A family has lost a father, brother and friend, and the world has lost a pioneer. Singleton’s contributions to black film — and the film industry at large — undeniably pushed the culture forward. A true auteur, the Oscar-nominated director, screenwriter and producer was responsible for a number of black cult classics defined by his powerful, distinctive vision and voice. He transcended the medium, authentically portraying blackness on the big screen. What is undeniably magical about Singleton’s work, however, is the way in which he wrote his black femme characters.
Singleton gifted us with so many characters played by black women that not only speak to the diaspora, but are also rooted in real life. You will find no fixers clinging to a single storyline in his films. Instead, he portrayed multilayered women built up from experience, putting one foot in front of the other. We don’t get Regina King as Sharon Rivers in If Beale Street Could Talk without her as Shalika in Boyz n the Hood, Singleton’s 1991 debut. Incredibly, he wrote and directed the film at 23 years old, and became the first African American, and the youngest person ever to receive an Oscar nomination for best director.
The Los Angeles native had a preternatural knack for finding talent. He saw star power in a number of black women who went on to fulfil their potential, and then some. He cast Queen Mother in Angela Bassett, in, Boyz n the Hood, realised Janet Jackson’s feature film debut Poetic Justice (1993), took Tyra Banks to new heights in Higher Learning (1995) and gifted us with the magnificent Taraji P. Henson in the ever-authentic Baby Boy (2001).
Boyz n the Hood received praise from critics and was fully embraced in hip-hop culture for its authentic portrayal of black life in South Central, LA. Although the lead subjects of the film are black men, the pillars in this story are black women: Reva Styles (Bassett), Brandi (Nia Long), Shalika (King) and Ms. Baker (Tyra Ferrell). It's their voices that guide the male leads, Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, through the terrain of survival, win or lose.
Throughout the film, Singleton creates an interesting juxtaposition between Reva Styles and Ms. Baker. Reva is a career-driven woman who wants the world for her son, Tre, but knows she can’t be both his father and mother. Ms. Baker is a single parent who scolds her children, Ricky (who has no gang affiliation) and Darrin “Doughboy” Baker (who is a member of the Crips). We watch her push her youngest, Ricky, to earn a USC scholarship, and she makes a home for both him, his girlfriend and their baby. Regardless of her efforts to keep him out of trouble, Ricky is murdered — one of the most pivotal, traumatic moments in the film.
Both of these mothers deliver harsh truths to their sons every day about being black in South Central and America at large. Singleton portrayed two black women who, despite wildly different circumstances, shared a similar experience of black motherhood. The characters may be fictional, but they remain a reflection of our waking world almost 30 years later.
In Poetic Justice, Jackson’s character Justice (styled with medium sized box braids that have since become iconic) witnesses her boyfriend’s murder at a drive-in movie. After she falls into a depression, her friend Iesha (Regina King) encourages Justice to take a road trip with friends to take her mind off of the traumatic experience. We watch as the friends go on a journey celebrating facets of black culture: they crash a family reunion where they’re counselled by their faux-Aunty, the legendary Maya Angelou.
As much as the film is a love story for Justice, it’s also about the power of sisterhood. Her boss rallies to her side when she is initially hit on by a young Tupac Shakur (who plays Jackson’s love interest Lucky). She comes to her best friend’s defence when Iesha’s boyfriend, Chicago (Joe Torry), gets violent during their road trip. As we get to know the leading ladies of the film (Jackson and King) we see that they aren’t tied to any stereotypes or tropes. They aren’t the personification of anything but their own abilities and personalities; this was paramount and groundbreaking at a time when black women’s roles were mostly limited and reduced to caricatures.
John Singleton’s films were the visual soundtrack for countless black childhoods — on a given week, you can’t watch BET without catching a few minutes of Baby Boy or Boyz n the Hood. His movies are timeless. He was a pioneer and tastemaker, inspiring a generation of black creatives in film and beyond. Hollywood is considerably late to the diversity and inclusion table, and as rare as it is for black people to find opportunities in film, the numbers are disproportionately difficult for black women. John Singleton brought the table to the table, creating multifaceted characters, giving life to the black femme experience on the big screen.