John Singleton’s Legacy of Honesty
|May 9, 2019|
William Shakespeare famously wrote, “No legacy is so rich as honesty.” In true Shakespearean fashion, the Bard of Avon attached multiple meanings to his words. But the most meaningful interpretation of this turn of phrase is the most literal one, which suggests that honesty is the best gift that one can leave for posterity. This is also the reading that best encapsulates the legacy of director and screenwriter John Singleton, who died late last month at the age of 51. John Singleton was a truth teller. He told the truth about what it was like for African American youth coming of age in post-industrial Los Angeles, California, his hometown, in his 1991 directorial debut film, Boyz n the Hood. An artistic and commercial success, the movie peered behind the veil of contemporary Black America, revealing the harsh reality of urban life that too often went unacknowledged by the larger white society. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Darrin “Doughboy” Baker, played by Ice Cube, ruminates on the murder of his brother, a high school football star, by a rival gang the night before. Doughboy observes that the television news that morning highlighted violence around the world but said nothing about the violence taking place in their community, which claimed his brother’s life. He then adds, “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care, about what’s going on in the hood.”
Doughboy was right, and so too was John Singleton. America did not care about what was occurring in African American communities.
The nation showed a callous indifference to the devastating impact that deindustrialization, the War on Drugs, and the pernicious political opportunism that often accompanied it, was having on inner city neighborhoods. As a result, Singleton set out to provide an honest look at what was happening to and in African American communities in order to make America see what it had turned a blind eye toward and also to make America care. He received an Academy Award nomination for best director for his exceptional work — and was the first African American to be so recognized — establishing his reputation and eventually his legacy as a truth teller. But America’s indifference was not just limited to the Black present; it extended to the Black past. This was reflected in the dearth of films on the African American experience told from a Black perspective and the near complete absence of films that treated the Jim Crow era from this vantage point. In response, just a few years after Boyz, Singleton directed Rosewood, a fictionalized account of the 1923 racial massacre in Rosewood, Florida. The project was so fraught with racial landmines that few directors possessed the courage to take it on.
Singleton’s commitment to telling the unvarnished truth about race and racism in America, and his gift for stirring the soul, are on full display in Rosewood.
He does not sanitize what took place in that central Florida town. Instead, he leans into the harshest elements of the story, depicting the false accusations of rape leveled by white women against Black men; the lynching at the hands of parties well known in the community; the complicity of the state in the murder of Black Floridians by the actions and inactions of local law enforcement, and the forced removal of African Americans from land they owned. Many years after the Rosewood massacre, H. Rap Brown, the chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), observed, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” Singleton’s Rosewood renders this hard truth plain to see. But Singleton does more than merely depict white violence and Black victimization. He paints a portrait of a vibrant Black community, one that was socially active, culturally dynamic, and economically thriving. Just as in Boyz, he provides a glimpse behind the veil, but his focus here is even sharper, adding more texture, nuance, and militancy to the Black community. The “negroes with guns” in this film have them trained on white vigilantes rather than on each other. This does not mean, however, that the film is without shortcomings. Although the venerable Esther Rolle, in her penultimate silver screen appearance (she died in 1998), delivers a heartwarming and heart-wrenching performance as family matriarch Aunt Sarah — the other Black women in the film are mere objects of Black male love and white male lust. Aunt Sarah, at least, knows how to navigate the color line on her own, even though this proves not to be enough to save her from being murdered by white men she knew. Elise Neal’s Scrappie, meanwhile, is the object of affection for Black gunslinger Mann (played by Ving Rhames) and can hardly do much of anything without male guidance. What this means, then, is that there are many more truths yet to be told about Black America. It means that Singleton was prescient in his filmmaking, but not perfect. “No legacy is so rich as honesty,” wrote the Bard of Avon. And no truer words can be said about Singleton--the Bard of LA--whose rich legacy is his honest portrayal of the Black experience. He knew, showed, and cared about what was going on in the hood, in the past and in the present.
About the Author
Hasan Kwame Jeffries is an associate professor in the Department of History at The Ohio State University. His teaching and research focus on 20th century African American history. He earned his BA from Morehouse College (1994) and PhD from Duke University (2002). He is the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (NYU, 2009) and the editor of Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement (Wisconsin, 2019).