentous as, say, the recent box office and awards success of BLACK PANTHER. The Singleton brand was all about harnessing the power of African/American culture: embracing, rather than denying or sanitising associated tensions/troubled history but thereby rising above and beyond any limitations to just make great art, for all..He will live on through that.
Here’s a look at why..
BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991)
This was a movie ahead of its time! Today? We take discussions of community tensions and the role of young men in that, somewhat for granted. It’s important to note that this movie grasped the relevant issues and dramatised things sensitively yet provocatively. It can be done, given the right vision. And that is precisely what Singleton brought. Himself a very young man (in his twenties), John wrote and directed the movie and was nominated for Oscars on both fronts.
Among the youngest nominees in history; this showed Singleton had a kind of auteur vision. The drawback was how to follow the project and one could argue this was a talent that reached its zenith too soon? But the precedent had been set before him, in the likes of Orson Welles and indeed, still exists today: youth alone is no barrier to a distinctive directorial determination. Remember, Chris Nolan is not yet 50, but we talk of him as though he were some revered elder of Cinema! Hence, all the sadder that Singleton leaves us so young, because one suspects his later era work that would /could have been surely allowed for something AS good as anything in the ‘Hood?
Great cast: including Cuba Gooding Jr and Laurence Fishburne. Great companion piece to Spike Lee’s work, too, with two filmmakers harnessing the issues facing black communities to thereby tell human interest stories that touch us all, via clarity of script and excellence in execution from first rate actors. Much mimicked, parodied and referenced: Boyz n The Hood is not just a movie. It’s a piece of cultural history. Must see.
YEARS before reboots/shared universes etc took centre stage? We got a soft reboot/semi-remake of the Richard Roundtree Blaxploitation hero flicks. This took the cool profile of Samuel L Jackson and put him front and centre of the action, no longer relegated to baddie of the week or sidekick of the day and unfettered by the demands of more serious roles. So it’s a solid action thriller, an adventure, a police procedural and a nostalgia fest that was still hip and current and modern. THAT theme tune is always great and fitted well with the early 2000s boom in musical nostalgia.
There is the requisite ‘gritty realism’ (please ban me from writing that phrase ever again?) but also a genuinely escapist sense of one man taking on villainy in all its forms and protecting the innocent, albeit in his own brutally uncompromising manner. Roundtree cameos as ‘Uncle Shaft’, thereby tying things to the original movies. Christian Bale stands out as the baddie and is genuinely scary though still has the kind of presence and look that would echo in his polished Bruce Wayne / feral Batman a few years later. Look out for a young Jeffrey Wright, too. I don’t know whether he is playing things for laughs as such here but the part is quite a funny one in accent / relation to the other players onscreen. Toni Collette, Vanessa Williams, Philip Bosco, Dan Hedaya and Pat Hingle also feature. Quite a cast!
The legacy continues in SHAFT! It’s a further sequel /soft-ish reboot, coming to Netflix soon; Jackson and Roundtree both back!
2 FAST 2 FURIOUS (2003)
FAST/FURIOUS is now one of the biggest brands in blockbuster Cinema. It has its own spin -offs (Hobbs and Shaw: coming soon!) and part 9 should be here next year, with Vin Diesel now recruiting John Cena to the ever expanding ‘family’ defining the films. But it’s been a long road. Fast Five (2011) was the game changer, with the face-off between Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as Agent Hobbs. Before that? Things were fairly slow and shaky..not so fast..and barely furious. There had been Tokyo Drift and Fast and Furious and whilst those kept the series alive, none could have foreseen its current strength.
That’s what makes Singleton’s 2 FAST..all the more remarkable. Without that critical FIRST sequel? There’d be no others, be they good, bad or indifferent. He showed that the brand could live, with or without massive fanfare and even in the absence of Vin (a problem / question that still defines the piece today: do they NEED him at all?). It’s a fairly disposable pulp thriller but arguably better than the first film and sews the seeds of a universe that could adapt according to trends, demands and necessities. Solid action is there and it still carries the signature social /political undertones that Singleton enjoyed deploying. His aesthetic of grime meets crime is also still present in the movies now? Yes, Diesel and co now go everywhere short of outer space but their adventures always seem to start and end with an urban feel, as the grease and wheels and smoke revv and vroom into view onscreen..
EMPIRE /BILLIONS (2015-17)
Singleton was ahead of the game on the importance of television as both rival and companion to Cinema: bringing out the best in each other. Netflix, Amazon, the upcoming Disney Plus..we anticipate event television more than ever, despite now watching it in more disparate ways and at times to suit ourselves. It therefore always made sense to bring a certain Hollywood level gloss and production values to any show dealing with big money /power in defining today’s ‘water cooler’ moments. Singleton’s episodes of these shows and others display that vision in a new media era that is just beginning and which he arguably helped initiate.
REST IN PEACE. Your legacy will live on, with your work. Thoughts with family /community. And thank you for the amazing inspiration as writer/director/producer.