John Singleton on Why Black Filmmakers Need to Tell Black Stories

As the classic film Boyz n the Hood turns 24, its director sat down for an interview about what it took for him as a young director to convince Hollywood he could make the film and why some black directors “half-ass” their responsibility to the culture.

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John Singleton

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The coming-of-age classic Boyz n the Hood is 24 years old this July. At the recent American Black Film Festival in New York City, where the movie was being screened by Turner Classic Movies, The Root contributor Reginald Ponder had a chance to speak with John Singleton, who was 22 years old when he directed his Oscar-nominated film. Singleton talked about a wide range of topics, including making real black films and why Ice Cube didn’t get nominated for an Oscar. But before Singleton was even asked a single question, he had one for the crowd.

John Singleton [to the audience]: How many of you cried? Again?

I was crying with you because the movie is much more than a movie to me. It was a cathartic effort. I wrote this movie when I was 22 years old in film school, and they tell you in film school to write about what you know. So I decided that I was going to write about my friends and what we experienced, and that is how the movie came about.

The Root: Why did you pursue writing at USC (University of Southern California)?

JS: Someone told me that you may not have a lot of money to make a movie, but if you can write a movie, you can make a movie all the time. So I tried to hone that skill of writing the movie I want made. Also, I knew that if I was to become a filmmaker, no one was going to write the kind of films I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to be subjected to someone’s interpretation of what I wanted to see so I said, “Let me learn how to write and put that soul on the page.”

TR: You recently talked about black filmmakers not making the best “black film.” Can you elaborate?

JS: There are all these little things in Boyz n the Hood that if you are black and from a certain environment, you just understand. That wasn’t by happenstance, it was by design, because when I was watching all these films from around the world, or even films from American filmmakers like Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, they were uniquely Italian, and I said that if I was going to roll, I was going to make something uniquely black. I think that is what I accomplished with this film. I think that is something we have gotten away from.

Filmmakers who want to make a good movie are so concerned with what other people think about what they are making that they are not concerned with making the best culturally astute film. When I do a movie like this, I’m trying to make it culturally specific to black people, and I feel that if I do that it becomes universal. I feel a lot of black filmmakers half-ass the s--t. I don’t care what nobody says; I talk about this and I write about [it] in the trade papers because we have so many stories which haven’t been told, and not many opportunities to tell them, that I feel very, very strongly about black people telling our stories. I don’t give a f--k what nobody says.

TR: What gave you the audacity to say you would only show the script to producers or studios if they would allow you to direct the film yourself?

JS: My daddy raised me to be a man. I wasn’t going to have someone else take this movie and mess it up. We had seen so many movies messed up, and we are still seeing movies messed up.

TR: Was it hard to get the financing for this film?

JS: I’m 22 years old, I have my first meeting with a studio and I pitched this old white dude, Frank Price, who is my mentor—God bless him! I told him that it wasn’t going to cost a lot of money to make this movie. This is a movie me and friends sat on the porch saying should be made. Plus, it is not going to take a lot of money because I don’t have to get rid of the helicopters, I’ll just put a light over the window and put the sound in there. Because I was so astute about sounding a picture in such a casual manner, he said, “If you have that much confidence in yourself, OK, here’s $6 million. Go make your movie.”

TR: You were 22 with Oscar nominations for writing and directing. What was your reaction to it all?