Everyone remembers their first time seeing “Boyz n the Hood,” the electrifying 1991 writing and directing debut of John Singleton, who died Monday at the age of 51. It was easy to be jolted by its visceral, violent immediacy, moved by its emotional complexity and simply blown away by performances by such then-unknown actors as Morris Chestnut and Cuba Gooding Jr., along with rapper Ice Cube in his first movie role. As an intimate portrait of the South Central Los Angeles where Singleton grew up — with characters directly inspired by his own family and friends — “Boyz n the Hood” marked an unforgettable cinematic moment, helping to define a brief but blazing golden age for African American film in the 1990s and culminating in Singleton being not just the first black director to be nominated for an Oscar but, at 24, the youngest of any race.
My “Boyz n the Hood” memory is particularly vivid: I didn’t see it at my local New York multiplex when it first came out, but a year later, while visiting friends in Rome. On a balmy summer evening in Trastevere, we walked to one of the city’s charming open-air courtyard theaters, where we watched Doughboy, Ricky and Tre come of age amid gangs, drugs, guns and racism as well as loyalty, protection, strength and life-giving humor.
The experience of watching “Boyz n the Hood” so far away from America was both disorienting and exhilarating, the distance only heightening the movie’s street-level energy and blunt emotional connection. Just a few months after South Central was set aflame during the Rodney King riots — violence that “Boyz n the Hood” had presciently anticipated — here was Singleton both critiquing the world he came from and correcting the most reductive and damaging misconceptions about it. The little Italian theater was packed, the audience clearly transfixed by Singleton’s vision of family and friendship, love and struggle, despair and resilience — even as they tried to keep up with subtitled dialogue that surely presented translators with several amusing challenges, including but not limited to properly saying “Who dis?” in Italian.
Watching “Boyz n the Hood” through the eyes of the Italian audience reframed the film, not as a “culturally specific” slice of urban life, but as a quintessentially American pop culture export. And yet, back then, Hollywood studios still held to the truism that “black doesn’t travel,” insisting that foreign audiences wouldn’t accept films by or about people of color. Singleton wrote the part of Doughboy specifically for Ice Cube, but when he tried to cast Cube’s bandmates from N.W.A, executives refused because they didn’t know who they were. All the studio wanted was their own version of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” (All Singleton wanted was to rectify distortions he saw in such gang dramas as “Colors,” one of whose producers he took to task at an early screening. “You advertise this movie like it’s about my community, and it’s really about two white cops,” Singleton recalled telling him. “It’s not about what’s really going on there.”)
Two decades later, the N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” would gross more than $200 million, one quarter of that from overseas. Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” would earn nearly half its revenue internationally. Just try telling “Black Panther’s” fans around the world that black doesn’t travel. Meanwhile, Gooding is an Oscar winner, as is Regina King, yet another actor who made her debut in “Boyz n the Hood.”
In 2013, Singleton wrote a brief but moving column for the Hollywood Reporter, celebrating the artistic and commercial success of Ryan Coogler’s debut, “Fruitvale Station,” as well as Lee Daniels’s “The Butler” and Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” — all of which, he noted, were made outside the confines of Hollywood studios where executives “are basically hired to say no ad infinitum.” Although his own experiences with that gauntlet had clearly tempered his optimism, he ended on a rousing note: “One thing is for certain,” he wrote: “The chains on what can be made and what can’t in Hollywood have been unshackled.”
In hindsight, he was recognizing another golden age of black visual storytelling, in which such artists as Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Dee Rees and Ava DuVernay are expanding the definition of diversity beyond ethnic representation to include subject matter, aesthetics, genres, temperaments and tonal approaches. What Singleton might have been too modest to add — but what should never be forgotten — is the enduring role he played, simply by bringing the truth of his community to a wider world.