John Singleton Talks ‘Boyz N the Hood’ 25 Years Later, The State of Black Cinema and Tupac Shakur
On July 12, 1991, John Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood” came roaring into theaters. The Black community was feeling the residual effects of the ‘80s crack epidemic. George H.W. Bush was in the White House, and the Los Angeles community was still reeling from the brutal beating of Rodney King by the LAPD four months prior.
Just twenty-three years old at the time of the film’s debut, John Singleton became the youngest and first Black director to be nominated for an Academy Award. The feature film debut of both Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut, “Boyz N the Hood” helped spawn an entire new genre of Black film including, Mario Van Peebles, “New Jack City”, Ernest Dickerson’s “Juice” and the Hughes Brothers “Menace II Society”. With continued attacks on our community, and in the midst of the Black Lives Matters Movement, films like “Boyz” remain exceedingly poignant. They give a voice not just to young Black men living in impoverished and crime riddled areas, but also to the community as a whole. As we continue to feel the immense devastation and trauma that stems from four hundred plus years of inequality, terror and unjust treatment these films remain painfully relatable. To commemorate the its 25th anniversary, I attended a special screening of “Boyz N the Hood” with John Singleton in NYC last month. After the credits rolled, he sat and chatted about making the film, the state of Black cinema, #BlackLivesMatter, and his friendship with the late and great Tupac Shakur.
“Boyz N the Hood” 25 Years Later
I look at the film as sort of a time capsule of what I was thinking and what I was feeling at the time. I wrote the script when I was twenty-years-old. I’d gone to see “Do The Right Thing” when it came out in the summer of ’89. I was so enamored with Spike [Lee]. Spike has always been like my big brother, and I met him two weeks before I started USC film school, when he came out with “She’s Gotta Have It”. I saw him in LA and he shook my hand. I told him, “I’m going to USC in two weeks, watch out for me.” So, I went to school for four years reppin’ Black cinema. I was one of the only Black filmmakers and Black students in a predominantly white film culture. Most people going to school back then, they knew people in the business. It was this continued marginalization. People were telling me, “There is only going to be one Spike Lee.” I told them, “I’m going to be the next John Singleton, I’m not going to be the next Spike Lee”. So my thing was, I’m going to get out of school and I’m going to be the first round draft pick just like in the NBA, but in film. My whole four years of school was trying to figure out how I was going to do that. Coming out of the theater after seeing “Do The Right Thing”, something clicked for me. It was about writing about you know. At a certain age, you only have a certain amount of life experience. I only knew about what I saw, and what I knew about growing up in the hood. So I said, “OK, I’m gonna go and hang out with my folks for a little while back down on Vermont and I’m going to figure out this story.” That’s where this came from. It was me trying to really make an identity for myself as a filmmaker reppin’ Los Angeles, or a certain part of LA as an identity. That’s how I came up with “Boyz N the Hood.”
On Making “Boyz N the Hood”
I can’t really say that it was a hard movie to make because I was coming out of school, and even though I didn’t know anything about making movies, I knew film theory. I’d watched a lot of films. I had my own ideology about what would make a good film, but I didn’t know how to make a movie, so I just acted like a director. When the dailies started coming out I thought, “Whoa, I guess I’m giving a good performance.” To make that type of film, you have to be very immersed in whatever culture you are trying to present. I like films that speak to a specific time and place. You can be from a certain culture and not know anything about where you’re from. That’s why a lot of Black filmmakers are making marginal films right now, because they’re not really astute as to what came before them. Like if you make a gumbo and the rue is bad, it ain’t gonna taste good. Even if everybody else is telling you, “This is nothing”, you have to believe that the story that you are telling is valid. It has to be valid to you and that’s what’s really important. It doesn’t matter if a few people see it, or a whole lot of people see it, it has to be valid to you first, before anyone has to believe that it’s something. The script for “Boyz N the Hood” got written because I was at USC, which is still adjacent to the neighborhood that I grew up in. I was having, I don’t want to say post-traumatic stress because I’m still in that environment, but I was having dreams about the stuff that I had seen during my childhood and my teenage years. But, I was on an island, because USC when you step off the campus, you’re in the mix and this was in the ‘80s still. So that’s where “Boyz” came from.
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Image: Columbia Pictures