John Singleton is back in the hood. It’s been a decade since Boyz N the Hood launched his career, garnered mainstream accolades (including Oscar nominations for best director and best original screenplay), and heralded him as part of a new black renaissance of filmmakers illuminating the neglected corners of American society. As Singleton explains in his native Los Angeles, both his debut film and his sixth feature, Baby Boy, are the result of his undying affection for the South Central neighborhood where he still resides.
“In college,” he explains, “I made this whole thing of trying to figure out what kind of filmmaker I was going to be, or at least to try and establish a voice as a filmmaker. Originally, the only people I could look at were Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Spike Lee. They established a certain voice for themselves within the environments that they lived in. I said, ‘I’m from South Central Los Angeles, so that’s what I’m going to write about.’ That was very liberating for me at USC film school, where everybody wanted to be Steven Spielberg or George Lucas.”
The choice of the University of Southern California — whose campus is only a few miles up Vermont Avenue from the Inglewood neighborhood where Singleton grew up — was vital to the budding filmmaker’s idea of creating a homegrown cinema in the shadow of the Hollywood studios. If he sometimes felt out of sorts on campus (where he was in a distinct minority), Singleton drew on the reserves of self-confidence which got him there in the first place.
“When I was in school,” he says, “I was trying to become like the first-round draft pick in the NBA or NFL, but in a filmic sense. To get out of school, make a movie and have a career. That’s what I did. I graduated in May of 1990 and by June I was working on Boyz N the Hood.”
The single-minded, determined 20-something Singleton couldn’t be further from the 20-year-old central character of Baby Boy. Jody is jobless, aimless, always aware of violence lurking around him, and unable to assess how self-defeatism has factored into his limited prospects. Jody not only refuses to move out of his mother’s cozy home, he’s also unwilling to take full responsibility for the two children he’s fathered and continues to string along his girlfriend, who yearns for commitment.
“Everything in the culture tells him to ‘be a man’,” explains Singleton. “Everything has something to do with a dysfunctional rite of passage: You have to be a killer to be a man. And who are they talking about killing? Each other. There are all these insults to a person’s manhood. So these guys are growing up in basically a ‘baby boy’ situation, where they’re raised by their [single] mothers and are always trying to define — then defend — their manhood.
“It’s this whole circular kind of thing that keeps going on,” he continues, “so I think it’s funny that the people who are going to have a lot of trouble with the film aren’t the people who really live this stuff, but the people who look down on those people and say, ‘Why do we have to show this?’ I don’t really give a care about that because I think the only thing that can come out of telling the truth is some kind of change.”
Yet the 33-year-old filmmaker doesn’t see himself as an activist, and is uncomfortable when people look to him for solutions.
“I didn’t make [Baby Boy] to answer any social questions,” he asserts. “I just made the film because I wanted to do something that was young, bold and audacious, and at the same time had a lot to say. I mean, look at all the black men in this movie. It’s a true representation of how a lot of guys in the inner city are living their lives.”
When he’s not exploring America’s history of racial violence (Rosewood) or reinventing a blaxploitation hero (Shaft), Singleton has made contemporary stories grounded in his experiences and those of his peers. And most of those films have featured musicians playing key roles: Baby Boy adds Snoop Dogg to a roster which already includes Ice Cube (Boyz, Higher Learning) and the unlikely but effective pairing of Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur in Poetic Justice. (Singleton had originally envisioned the late Shakur as Jody, a role which eventually went to a very different hip-hop star, Tyrese Gibson.) To Singleton, who serves as the writer, director, producer and music supervisor of Baby Boy, this casting is no gimmick.
“I don’t necessarily put them in the films just because they’re musicians,” he says, “but because they have a certain rhythm that goes along with the character.”
In fact, Singleton thinks of his films in terms of tone, harmony, rhythm and crescendo: in a word, musically.
“Music has been a big inspiration for me,” he explains. “The work of Marvin Gaye has been a huge influence. Listen, I would like my films to have the effect of listening to a Marvin Gaye record. I want people to look at my films, and years later say, ‘That’s what was going on then.’”Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org