John Singleton on Why Black Filmmakers Need to Tell Black Stories

John Singleton
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
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?

JS: I was happy for myself, but I was upset because I felt we should have receive[d] a nomination for best picture and Ice Cube should have received one for best supporting actor. I told Cube that if you had cried on that porch, if you had just cried on that porch before you told that bitch to get the f—k out of your face, you would have gotten an Oscar. But he made the right decision as an actor because he did just enough. He didn’t overdo it. You can tell he was emotional and he had all this stuff pent up, but he didn’t let it out. A lot of people are like that, and in retrospect, Cube made the right decision.


I was young, I was a filmmaker, and I didn’t know how to rap and didn’t know music, but I felt like I made the best hip-hop movie of the time without having people rapping in it. I wanted to have something that was so authentic that people would be like, “I’m with this.” I want to put it down for L.A. Spike Lee was my idol then, and still is, because he went hard and put so many people in the business. I'm like, “OK, he’s doing it for New York and I gotta do it for L.A. I’m going to show them what L.A. is like. This is going to be the quintessential L.A. movie.”

God bless him because the climate that is happening in the business today, that couldn’t happen now. They wouldn’t let a 22-year-old black kid right out of film school, no matter how phenomenal you are, be given the money and the opportunity to direct. They will never let anybody do that today in the studio system. 


TR: Talk a bit about your commitment to African Americans.

JS: We shot in the neighborhood, the crew was about 97 percent black and the kids who played the young characters all lived around there. My permanent office is right across the street from where we cast the film. I’m the only one in Hollywood to have an office off of Crenshaw. We cast Baby Boy, Hustle and Flow, 2 Fast 2 Furious and Four Brothers right there. I like to use great actors with a mixture of real people.


TR: You seemed to have a lot to say with Boyz n the Hood.

JS: Yeah, I was a bit preachy, but everything I was preaching about is still relevant today. Like police brutality and this whole thing of brothers going against brothers because of their insecurities. There are so many black men that are so insecure about themselves that they have to go after other black men to prove their masculinity. We went from a time when people said, “Hey, brother; hey, sister,” with all this love, to, “If you look at me wrong, I’ll take you out.”


Where I’m from, we are engineered to be time bombs. So in my movies, I try to show a lot of love. There is love and respect between Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett and love between the friends. Also, I have a mantra: “Always show black men crying,” because you rarely ever see brothers cry, and I want to show that welling emotion in us.

TR: You know you hurt us all, and especially the women, with Ricky getting shot. Why Ricky?

JS: Ricky had to go because he was the black American dream.

Reginald Ponder, the Reel Critic, is well-known as a national film critic who loves movies and analyzes all aspects of the film industry through a multicultural lens. You can connect with him on Twitter on Facebook and at his website.