MOVIES : The Mission Beyond Hollywood : John Singleton is making a ‘more lyrical’ film than ‘Boyz N the Hood'--and dealing with the impact and obligations of his success
John Singleton is near the end of a long, grueling day, shooting his new film in South-Central Los Angeles, when something unimaginably awful happens. The very image of a hip, young filmmaker--black beret, shades, Malcolm X pendant and Nike sneakers--the 24-year-old director of “Boyz N the Hood” recoils, a look of pure horror in his eyes.
His mother, who’s visiting the set, has pulled out his baby pictures.
“Awwwwwhhhh, Mom!” Singleton says, wagging his head in dismay. “Why are you going to embarrass me like that? Those are my baby pictures--in front of everybody!”
His mother shrugs him off with a wave of her hand. A charming, vivacious woman who doesn’t look a day over 40, she’s clearly proud of her son’s overnight celebrity.
“I don’t come round and bother him, except when I’ve got business to do,” she says, showing off a photo of Singleton as a tiny child with thick glasses, posing with two of his cousins. “But he is my only child. I’m entitled to see a little bit.”
His mother holds up a photo featuring her with a towering Afro. It’s from the ‘70s. “What can I say?” she jokes. “I was late getting black. I missed the first train.”
She pulls out another baby picture of John just as his new film’s co-star, Janet Jackson, wanders over. “Oh, let me see that!” Jackson says gleefully. “Look how cute he is!”
Singleton can’t believe this is actually happening. “Wait a minute,” he complains to Jackson. “I didn’t see any of your baby pictures.”
“Sure you did,” she retorts. “I showed you one this morning.”
By now, several other actresses have surrounded Singleton’s mom, oohing and aahing, waiting to take a peek. The director retreats to his director’s chair, a beaten man.
“I can’t believe it, Mom!” he groans. “Why do you always have to come ‘round, ruining my rep!”
It’ll take a lot more than embarrassing baby pictures to ruin John Singleton’s rep these days. With nothing more than a few USC student films to his name, he burst to prominence last year with “Boyz N the Hood,” a compelling portrait of violence and retribution set against a family’s struggle to provide its son with the tools of survival.
The movie was a box-office hit--and earned Singleton Oscar nominations for best director and best original screenplay. More importantly, it helped bring Los Angeles’ inner-city woes back into the national consciousness. Its razor-edged authenticity also established Singleton as a gifted chronicler of America’s disenfranchised urban youth.
Perhaps because “Boyz N the Hood” offered dramatic insights into such issues as black ownership, gangbanger amorality and parental responsibility, many critics have dubbed Singleton the leader of a new wave of black filmmakers.
But “Boyz N the Hood”'s impact stretched far beyond Hollywood. Politicians like Gov. Pete Wilson cited the film’s strong father-son relationship as an example of the importance of family ties for inner-city youths. When the Nordstrom’s department store chain moved to educate its Washington-area employees about race relations, it invited its work force to a screening of “Boyz N the Hood.”
The most potent symbol of Singleton’s success is that he’s already at work again--and this time, with a budget easily double that of “Boyz’s” $5.7 million. Impressed by “Boyz’s” box-office showing, Columbia Pictures is bankrolling the writer-director’s new film, “Poetic Justice,” a road movie that is shooting now at various Los Angeles, Oakland and Central Coast locations.
Saying success “really calmed me down,” Singleton was eager to make a different kind of movie, a love story, a film that would be “more lyrical” than his hard-edged debut.
Then, two weeks into the filming, a Simi Valley jury delivered the not-guilty verdicts in the trial of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney G. King. Los Angeles burst into three nightmarish days of rioting and civil unrest.
In one sense, John Singleton was lucky. His movie crew was far from the riot-torn areas of the city.
You might say they were strangers in a strange land. On the afternoon of April 29, as the verdicts came down, Singleton and his crew were filming in . . . Simi Valley.
Driving back to his Simi Valley set after lunch, Singleton watched the breaking news reports on a portable TV, growing more enraged. Movie or no movie, he made an instant decision.
