Cruising around his old neighborhood is dredging up memories for John Singleton.
As he swings onto Century Boulevard, he points out Red's Liquor Store, where he bought comic books and swiped copies of Players magazine. Driving by an aging apartment complex, he gestures toward a row of one-way street signs. "They used to be regular two-way streets, but when crack came in, they made them one-way so it'd be easier for the cops to chase the drug dealers."
At 23, Singleton is relishing his first taste of Hollywood heat with the release of his debut film, "Boyz N the Hood." But the movie business is far from the brash young writer-director's mind right now as he takes a visitor on a tour of his childhood haunts in South-Central Los Angeles.
Singleton says he was often one of the smallest kids in the playground. But when he was threatened, he felt obligated to respond.
"The thing that made me different from my friends was that I had a strong commitment to not back away from a fight," he says, driving past his first home on West 60th Street, the gang turf he says is the Rolling 60's. "I wasn't big but"--he taps his skull--"I could (mess) with people's heads."
In elementary school, if a kid gave Singleton trouble, he would simply inform his adversary that the Earth was spinning so close to the sun that they were about to collide and destroy the entire universe.
"That usually did it," he says coolly. "They'd start screaming and go running off to the teacher. I didn't do anything stupid. I used my brain."
"I guess I was a lucky kid. If I did something bad, I never got caught. And if I did something good, everybody noticed."
Singleton has taken his brainpower--and his unflinching ambition--and focused it on his dream of making a film portrait of his boyhood adventures. Though a graduate of USC Film School, a Hollywood factory that has produced such young directors as Phil Joanou and James Foley, Singleton's only student-film experience was directing a pair of silent 8-millimeter movies.
But his film-school scripts were impressive--Singleton won the Jack Nicholson Writing Award two years in a row. His accomplishments created the kind of industry buzz that got him signed to CAA, Hollywood's hottest agency--and wooed by Columbia Pictures.
All along, Singleton had insisted that, despite his inexperience, his script for "Boyz N the Hood" could be directed by only one person--himself. And after a lengthy meeting on the Columbia lot, he earned a powerful ally--Columbia studio chief Frank Price.
"I thought John's script had a distinctive voice and great insight," says Price. "But when we met, I was really impressed. He's not just a good writer, but he has enormous self-confidence and assurance. In fact, the last time I'd met someone that young with so much self-assurance was Steven Spielberg.
"We had John do some test scenes with several actors and they turned out so well that I became completely convinced--I thought he'd do a terrific job as director."
With Columbia Pictures behind it, "Boyz N the Hood" emerges as the first all-black movie about L.A.'s urban strife to be bankrolled by a major studio. More important, it's one of the first times a young African-American film maker has dealt with the searing issues of his generation--family disintegration, gang turf wars and crack addiction.
It's the cinematic flip side to Steve Martin's "L.A. Story," a razor-sharp portrait of violence and retribution set against a family's struggle to provide their son with the tools of survival. Presented at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the film earned a tumultuous ovation--with critical praise to match. Calling it a film of "extraordinary maturity and emotional depth," Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert hailed the movie as "not simply a brilliant directorial debut, but an American film of enormous relevance."
Shot in various neighborhoods last winter, "Boyz N the Hood" is a South-Central coming-of-age story that traces the growth of three childhood pals--Tre Styles, played by Cuba Gooding Jr.; Doughboy, his gang member pal, played by rap star Ice Cube, and Ricky, a budding football star, played by Morris Chestnut.
Of the three, only Tre has an active father figure, Furious Styles (played by Larry Fishburne), who steers his son away from gangland temptations, preaches black-pride sermons ("Never respect someone who doesn't respect you back") and offers a steely sense of parental discipline and dignity. The film's dramatic question: Can the bonds of family and friendship survive on the mean streets of South-Central Los Angeles?
As a stark reminder of the stranglehold of violence in this society, Singleton floods the soundtrack to "Boyz N the Hood" with the crackle of gunfire and the whir of police helicopters.
The film opens with a volley of shots from a drive-by shooting. Wherever Tre Styles goes, someone is putting a gun to his head, whether it's a local Crips gang-banger or a bullying black cop. Doing her homework, Tre's girlfriend is startled by staccato gunfire. When she and Tre make love, we see the copters circling overhead, flashing their searchlights.
Singleton knows this environment firsthand, having grown up in several South-Central neighborhoods. "I've heard the copters all my life," he says, driving down Crenshaw Boulevard. "It's an incredible kind of psychological violence. It makes you not think in terms of the future, because who knows if you'll be around. So you say, 'Not next year. Not next week. I'm going to get mine now .'
