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John Singleton

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PCC Spotlight
Fall 1998

With violence glorified in films,
one man wants people to know
how bad it gets in the real world.

STORY By Tow FRANKIE
ILLUSTRATION By RYAN READY

A PROMISING YOUNG father and upcoming college football star is gunned down near his home. Another young man is shot in the head at close range and falls over dead into his girlfriend's lap. The Aryan Nation preys on college students at a peace rally, beating and gunning them down. The people of an entire town are lynched and their homes are burned to the ground. One man signals the torching of each house, the murder of each person. He is the mastermind behind every plot. Every shot of every frame has his indelible mark.

The first inch of this footage began taking shape in 1986, in the hands of high school senior John Singleton, at Pasadena City College. This story probably sounds like it's about a monster the caliber of Charles Manson. In truth it's about a young director with a vivid imagination and a yearning to tell a good story. To look at Singleton you see an attractive, unassuming, young man peering from behind wire rimmed glasses. He seems like the kind of person you've gone to school with forever. Attentive and studious, always so quiet, the wallflower scholar. Right. Look again. This wallflower is in full bloom.

Singleton describes his PCC experience as…

"One hot minute"

Singleton describes his PCC experience as, "One hot minute." Get ready to dance, we must be on the face of the sun! "What really changed my life was I took a cinematography course at PCC. It was there that I really got a chance to get a hold of some great equipment. For my first short film, I had access to editing equipment and the cameras."

In 1985, a young Singleton enrolled in a PCC summer school biology class. His college 'B' would become a high school 'N. He returned to PCC in 1986 to try film making classes. Later, Singleton attended San Bernardino City College taking chemistry, but it was at PCC he found true chemistry: film making. Singleton took his first cinematography class under PCC instructor Jack Akien, an alumnus of University of Southern California, who recommended the high schooler for admittance into his alma mater. There, Singleton went on to earn a bachelor's degree in Film Writing. Singleton's parents paid for classes at community college; however, he had to pay his way through the screen writing program at USC with student loans. His junior and senior years he paid for school by winning the $17,000 Jack Nicholson Screen Writing Award. He also won the prestigious Robert Riskin Memorial Screen Writing Award. Through awards such as these and other accolades, Singleton attracted the attention of Creative Artists Agency. The agency signed Singleton as a college senior and negotiated a $6 million budget from Tri-Star for his critically acclaimed film, "Boyz N the Hood" (1991). TriStar's decision was based solely on his writing. They never saw any of his student films.

His topics may sound monstrous and vile, but Singleton has a unique way of dealing with society's demons: head on. Any one of his films could be the topic of a graduate thesis study of film as literature and the classic struggle of good against evil. Challenging ideas are central to his movies: "Boyz," "Poetic Justice" (1993), "Higher Learning," (1995) and "Rosewood," (1997). The violence in his work is in full contact with reality, a reflection of the violence in the real world. His character driven films often reflect a main theme of human contact. His work is all about bridging gaps and overcoming differences between people. He wants to acknowledge and embrace humanity. Teaching people about violence by bringing it to them, this is Singleton. He believes Hollywood has desensitized viewers to violence. With the zeal of a sadist, Singleton wants to re-sensitize us to the pain and hardship around us. By introducing us to characters, seducing us into their lives and making us care, he hopes to make a scorching impact on our senses as we witness their pain. He reminds us that the violence he portrays is not for good box office receipts. It's real. "There's not a lot of violence in my films, but there's a lot of tension," said the young filmmaker. "What makes people uncomfortable is I make you feel something about violent acts. If somebody gets killed in one of my films, or hurt, you feel something. It makes you care."

As a writer and director of films, Singleton encourages young black men to get their acts together and take responsibility for themselves and their children. Especially their sons.