“I felt I had to do something, so I went right to the courthouse,” he recalls during a break between shots. “I was so pissed off I couldn’t believe it.”
Outside the courtroom, Singleton gave interviews to TV news crews, angrily forecasting the ensuing mayhem. As the TV crews gathered, he says, he was approached by several undercover police officers who cautioned him about making inflammatory remarks.
“They were telling me to watch what I said. They were worried that I was going to say something incendiary.”
Singleton clenches his fist. “As if I was the problem! The problem is the things we’ve avoided dealing with all these years!”
He eventually returned to his set and resumed shooting. Armed with a Sony Watchman and a cellular phone, he kept vigil, calling his family and friends throughout the night.
“It was very hard to be working,” he acknowledges. “I was all torn up. I can never remember being more angry in my life. It was crazy out there. I didn’t know if my house was burning up or not.”
Singleton is usually guarded with his feelings, always keeping them in check. But after the riots, his nerves are raw. Discussing the King verdict and its ugly aftermath in his first extended interview since the end of the disturbance, you sense him grappling with a flood of turbulent emotions.
“This is just the beginning,” he says defiantly. “It’s going to be a long, hot summer. The gangbangers have a peace treaty, but they’re not exactly fraternity brothers--how long’s it gonna last?
“We’ve got this racist cop, Stacey Koon, telling us we’re damned ‘Mandingos.’ And someone will make a movie out of his book, and then he’ll be on the talk-show circuit. I got news for you--no one’s going to stand for that stuff.
“The ‘90s are gonna be a lot like the ‘60s. A lot of love and a lot of violence. There are lots of people out there who are mad, who’ll do anything. If they don’t see things start to change, it’s going to be like--no justice, no peace.”
Singleton’s blunt, street-level analysis of the riot differs markedly from the accepted version presented by mainstream white media. Singleton contends, for example, that the vicious beating of white truck driver Reginald O. Denny, captured on videotape and replayed dozens of times over the past month, was an attack actually provoked by Denny--and earlier police abuse.
“I was on the street the second day of the riots, and the people told me the police had been at Florence and Normandie, choking some women, and the neighborhood people threw the police out,” Singleton says.
“Then this guy (Denny) shows up, listening to a country-and-Western station, and he doesn’t know what he’s got in the middle of. And so he shouts out, ‘Rodney King got what he deserved!’ And that was it for him.”
Denny has denied making any anti-King remarks. So the question is posed: Does Singleton think a white man would be so foolhardy--so incredibly stupid--as to show disrespect for Rodney King in the middle of a seething black neighborhood just hours after such an emotionally charged verdict?
His eyes flash. “In a country that breeds Dan Quayle, how can you ask that question? Of course he could.”
As for the upcoming trial of Denny’s four alleged attackers, Singleton sees nothing but trouble. “Trying those four brothers. That’s bull----. If they convict them, it’s going to be bad. A lot of people are going to get hurt.”
He broods for a moment. Singleton insists he’s not a political activist--he’s just a filmmaker. “The way I take action, the way I reach people,” he says, “is by making movies.”
But after the wrenching trauma of the King verdict and the subsequent riots, these two worlds--art and politics--are on a collision course.
He went with an ABC News crew on the first weekend after the riots filming interviews with South Central residents for a feature that was supposed to run on ABC’s “Nightline.” Singleton says the feature never aired, complaining that ABC producers told him the footage was “too dated.” Singleton has already shot graphic footage of the post-riot devastation that he says will be included in “Poetic Justice.”
And that’s just the beginning. “My next movie,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s gonna be hard. ‘Cause I’m pissed off. It’s going to be the first movie I do that has white characters. Because I’m going to have to deal with a lot of bigger issues, economic issues, issues of class as well as race.
“If I don’t say something, who is gonna say something? You can’t turn around and act like nothing’s happened. It’s as if the government is waging all-out war against its young. Not just black kids, but Mexican-Americans and other minorities, against a whole spectrum of young people. We have to get together. We have to show them we aren’t gonna give up.”
Singleton insists he isn’t angry now. He’s beyond that.
