John Singleton was just 23 years old when he wrote and directed “Boyz n the Hood,” becoming the first African American — and the youngest person ever — to receive an Oscar nomination for best director.
The groundbreaking nature of that film, a deeply personal look at growing up in South Central L.A., is by itself an enduring legacy. Yet Singleton’s career highlights not only the significance of that movie, but the progress since and the work that Hollywood has left to do.
Like many who achieve early success, Singleton — who died Monday, at the age of 51 — is destined to be most closely identified with his debut accomplishment. Despite directing movies in different genres through the 1990s and 2000s, he eventually expressed frustration with the studio system, saying in a 2017 interview, “I could have done more movies.”
Singleton made that comment in discussing why he had funneled his efforts into television, a medium that — in its recent hunger for content — has become more conducive to showcasing diverse voices and the kind of intimate storytelling that “Boyz in the Hood” represented.
Notably, Singleton’s latest project, the FX series “Snowfall,” deals with many of the same themes that “Boyz” explored nearly three decades ago, chronicling the onset of the crack cocaine epidemic. The format has allowed that story to unfold gradually from multiple perspectives, without the pressures that have prompted the major studios to focus their resources on theatrical blockbusters.
In addition to films like “Baby Boy” and “Poetic Justice,” Singleton directed broadly skewed mass entertainment, including the first sequel to “The Fast and the Furious” and the “Shaft” remake, starring Samuel L. Jackson.
Few projects, however, can rival the mix of cultural influence, commercial success and artistic merit that “Boyz n the Hood” combined, a story that Singleton said he had “lived” before making it.
The movie dealt with a young man, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., sent to live with his tough, protective father (Laurence Fishburne), delving into the tragic impact of drugs, gangs and violence on the youth, his friends (Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut) and their community.
The pioneering aspect of “Boyz n the Hood” extended beyond the nuanced view of African-American life that it portrayed. Marking the film’s 25th anniversary, Chestnut observed that the movie “made Hollywood take notice that there’s some real talent out there that is just untapped.”
Much of the movie’s cast went on to major success, including recent Oscar winner Regina King, Angela Bassett and Nia Long. Even so, prodding Hollywood to represent people of color with opportunities on screen and behind the camera has remained a continuing struggle.
In the outpouring of tributes to Singleton, many cited the debt that’s owed to the film, and the director’s influential legacy. Notably, after Singleton’s Oscar breakthrough 18 years passed before another African-American filmmaker, Lee Daniels (“Precious”), was nominated as best director, followed by Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) and Spike Lee (“BlackKklansman”).
“Boyz” was heralded as a sign of progress — and the movie has served as a source of inspiration to young filmmakers. Yet Singleton’s signature film also stands as a symbol of an ongoing process in making Hollywood more open to diverse stories, and the structural challenges even such talent has to overcome. — (CNN)