"The only reason I ever thought about the future was because my Moms and my Pops made me think about it. I didn't get involved with gangs, like some of my friends. If I'd joined a gang, my Pops would've kicked my ass."
Singleton turns off Crenshaw and heads toward a neighborhood where he spent his pre-teen years, living with his mother. Down the street is Darbey Park, a major playground hangout for Singleton and his friends. He points to a fence around the park with a padlocked gate.
"Around 1984, after Reagan had been in office for a few years and after crack started coming in, everything changed here," he says. "They ran out of recreational funds, so the park ceased to be a recreational facility. It became a turf for the gangs. And if you went there and weren't with the right crowd, you could get hurt."
Singleton slows the car to a crawl, staring off into the park. "That's what I mean about how things have changed down here. When I was little, you could fight with somebody, kick their butt and then you could still become friends. But after crack and the gangs took over, it all changed.
"If you beat somebody up and kicked their ass, they'd go get one of their friends with a gun and come back and shoot you."
' 'All I know is that ever since black people were brought here -- dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the motherland -- we've been under some police state, whether its slavery or the LAPD."
The cutting edge of today's black culture, whether in the ferocious rap broadsides of Ice-Cube and Public Enemy, the white-hot films of Matty Rich and Mario Van Peebles or the icy private-eye thrillers of Walter Mosley, explores the chilling specter of rage and violence. For Singleton, sipping an Orange Julius at the Crenshaw Mall, the rage is born of little indignities.
"I could leave this mall, roll up Crenshaw (Boulevard) and if I was talking on the phone to my girlfriend, some cop could take me for a suspected drug dealer," he says with a shrug. "Can you imagine that--it's bad for me to have a cellular phone, even in my line of work? It's psychological lynching."
It's a measure of Singleton's disdain--and alienation--that the most hated authority figure in "Boyz N the Hood" is a black cop. He complains that when the LAPD "virtually lynched" Rodney King, one of the first groups to support Police Chief Daryl Gates was the Black Policemen's Assn.
"I can't change white cops," he says. "But I think I can change the minds of some black cops. They shouldn't care more about doughnuts and coffee than they care about the people in their community."
The central character in "Boyz N the Hood," Tre Styles, is patterned after Singleton. But the character he often identifies with the most is Doughboy, the neighborhood's gun-toting enforcer. First seen as a chubby neighborhood delinquent, Doughboy returns from prison with a fatalistic film noir-style sense of doom, cruising the 'hood with a posse of bloods, ogling women and sizing up rivals.
"Sometimes I really feel like Doughboy," he says quietly. "I think it has a lot to do with the need to strike out and not think about your actions. I've been in situations where I was so mad that I wanted to stab somebody--I wanted to kill them."
He sighs. "But I couldn't do it because I thought too much about the consequences. I knew I'd go to jail. I knew someone could die. At times, ignorance is freedom. Doughboy didn't have a father like Furious Styles, who would make him think about his actions before he did them."
Singleton takes great pride that his parents, though living apart, provided him with a strong family bond--and nurtured his dreams as a budding filmmaker.
When he was a kid, he was in awe of the black bourgeoisie who lived in View Park. Now he has a home there. When he was 14, he went back to see "E.T." over and over, saving the ticket stub from each theater he'd seen it in. Now he visits Steven Spielberg on the secrecy-shrouded set of "Hook," sitting with him between takes, talking about his favorite pictures.
To an outsider, this volatile mixture of sweetness and wrath can be unsettling--one minute Singleton is waxing nostalgic about "E.T," the next minute he's dismissing his hometown as a police state.
But coming of age in South-Central has given him a radically different cultural compass from his white filmmaker contemporaries. They share the same pop culture influences: Singleton was transfixed the first time he saw "Star Wars," he openly idolizes Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, and when he was shooting "Boyz N the Hood," you could often find him on the set, between shots, buried in a Spiderman comic book.
It's Singleton's life experience that sets him apart. He's survived, but not without scars. His favorite childhood movies may have been fantasies, but he doesn't embrace movie escapism. As a filmmaker, Singleton searches for inspiration--and affirmation--on the grim street corners of his home turf.
Singleton has always been an outsider, whether when being bused to white high schools or when mingling with ambitious young white film students at USC. So it comes as no surprise that when you first meet the baby-faced director, he seems guarded and detached, almost aloof.
Once he gets warmed up, he proves to be an outspoken guy--with a sense of mission. When a salesman at a local clothing store asks if he enjoyed directing a movie, Singleton responds, without hesitation: "It was the first job I ever had where I got to work early every day."
Consider him a filmmaker still wrestling with the complicated furies of youth. Wandering through the mall, he jumps from a dissection of black economic problems ("We need an organized infrastructure in our community so we can be self-sufficient") to a ranking of the area's female populace ("The Crenshaw Mall has the finest women anywhere").