“After the verdict, I was angry,” he says softly. “I’m not anymore. Anger is an emotion that if you carry around over a long period of time, it doesn’t allow you to live.”
Singleton is shooting this week inside Hollywood Curl, a stylish, real-life beauty-salon on 54th Street near Crenshaw Boulevard. It’s a quiet street, with a church and a nursery school nearby. But signs of the riots aren’t far away.
Over on Crenshaw, block after block shows its battle scars, blackened shells of burned-out stores and gas stations. Around the corner, buildings are marked with Rolling ‘60s Crips gang graffiti.
You won’t see Dan Quayle cruising this neighborhood, preaching that the best anti-poverty program is a good marriage.
In fact, Quayle has been the butt of jokes around the set, especially after Singleton spots a newspaper quote from a 14-year-old girl who, after meeting the vice president, reported: “He has the same mentality I have--and I’m in the eighth grade.”
Singleton roars with laughter, passing the clipping around. “What a dis ,” he says. “But that’s honesty. Total honesty.”
There have been few gawkers hanging around the set, despite the presence of such celebs as Janet Jackson, actresses Tyra Ferrell and Regina King, singer Miki Howard and rising rap star Tupac Shakur.
As a precaution, the set is protected by several security guards from BOSSO, a Nation of Islam subsidiary. A pair of off-duty California Highway Patrol officers are also here, their squad cars on prominent display across the street. (And that’s not counting Jackson’s two bodyguards, who are a regular presence on the set.)
Still, there’s sometimes a chill in the air. One day, in the middle of a rehearsal, a police siren wails, echoing down the block.
Singleton tries to laugh it off. “Uh-oh. Another riot,” he jokes. Then, his smile vanishes. “It never leaves.”
When it comes to style, the flavor of a John Singleton movie set is much closer to hip-hop than Hollywood.
The sign on Singleton’s trailer door sets the mood perfectly: DO NOT DISTURB, KNOCK OR NONE OF THAT (EXPLETIVE). Inside, you can find the acclaimed director on his lunch break, barefoot on the floor of his trailer, engrossed in a video basketball game between the Detroit Pistons and the Boston Celtics.
On a nearby table is lunch: takeout fried chicken and biscuits from Popeye’s. Outside, Singleton’s assistant, a genial 6-foot-7, 280-pound guy named Shorty, is shooing visitors away. (Until recently, Shorty had a Mercedes ornament carved into his hair. Now he’s sporting a new, post-riot carved message: “No Peace, No Justice.”)
For anyone accustomed to seeing virtually all-white Hollywood crews, there’s another striking difference here: Singleton’s crew is more than 50% African-American, from grips and gofers to his production designer, costume designer and assistant director.
The atmosphere is relaxed. Tupac Shakur arrives for his first shot jokingly reciting Shakespeare. When Tyra Ferrell muffs a line, Singleton chortles: “Welcome to ‘Bloopers and Practical Jokes,’ starring Tyra Ferrell.”
Even Janet Jackson, though very shy and unavailable for interviews, seems to be enjoying herself, often kidding around with fellow cast members.
Insistent about staying on budget, Singleton rarely shoots more than three or four takes for any shot. “I’m not like Warren Beatty,” he laughs. “I can’t take all day. I gotta keep moving.”
Part of the reason for this fast pace is budgetary. But it’s also symbolic of Singleton’s MTV-era attention span.
He’s from a new post-literary generation--just try to pry him away from his video games while he’s doing an interview. But when it comes to film, he’s full of wonder and curiosity, always soaking up some new influence.
Between films, he huddled with directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme, studying their technique. Even on the set, he’s teaching himself. One day, he’s reading Michael Crichton’s “Rising Sun.” The next day, over lunch, he watches “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” speaking reverently of director George Roy Hill’s talents.
Singleton’s bosses at Columbia Pictures speak just as reverently of him. It’s a sign of just how far the young director’s star has risen in Hollywood that when Columbia Chairman Mark Canton was being photographed for the upcoming book “A Day in the Life of Hollywood,” he made a point of making a rare visit to Singleton’s film location.
