By Chris Nashawaty
April 29, 2019 at 05:52 PM EDT
Everett Collection

After suffering a stroke earlier this month, Ocsar-nominated writer-director John Singleton was taken off of life support and passed away. He was 51.

John Singleton arrived like a bolt of lightning – startling, powerful, and seemingly out of the blue. Fresh out of USC film school, and armed with a wisdom, maturity, and gift for storytelling that seemed impossible for a 23 year old, the South Central native burst onto the Hollywood scene with one of the most harrowing and humane coming-of-age tales the movies had ever seen.

1991’s Boyz N the Hood wasn’t just a remarkable debut film, it caught the rest of the industry — and the culture at large — napping. Released just four months after the incendiary video of the LAPD beating Rodney King went public and exposed the toxic rot of racism still terrorizing America’s inner cities, the film was an urgent wake-up call to a complacent nation, giving voice to a strand of the African-American experience that was rarely represented onscreen. Boyz N the Hood was like a West Coast call-and-response to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which had detonated in theaters two years earlier. The prescience and bareknuckle force of Singleton’s debut made it seem as if he had been using a divining rod instead of a movie camera to make the film.

Singleton, who grew up near the film’s Crenshaw setting, began writing Boyz N the Hood in 1989 while finishing up his studies at USC. In a 2017 interview, Singleton told EW, “I would write all night into the morning, sleep, and wobble my way through a couple of classes. I didn’t have the money for everything, so I had to use the public computers at school to write. I sat two feet away from people writing their term papers, and I would stand up periodically and walk around and say, ‘I’m writing the f—ing best screenplay of my life.’ People were looking at me like I was crazy. I was so obsessed with what I was writing.”

Singleton’s inspiration had been his old childhood group of friends. And the movie revolved around three black teens: the bright Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the talented sports prodigy Ricky (Morris Chestnut), and Ricky’s tragic, gang-affiliated brother Doughboy (Ice Cube). Made for just $6.5 million, Boyz would go on to earn $57.5 million at the box office and earn Singleton two Oscar nominations, including Best Screenplay and Best Director. He was both the youngest person ever nominated for a Best Director statuette and the first African-American. It immediately vaulted him to Hollywood’s A-list.

Singleton’s follow-up was 1993’s Poetic Justice, an ambitious, romantic road-trip drama full of moral conviction and passion about a young black woman from South Central (Janet Jackson) who loses her boyfriend to an act of gang violence. Critics expecting another Boyz N the Hood didn’t quite know what to make of it. But the film – and especially the charismatic performance of rapper-actor Tupac Shakur – has aged better with time. His next film, 1995’s Higher Learning, was a movie of its moment, pulling no punches as it portrayed the progressive PC wars raging on college campuses in the mid-‘90s. Again, it’s a film that almost speaks more clearly and forcefully in our era of woke identity politics than it did during its initial run in theaters. The same could be said for 1997’s Rosewood, a true-story about a prosperous black community in Florida that is torched to the ground by neighboring whites. It’s a movie that deserves to be watched anew in the second year of the divisive, dog-whistle Trump presidency.

Throughout the rest of his career, Singleton toggled back and forth between more genre-driven, mainstream Hollywood movies (2000’s Shaft, 2001’s Baby Boy, 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, 2005’s Four Brothers, and 2011’s Abduction) and small-screen fare (Empire, American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson, and Snowfall) without sacrificing the underlying humanity, concern, and emotional complexity that had driven him since that initial burst of gushing creativity in the computer lab at USC that led to Boyz. Perhaps more importantly, as his star rose, he advocated and held the door open for a generation of gifted, young African-American filmmakers who dreamed of following in his footsteps. One of them was Jordan Peele, who on Monday tweeted: “John was a brave artist and a true inspiration. His vision changed everything.”

Those words are not hyperbole. After all, John Singleton’s unexpected and untimely passing is a reminder of both the shortness of life and a sad realization of all of the movies of his we’ll never get to see. His legacy was and will continue to be enormous.

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