In "American Screenwriter," Singleton referred to "Boyz n the Hood" as, "a coming-of-consciousness, rite of passage story." The film made him the youngest Academy Award nominee for Best Director-unseating Orson Welles from his reign of 50 years. He is also the only black director ever nominated. The film also received a nomination for Best Screenplay. All this happened before Singleton was a quarter of a century old. Perhaps the young director's crowning achievement with the success of "Boyz," was paying off his student loans within eight months of graduation. What's next for this wunderkind? He directed the rock video, "A Time to Remember," with Michael Jackson, Magic Johnson and Eddie Murphy.

In Michael D'Orso's book, "Judgment Day: the Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood," Singleton wrote a 30 page as-told-to-essay with Akosua Busia. A chapter length interview with Singleton can be found in the 1993 book "American Screenwriter," by Karl Schanzer and Thomas Lee Wright.

This summer Singleton's latest film, "Woo," starring Jada Pinkett, will be released. Next year he will release his latest directorial effort, a remake of the "blaxplotation" film, "Shaft."

The writer/director continues to participate in education by guest lecturing and teaching. Last Spring, he could be found giving a guest lecture in a class called "Moving up the Hollywood Food Chain," at UCLA's Continuing Education Program. The class was taught by his agent, Jeremy Zimmer, of United Talent Agency. Returning to USC, Singleton taught Advanced Directing for Graduate students, last semester. Singleton highly recommends college courses for high school students. "There's no way to lose if you apply yourself," he said.


Singleton with daughter Justice at the November 1998 premiere of A Bug's Life

The film is, at its heart, a basic coming-of-age story, but it had what was a fresh perspective at the time. At the center is Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a teen caught between the steady, forceful guidance of his father, Furious (Laurence Fishburne, still billed here as "Larry"); and the inescapable violence of his South Central Los Angeles neighborhood. The setting and story basics have become rather commonplace in cinema, but Boyz is the original, paving the way for the entire "gangsta"/"hood" genre.

But Boyz's triumph did and does not lie solely in its setting and perspective. That aside, it is simply a brilliantly crafted work, a film full of memorable individual moments of power. The first moments that spring to mind when I think of Boyz are two intense sequences that come at opposite ends of the film: an early scene where an intruder breaks into Furious and Tre's home, culminating in a bravura shot that starts with a glimpse of Furious inside the house then pulls away through a large bullet hole in the front door; and a late scene where Tre seeks violent vengeance against an enemy as his father sits stonefaced at home.

As striking as these and other individual moments in the film are, even more indelible are their assembled impact. While a modest film, Boyz tells an emotionally sweeping, true-to-life story, which can undoubtedly be attributed to the fact that much of the film derived from Singleton's real-life experiences. He populates the film with sympathetic, recognizably human characters: in addition to Tre and Furious, Tre's best friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut), a high school football star; Ricky's gangsta brother Doughboy (Ice Cube); Tre's girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long); and Tre's successful mother Reva (Angela Bassett).

As one can see, Singleton displayed a keen casting instinct right from the outset, assembling an ensemble whose members mostly went on to bigger things. Bassett and the rechristened "Laurence" Fishburne would re-team in 1993's What's Love Got to Do with It and garner a matching pair of Academy Award nominations in the process. Gooding won his Oscar category, Best Supporting Actor, for his movie-stealing turn in 1996's Jerry Maguire, in which he co-starred with another Boyz cast member, Regina King, who currently has a thriving film career herself. Ice Cube picked up a healthy film acting career to go with his recording career following his debut in Boyz (though he has yet to approach the heights of his performance here). Long went on to co-star in two of 1997's best films, the hit Soul Food and the underappreciated love jones.

Of course, the most notable career launched by Boyz is Singleton's, and his work here earned him much-deserved Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director--becoming the first African-American and the youngest person to be nominated for the latter honor. While his subsequent efforts have not approached the critical and popular acclaim of this landmark debut, they are similar to Boyz in the sense that they clearly reflect a distinctive cinematic voice that, while not completely successful in every outing, never fails to be interesting.