Singleton's office is on the Columbia Pictures lot, but his heart remains in South-Central.
Unimpressed by the trappings of Hollywood--he still drives his mother's car--he's a loner with few close friends. He calls his new home his "fortress of solitude." When searching for inspiration, he'll often visit the Crenshaw Mall with a notebook and 3x5 cards, where he can "brainstorm" for fresh ideas while munching on a Hot Dog on a Stick.
Still, Singleton is enjoying this first burst of acclaim. At Cannes, he was impressed by the respect the French paid visiting filmmakers. "They treat you like a king, like a dignitary," he says. "It doesn't even matter how good your film is!"
He wryly noted that the Cannes paparazzi had trouble distinguishing him from a considerably better-known black film director. "It was funny to see these photographers come racing across the street to take my picture," he recalls. "And then when I'd sign autographs, they'd all say, 'Oh, no, you're not Spike Lee.' "
Once Singleton gets comfortable, his youthful bravado begins to show. Asked if he worried about studio interference with his film, he breezily pronounces, "If your dailies are good, they leave you alone." He said the studio brass stopped dropping by the set after the first few weeks. "I'm sure they saw I was doing OK, but I did tell them horror stories about what happens down here--shootings, drive-bys. They didn't want to come around much after that.
"It's funny," he continues. "When I was working on my movie, Columbia fired directors off of two other pictures." He flashes a mischievous grin. "But I wasn't worried. I figured, if they fire me, who are they going to get to finish the movie--Alan Parker?"
' 'Gangs are just a symptom of the problems in the black community. They're a rite of passage to manhood. Every society has that. For black youths in South - Central, it's joining a gang. In another society, it's joining a football team. The problem with the rite of passage in South - Central is that it can get you killed."
"Wow, they've really fixed up that house over there," says Singleton, walking around his father's old neighborhood at Vermont near 101st Street. "It's painted and everything--that was the first crack house around here. I remember when it was a mess."
Armed with an invitation to "Boyz N the Hood's" Hollywood premiere, Singleton is visiting his childhood pal, Michael Winters, who is Singleton's model for Doughboy, the neighborhood enforcer. The two haven't seen each other since Singleton started shooting his movie. But they've been friends since sixth grade, when they were learning to skateboard, riding the bus downtown to see triple-feature movies and starting to take an interest in girls.
Watching Winters roam around his house, looking for a pack of cigarettes, you can imagine how this cheery guy with the soft, round face could inspire a nickname like Doughboy (actually his childhood moniker was Fat Back). An avid storyteller, Winters eagerly recalls their boyhood adventures, many of which are recounted, with some dramatic license, in the movie.
"John and I were going through puberty at the same time so we were always interested in the same girls," Winters recalls with glee. "Remember Gigi?"
Singleton notes that a Gigi-style character is in the film. "You'll recognize a lot of things. Remember that time my Pops shot at that guy trying to rob our house one night--and put a big hole in the wall? That's in the movie too."
Winters is open about having been in gangs when he was younger. "Yeh, I was doing all that stuff, smoking weed and hanging out. I was in the 107th Street Hoover Crips. It's part of growing up around here--hanging around with the in-crowd.
"I remember going to see John when he was living in Inglewood and you'd get hassled by the guys over there. If you went into a Bloods neighborhood, you'd get real sweated. You know, they'd say, 'What's up, cuz?' And you had to get a pass to stay over there."
On gang turf, violence comes with the territory. "Remember Robbie Springer?" Singleton says. "He was the big bully of the neighborhood--our protector. He got his reputation by breaking into everybody's houses. But once people got to know him, he was OK. He was 17, but he seemed a lot older."
Springer didn't make it past 17. "He was in the Hoovers," Winters explains. "And one night, some other gang came out here and shot him." He points out the window. "Right over there in that alley. It left a big impression on people. Everyone was saying, 'Damn, he's gone. He ain't here no more.' "
Winters has considered moving out of the neighborhood, but he feels anchored there. "I've been here 18 years," he says. "It's my block, my street. My name's written out there in the cement. The gangs are still here, but when you get older, you get out of that stuff. You start thinking about making money and doing something else with your life."
As Winters is talking, Singleton walks over to the window and gazes out at a large shade tree in the front yard. "When the crime copters would fly over here, looking for somebody, I used to love to stand under that tree and watch their lights," he says. "I'd go run out in the street, trying to attract the helicopter, so we could play in the spotlights. It was really beautiful. When they'd point the searchlights at the ground, the light would come through that tree in hundreds of tiny little shafts, dappling through the leaves."
