Episode 21 - Tribute to John Singleton
|thenorthstar||Apr 30, 2019|
Transcript, Web links and Credits below.
Hey Everybody. It’s Tuesday, April 30, and I’m dedicating today’s episode to brilliant filmmaker John Singleton who passed away yesterday. I’m going to break down a few scenes from my favorite movie of his and speak about how important he was to us.
This is Shaun King and you are listening to (THE BREAKDOWN)
Yesterday was a sad and difficult day for the culture, for filmmaking, definitely for all of Los Angeles — but particularly South Central, and certainly a major loss for the friends and family of John Singleton. He passed away yesterday after being taken off of life support. Prematurely, a few hours before he actually passed away, we were told that he had already died, but that was apparently because the family had made the decision to take him off of life support, but had not done so yet. John suffered a stroke last week — and while so many people were praying for him and believing that he might pull through — he just didn’t make it. He was 51 years young.
And 51 is young. It’s old enough to have lived a full life, and certainly he did, but it’s young enough to have decades worth of living and creativity to go. I think the loss of John Singleton was acutely felt for a few reasons, but for two in particular.
First, we all watched John Singleton grow up. He was just 22 when he wrote and directed Boyz N The Hood and 23-years-old when it came out all the way back in 1991. He was fresh out of college and it was literally his first film — which is mind blowing. All you have to do is just think back to what you and I were making when we were 23-years-old to think about how absolutely amazing John was to have written and directed this film at such a young age. And I wanna talk about Boyz N The Hood for a few minutes. It’s one of my Top 5 Favorite Films of All Time. We all have Top 5 lists like that, but Boyz N The Hood has been in my Top 5 for nearly 30 straight years now. I owned it on VHS. And for you young people who don’t know what that is, way back in the day we used to have rectangular cassettes that were about the width of a box of tissue, and inside of those cassettes was a roll of film that had the movie on it. It sounds wild to have to explain this, but my youngest kids never really even used DVDs. It’s all Netflix and streaming for them. VHS tapes were way before their time. I owned Boyz N The Hood on VHS, on DVD, and now own it on iTunes. I have a poster of the film up in our living room.
My favorite film critic, the late Roger Ebert, called Boyz N The Hood not only the best movie of the year, but one of the best movies in years — giving it his coveted 4 stars. Had it not come out in 1991, I truly think the film and the entire cast and crew would’ve all won Oscars — it was so ahead of its time. John Singleton was literally the first African American filmmaker to ever be nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay — and to this day is the youngest person ever nominated for Best Director. He should’ve won both awards. And had the film been made in this generation, the whole cast would’ve been nominated.
I’ve seen Boyz N The Hood dozens of times and it never gets old to me. I think it was the first movie ever to show both the beauty and the pain of our families and our community. It wasn’t all pain and I think that’s what we all know about the hood. The hood is never all pain. Now let’s be real — the hood is hard — but John even showed the hard edges of the hood with nuance and care. With Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut, he showed what it was like to have half brothers and a mother that was abusive but probably didn’t know it. He showed how hard it was to escape the hood. He showed how hard it was for parents and children to resist the temptations of the cycle of violence. And in a way that had never been shown on screen before, John Singleton showed the bloody and emotional costs of violence.
But Boyz N The Hood was so much more than that. I don’t know if any film before or after Boyz N The Hood had a more beautiful and complex father/son relationship on screen. Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett played the divorced parents of a young son, Trae, and John Singleton showed all of the beautiful complex nuances of that relationship — from shared custody and more. But my favorite parts of the film are all of the conversations between Laurence Fishburne and his son. From how he teaches him about the responsibilities of doing his chores, to a tender talk he had with him at the beach about having principles, and understanding the birds and the bees. And I wanna play a clip of that beach scene. Laurence Fishburne, back then we called him Larry Fishburne, has taken his young son to the beach. Now the film has two versions of the son — an elementary school version and a high school aged version. This is the elementary school-aged version of Trae and they are just at the beach talking. And I remember when I saw this scene, having grown up without a father, thinking that’s the type of dad I wish I had and the type of dad I wish I could be some day. Here’s the scene.
(Audio clip from movie)
They have other great scenes together like one where teenage Trae brings his dad a plate of food from the cookout down the street — and it’s a scene like that, with a plate of grilled food wrapped in aluminum foil, that was just so familiar and did something to humanize and dignify Black life in a way that was so fresh.
There is another scene where Laurence Fishburne gives Trae a haircut and gets in his business about his love life — to a very painful scene where Fishburne grieves with his son over the murder of his best friend.
And I tell you what, at the end of the movie, Fishburne decided to send Trae to Morehouse and his girlfriend, played by Nia Long, to Spelman, and that simple little act had a huge impact on so many of us. I think it was the first time I actually heard of Morehouse, which is where I eventually went to college and my wife went to Spelman.
But there is a scene that I want to play for us that I think is particularly special. What’s wild is that this scene, with Laurence Fishburne, who seemed to be a mortgage broker, explains gentrification to his teenage son and his son’s best friend, Ricky. And what’s wild is that just yesterday on The Breakdown I played a verse from Jay Z, 28 years after this movie was made, where he’s explaining the same thing. But I want to play that clip for us. At first the boys meet Fishburne in his office, then he takes them down the block to show them something. And there he basically does what this show does. He breaks down gentrification.
(Play break it down music) – then the scene.
That was all written and directed by John Singleton. He was unapologetically Black and went to great lengths to tell stories about Black people from a uniquely human perspective that was and still is missing too often in Hollywood. John was a vocal critic of the limitations and challenges of Black writers and directors in Hollywood and that advocacy will be sorely missed.
I’ll close with this thought — and I think it often — when the leaders and best among us pass on, we should mourn. But we should also be grateful that we got to experience their gifts. I only spoke about Boyz N The Hood, but John did so much more than that — and jump-started so many careers — not just on screen – but on set and behind the cameras as well.
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