”Boyz N the Hood” opened with a bang on July 12, 1991. Harrowing visions flashed across 837 screens — the gang violence, crack mania, and ever-hovering police helicopters that exemplified the everyday nightmare of life in South Central Los Angeles. At a few theaters, the violence also played out in the audience; moviegoers from Hollywood to Chicago drew guns and knives, leaving at least 30 people injured and two dead. As John Singleton, the film’s writer-director, says, ”It helped us marketing-wise.”
Don’t mistake his bluntness for callous chatter. Singleton sees the melees as the unfortunate commingling of social unrest and media hype. ”When ‘New Jack City’ opened in March [of ’91], an incident happened in Westwood. That was because the Rodney King videotape had just hit the news the week that ‘New Jack City’ opened.” In his opinion, overheated media punditry about violence in inner-city movies set the stage for ”Boyz N the Hood”’s bloody opening. ”The film was against street violence,” he says. The press ”made a story for themselves.”
Otherwise, the story was the classic Hollywood one of prodigious talent and swift success, with a racial overlay: A charismatic tyro fresh from the writing program at USC’s film school convinces a studio (Columbia Pictures) to let him, untested at age 22, make a movie about the ravaged neighborhood of his youth. (”I didn’t know s— about making films,” Singleton says. ”Making the movie was my graduate school.”) The wunderkind scores plaudits at Cannes and praise from critics. His movie, made for $6 million, grosses 10 times that. The filmmaker becomes the first African American — and the youngest ever — to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
Singleton has earned a reputation as a trash talker — one who will unflinchingly say of his quick rise, ”I consider myself a first-round draft pick” — and yet his reflections on his career tend toward the humble: ”Even with the Oscar nominations and all of that, the greatest thing is that I’m still in the industry. I’m not just selling out and doing hackwork.”
Some viewers of his 2000 update of ”Shaft” will quibble with that last statement; still others will suggest that his body of work — including ”Poetic Justice” (1993), ”Higher Learning” (1995), and ”Rosewood” (1997) — hasn’t fulfilled the artistic promise of ”Boyz.” Singleton’s response to such critics is typically succinct: ”F— them. Whether or not the films are perfect, they at least have a vision. I’m making personal films in an impersonal industry.” His just-released ”Baby Boy,” a ”companion piece” to ”Boyz N the Hood,” is again set in South Central, a fitting return for a director who, 10 years after his first film, says, ”I’m actually just beginning my career.”