After his powerful debut, Boyz N the Hood, I eagerly anticipated writer-director John Singleton's follow-up effort, Poetic Justice. Although it had been surrounded by bad advance word-of-mouth, most of which centered on Janet Jackson's lead performance, the dramatic trailer of the film displayed the emotional power and depth that had made Boyz so brilliant. In short, I was expecting Poetic Justice to be a moving drama with great emotional punch, which is not an outrageously high request, given the enormous talent of its writer-director.

Sadly, I left the theatre underwhelmed and only slightly moved. The film's first twenty minutes excellently set up the plight of Justice (Jackson), a hairdresser who turns to writing poetry to heal the pain left by the murder of her boyfriend. But all emotional weight disappears and the film becomes lighter than a feather when she goes on a journey from L.A. to Oakland with her best friend Iesha (Regina King); Iesha's mailman boyfriend, Chicago (Joe Torry); and his best friend, also a mailman, Lucky (Tupac Shakur), aboard their mail truck. After an initial hatred, Justice and Lucky begin to learn about each other, and Justice finds the strength in her soul to allow herself to love again.

The central romance in Justice is the best aspect of the film. Contrary to what other critics are saying, Jackson proves to be the best of the recent crop of singers-turned-actresses, more convincing and professional than Madonna and Whitney Houston combined. Her inexperience as an actress only shows in one emotional scene with Iesha where her tears look forced and phony. Jackson and the charismatic Shakur make an appealing couple you root for to get together.

The major flaw of the film is Singleton's screenplay. The characters of Chicago and Iesha are totally unnecessary; their incessant comic bickering is tiresome and serves only to take away valuable screen time from the far more interesting relationship between Justice and Lucky. The film would have been far more powerful if it focused solely on the two main characters.

From a visual standpoint, Singleton the director is in top form. Every scene is visually interesting, especially the striking opening twenty minutes. But his storyline is a bit confused. More attention seems to be paid to the relationship betwen Chicago and Iesha than the dramatic relationship between Justice and Lucky; a pivotal scene where Chicago hits Iesha is given more emotional weight than one where Justice must confront her conflicting feelings of love for Lucky and those of devotion to her dead boyfriend.

Poetic Justice isn't nearly the disaster other critics would leave you to believe, only a not-too-bad disappointment. It is a quiet, personal story that should have been louder, bolder, and even more personal, an interesting premise that isn't given its full justice.

After the critical and box office disappointment of Poetic Justice, Singleton returned to more issue-minded cinema with 1995's Higher Learning. The film follows a cross-section of students at fictional Colombus University as they head down varied paths during one tumultuous semester. The central characters are Malik (Omar Epps), a freshman on a track scholarship; Kristen (Kristy Swanson), a naive freshman out of Orange County, California; and Remy (Michael Rapaport), also a freshman, whose alienation leads him to join a group of Neo-Nazi skinheads. Kristen's storyline, in which she is date raped and turns to the consoling arms of Taryn (Jennifer Connelly), a lesbian, largely has little association with the linked, racially-oriented ones of Malik and Remy, but by film's end all three storylines converge in a dramatic fashion.

Thematically, though, all three main plot threads are consistently linked in the sense they show how young people strive to find their rightful niche in a university, much like they try to find one in life in general, sometimes going down the wrong path--as in the case of Remy, whose adopted ideology of hate inevitably leads to violence. But it is with the skinheads that Remy finds a sense of belonging and purpose, something he clearly lacks in the film's opening stages. Kristen personifies young people's natural fascination with the new and unexplored (in her case, lesbianism). Malik, like so many young people, struggles to find a sense of direction in general, not applying his best efforts on the track, in the classroom, or anyone else, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Deja (Tyra Banks) and his political science professor Mr. Phipps (Laurence Fishburne).

