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John Singleton, the Chronicler of L.A.’s Mean Streets

The filmmaker’s quiet dignity and gentle demeanor belied the chaos of his youth and allowed him to navigate Hollywood.

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Photo by George Pimentel

John Singleton once told me how his mother would dress him up in Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits when he was a boy living in South Central L.A. Whatever her motivation, his mother’s actions just may have kept him from becoming a member of one of the numerous local gangs. Singleton, who died yesterday at the age of 51 following a recent stroke, would grow up to be a cinematic storyteller, whose 1991 Boyz n the Hood was not only the first film to authentically reflect Los Angeles gang life, but a film that changed the way America looked at an entire culture.

Coming three years after the feature Colors, whose inaccurate depictions of gang life was said to have sparked a real gang war that cost dozens of lives, Singleton’s semi-autobiographical tale of L.A.’s Crips and Bloods shot into the zeitgeist, a bombastic adrenaline rush that injected energy into mainstream filmmaking. He was 24 years old.

Singleton soon became a media darling, a safe go-to expert on South Central that enabled the mainstream to get a read on a world largely unknown to those figuratively (and literally) living north of the 10 Freeway. Singleton’s quiet dignity and gentle demeanor belied the chaos of his youth and allowed him to navigate Tinseltown’s often twisted streets.

But while Singleton went on to direct a Michael Jackson video and eight more features, the results were mixed. The best of his films—Rosewood and Four Brothers—had compelling moments but, overall, didn’t come close to the promise of his debut film.

Perhaps it was because he could never quite figure out how to straddle the line between the temptations of Hollywood and the mean streets of his youth. When I once told him that our next interview would have the “tough questions,” he responded by saying, “There are no tough questions.” Days later, when I asked him what type of car he drove, he replied, “Why are you asking that?” Asked how he felt about Louis Farrakhan, he refused to answer.

There were tough questions — and tough times for Singleton while he was trying to replicate Boyz’s success. He had better fortune stepping out from behind the camera as the producer of Hustle & Flow and, most recently, steering the acclaimed FX series on L.A.’s early ’80s crack epidemic, Snowfall. But his name has continued to engender respect and reverence, especially to those looking for an example of how a young kid can make it out of the hood and into the ’Wood.

Two years ago, Singleton produced A&E’s L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later, a searing documentary about the conflagration that followed the Rodney King-beating trial verdict, which featured a cameo by the filmmaker. Minutes after the jury’s decision exonerating four policemen accused of clubbing King is announced, Singleton looks into the camera of a live-news crew and tells the world, “By having this verdict, what these people done, they lit the fuse to a bomb.”

While Singleton was prescient about the rage and destruction that would soon engulf his community, his own career never did blow up the way many thought it would. That said, in the midst of doing some of his best work, an unforeseen tragedy has extinguished a truly vibrant talent way too soon.

RIP, JS.


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