Once Singleton lingered too long in the lights and got caught. "Suddenly five or six police cars converged on us--it was like out of a movie. They pulled their guns on us, searched us and everything. They'd say, 'Don't we know you from somewhere? Didn't we pick you up last week? Don't you have a big brother in a gang?' Finally, when they realized we were just a couple of kids, they'd tell us not to mess with them and let us go."
Winters shakes his head. "I remember once, sitting on the curb, when a cop car drove by and I went, 'Oink. Oink!' " He laughs. "Man, that car squealed back so fast, right up to us. And they said, 'You got something to say? 'Cause if you do, we'll pull your ass in here and beat the (expletive) out of you!' "
"When I was a kid I got teased a lot for wearing glasses, so I always carried a little razor in my pocket to protect myself. Not a big thing, just a box-cutter I'd got from my dad when he worked at Thrifty's. When you're in the eighth grade, if you threaten a kid with a razor, he'll know what's up. You had to do something. It's either that or sit home a lot."
Back at the Crenshaw Mall, Singleton is in high spirits. He's just picked up a batch of snapshots from Cannes, including some of him posing with Spike Lee and Bill Duke, director of "A Rage in Harlem." (Ever the perfectionist, Singleton made the photo store develop the shots twice--they were too washed out the first time.)
As a director, Singleton says his biggest role model has been Lee, who has graciously offered film tips--and how's this for clout--took Singleton to the fifth game of the NBA championships, where he had front-row seats. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be making movies. He's the one filmmaker who's made it and stayed black. We're obviously different in some ways--he's East Coast, I'm West Coast. But if people want to compare me to him, that's an honor."
Singleton isn't particularly impressed by all the attention given to the recent wave of movies by black filmmakers. "If people think they can make money with black movies, they'll keep making them," he says. "And if they stop making money, you watch--they'll stop making them."
If any one man had a major influence on Singleton's career ambitions, it would be his father, Danny Singleton, whom John has admiringly dubbed the Samurai of South-Central. His father is now a real estate broker ("and he still thinks I oughta get into real estate," Singleton says with a grin).
As a child, John lived with his mother--his parents never married--but when he was 12, he moved in with his dad. "My father said that he couldn't afford to pay child support, but he could pay moral support," Singleton remembers. "He taught me just what you hear Furious Styles say in the movie--never respect someone who doesn't respect you back, and when you talk to someone, always look them in the eye."
When Singleton was 9, his father took him to a movie he'd never forget. He wanted to see the latest Disney "Herbie" movie, but his father said, "No, you've got to see this movie. We stood in line for over an hour and when the movie came on, it was 'Star Wars.' Man, the visuals were so strong--the whole movie was just amazing."
At USC, Singleton went to film school and started an African-American film association. He doesn't pretend to have many warm film-school memories. "All the little white boys thought I was arrogant because I was so self-determined."
Singleton bridled at anything holding him back. While at USC, he got a six-month TV directing internship at "The Arsenio Hall Show." Unhappy that he was being treated like a lowly gofer, he rebelled immediately.
"The show's director, Sandy Fullerton, was really friendly," he says. "But outside of her, I was just tolerated. I remember the first day I was in the booth, they were taping the show and they tried to get me to Xerox all these scripts and I said, 'Hell, no! I'm a directing intern!' I stood my ground, but it caused a real stink."
Singleton also did an internship at Columbia Pictures, where a young studio executive named Stephanie Allain read two scripts Singleton had written--and when she asked to see more, he showed her "Boyz N the Hood." Allain took the "Hood" script to studio chief Frank Price, who greenlighted the film.
At a cost of less than $6 million, the film is not a huge financial risk. Still, the studio is hoping it can reach beyond young black moviegoers and attract a sizable percentage of young white rap fans, aided by the presence of rap star Ice Cube.
"No other actor that exists on this planet could have played Doughboy," Singleton says of Ice Cube, who declined to be interviewed. "What Toshiro Mifune was to Akira Kurosawa, Ice Cube is to me. He brings the perfect attitude to the part. Cube knows how to get across all the things that I'm writing."
It's a compelling image--Ice Cube as rap's samurai warrior, guarding the 'hood from evil invaders. In fact, Singleton owes much of his samurai fascination to his father, who schooled him in the ways of great warriors.
"We used to have long talks about all sorts of metaphysical things--life, death, the origins of the universe," Singleton recalls. "That was my father's hero--Toshiro Mifune. My dad's a big man, 6-3 and 230 pounds. He was so big he could scare me into doing things."
Singleton falls silent for a moment as he drives north, heading back to the studio lot, leaving his old neighborhood far behind. "And when I got to the point where I wasn't scared anymore, that was when I became a man."