Higher Learning spoke a lot to me in its initial release, which occurred during my first year at UCLA (which, coincidentally, was where it was filmed). A film-minded student unable to attend film school at the time, I also had difficulty trying to find some sort of direction or meaning in my being there. (I never did, but that's beside the point.) Even so, the film, while good on the whole, was and still is a flawed endeavor. Higher Learning has been chided as the preachiest of Singleton's films, and it is; the explosive conclusion, while undeniably effective, bludgeons the audience with its message of tolerance, racial and otherwise. The idea of racial tolerance is obviously the more prominent in Singleton's mind, and as such, Kristen's storyline is not as clearly developed.

Nonetheless, Higher Learning is an entertaining and thought-provoking film, bolstered by strong performances by Epps (though one wonders what Singleton's original choice for Malik, Tupac Shakur, would have done with the role), Swanson (surprisingly), Rapaport, Connelly, Banks, and Singleton vets Fishburne, Regina King (as Kristen's roommate), and Ice Cube (as an Afrocentric student).

In 1923, the predominantly black town of Rosewood, Florida was burned to ground, its population almost entirely wiped out, by white men from the neighboring town of Sumner... all because of a lie. This subject matter provides the basis of director John Singleton's latest film, the absorbing and potent historical drama Rosewood.

The event that triggers the massacre does not come until about a half hour or so in, when one Fannie Taylor (Catherine Kellner), a white housewife, claims that she was assaulted by a black stranger (in actuality, she was assaulted by her lover, who was also white). The exposition that precedes this incident, which establishes everyday life in Rosewood, is slow going; while it can easily be dismissed as a failure on the part of Singleton and screenwriter Gregory Poirer, but it's actually a smart move, for it eventually serves to highlight the human toll of the ensuing massacre and serves as a counterpoint to all the brutality that follows. Poirer's script believably shows how this single claim sets off the whole horrific chain of events, how a search for one man snowballs into an all-out hunt against an entire race. There is also a great understanding of the mob mentality, as we see the town's white sheriff (Michael Rooker) join take part in all the killing even though he's never completely convinced by Fannie's story.

Recently another Hollywood studio production, Ghosts of Mississippi, documented an actual historical event and attempted to address its impact on race relations in this country--only to come off as glossy, self-important, uninvolving, and, most of all, synthetic. Rosewood, on the other hand, does feel authentic because it simply doesn't try too hard. Everything on the film is done on a smaller scale--there are no superstars on board to distract from the story, and Singleton, often criticized for being overly preachy (a criticism that is not entirely undeserved), lets the film's message be gleaned from the story itself instead of bludgeoning the audience with it (which he did in his last film, Higher Learning). He also doesn't smooth over the material's rough edges; the killings aren't graphic to the point of being exploitative, but they are graphic enough to convey the sheer brutality and animal nature of the massacre.

Similarly subdued to equal effect are the actors. It goes without saying that Ving Rhames, who plays Mann, the noble stranger to town--who, with white shopkeeper John Wright (Jon Voight), helps a number of women and children flee to safety--is a physically commanding presence onscreen, and his brawn is well-suited to the role. But there's real vulnerability and soul behind the bulk, evident in his expressive eyes and in his warm scenes with the charming Elise Neal, who plays Scrappie, a teen who falls for Mann. Don Cheadle, as the vengeful Sylvester Carrier, smartly doesn't overplay his character's rage--the controlled fury he brings to the role is much more effective than any histrionics would have been. The only actor who does resort to broad histrionics is Kellner; while the woman who causes all the madness should be shrill, she's shrill to the point of inducing a headache.

Singleton, who made such a memorable debut with 1991's Oscar-nominated Boyz N the Hood, followed that effort with the disappointing Poetic Justice and the mostly effective but underachieving Higher Learning, leading some people to doubt his ability. However, with his triumphant return to form with Rosewood, his talent as a filmmaker should no longer be called into question.

Production notes from WB
http://www.movies.warnerbros.com/ROSEWOOD/cmp/prod.html