What 'Boyz N The Hood' Director John Singleton Meant To Black LA
By Mike Roe, John Horn, Nick Roman & Megan Erwin
John Singleton broke onto the Hollywood scene with the iconic, era-defining film Boyz N The Hood, and lots of Angelenos are looking back at Singleton and that film after his death Monday.
The writer/director was taken off life support, following a stroke last week that put him into a coma. He was 51-years-old.
Singleton was the first African American filmmaker and the youngest person ever to be nominated for a best director Oscar, thanks to 1991's Boyz N The Hood. The film told a story of young men growing up in South Central L.A. and its success helped put 90s black culture and hip-hop into the cultural mainstream.
Singleton was defined by "a sort of unwillingness to see anybody tell these stories, but the people who knew from whence they came," said Franklin Leonard, the film executive who founded the Black List.
The movie came out at an important time in the city's history, shortly before the 1992 L.A. riots. The movie depicted what journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan, who covers South L.A., called the end of the American dream for black people in Los Angeles.
"There have been films about L.A., once in a while about black L.A. — but really it struck me as this was a new take on black L.A., for a new generation," Kaplan said.
The movie depicted the tension between people trying to live their dreams while dealing with the ghetto closing in on them, according to Kaplan. She said that Boyz N The Hood also gave a more subtle interpretation of the issues affecting South L.A. than other films that would follow. Instead of depicting the area as a hellhole, Kaplan said, the film showed that people's dreams were possible, but that the area itself was moving in the wrong direction.
The movie also opened up possibilities for generations of future black filmmakers.
"The success that he had opened doors because it meant that that success was possible, but I think even more than that, he represented for those of us who even considered a career in this business that it was possible, and that you could do it in an uncompromising way without sacrificing who you are and the stories that you wanted to tell," Leonard said.
The film also drew the distinction between South Central and Crenshaw, which had often been lumped together in media depictions of the area, according to Kaplan.
Kaplan herself was skeptical heading in to seeing the movie for the first time.
"I was fearful for L.A.'s image, because I could see the '90s were going to be a difficult time for us," Kaplan said.
Instead of the stereotypes she expected, she saw a movie that had a tragic ending, but managed to leave viewers with a sense that the story would continue, far beyond the lives of specific characters.
"Describing authenticity is obviously difficult, but for me having not grown up in that environment, it felt recognizable, and it felt like these were people that I knew, or that I could have known," Leonard said. "He was interested in telling stories that centered on fully realized, fully human black people navigating the lives in which they lived. And there's an argument that we don't see that enough even now, but we certainly weren't seeing it at all then."
Most films went on to take a darker view of South L.A., Kaplan said. But Boyz N The Hood offered black audiences a sense of representation in its subtlety.
"It felt good to see a film that had people that looked like me and my family 40-feet high in a theater," Leonard said.
The closest another piece of filmed entertainment has gotten to showing that kind of subtlety, according to Kaplan, is Issa Rae's Insecure on HBO.
"The hood is at once a real place, and a mythical place," Kaplan said. "I really think John Singleton was trying to break down, deconstruct those myths too. It's tough, because there are realities that are not pretty, not pleasant that you can't really get around, but there's also a lot more going on than that."
Singleton's death also follows another major death of a South L.A. icon, rapper Nipsey Hussle.
Singleton grew up in South L.A., graduated from Pasadena's Blair High School and went to Pasadena City College, before later graduating from USC's film school.