Wearing dark blue suits, Canton and Columbia Production President Michael Nathanson sat parked in a pair of director’s chairs underneath a poster advertising the Hollywood Curl salon’s various hairstyles, which include Hot Thang, Laid 2 the Side and Miss Hair.
Well-versed in the art of studio politics, Singleton happily let them watch him work.
“John is great because he doesn’t come in with any preconceptions about studio people,” Canton says. “He trusts us and we trust him, so it’s a good relationship.”
The executives are hardly a distraction, but when they get up to leave, Singleton needles Canton: “So? You gonna give me another day now?”
“Whaddya mean, John,” the studio chief retorts. “When we come down here, we deduct a day.”
Sitting in his trailer one afternoon, Singleton seems pensive. Something is troubling him. Finally, he blurts it out.
“You know, someone said something really cruel to me the other day. They told me, ‘You’re gonna be really bored by this by the time you’re 30.’ ”
He frowns. “It really upset me. There’s no way I could imagine being bored making movies, not unless it got too hard to say what I wanted to say.”
He stares at the ceiling. “And if they gave me that much (trouble), I wouldn’t make movies. Hell, I wouldn’t even watch ‘em.”
Hollywood can be cruel--and easily dismissive. Many of the same insiders who praised “Boyz N the Hood” now wonder whether Singleton has the range to go beyond his boyhood memories.
To be a black filmmaker in Hollywood is to be perennially stereotyped. In fact, when two executive types visited Singleton’s set one day, they had the following exchange:
Exec No. 1: “Did you see ‘Boyz N the Hood’?”
Exec No. 2: “No, but I saw ‘New Jack City.’ ”
Singleton won’t allow himself to be pigeonholed--or intimidated. “With ‘Boyz N the Hood,’ people said, ‘Awhh, you didn’t treat women right.’ Well, it wasn’t a women’s movie.”
Singleton grins. “But this one is. It’s for real. Wait till people hear some guy call Janet Jackson a bitch. Whoo!”
It’s easy enough to trace Singleton’s inspiration for his “Poetic Justice” script: He had a fight with his girlfriend.
“It really started me thinking about relationships,” he says, “the spontaneous combustion, you know, all the wars between men and women.”
Jackson plays Justice, an unhappy hairdresser who’s had so much misfortune with men that she’s given up on romance, preferring to sit alone, reading Maya Angelou’s poetry. It takes a lot of chiding, both from her regal boss at the beauty shop (Tyra Ferrell) and from an admiring young postal worker (Tupac Shakur), to bring her out of her hard-core funk.
“She’s an unheard voice, the voice of lonely women, women who live behind closed doors,” says Singleton, who persuaded Angelou to play a small part in the film. “She’s a woman with a lot of scars. I should know--I’ve dated enough of ‘em. I always seem to end up with women that have scars.”
To rouse Jackson’s interest in the part, Singleton approached her as an actress, not as a recording star. “I didn’t want her to be glamorous,” he says. “In fact, I made her gain 10 pounds.”
Singleton offered a persuasive argument: “I told Janet that Sophia Loren’s best movies were the ones where she played a maid. She didn’t wear makeup. She looked haggard. And that only made her look more glamorous.”
As a member of the Jackson family, America’s true pop royalty, Janet was hardly what you’d call a home girl. So Singleton introduced her to four girls from South-Central.
“Janet invited them over to spend the night, and they ended up staying for a month,” recalls Rene Elizondo, Jackson’s creative adviser and boyfriend. “It really helped give her an idea of how they talk, how they act. Let me tell you, these girls don’t have any problems with guys. They know how to put ‘em in their place. They’re very open, but boy, have they got a hard shell.”
Hearing Singleton recall his troubled days as a USC film student, you sense that he’s worn that psychic armor himself.
“I was angry in film school--I always had a shield up,” he recalls. “I was one of the only black kids there, so I couldn’t be caught slipping.”
Some people interpreted his self-assurance as cockiness. “Hey, I was going to school with a bunch of rich kids who all had uncles in the film business,” he says. “I had to act cocky. I couldn’t fail. I had to practically hypnotize myself into thinking I was going to be a success.”
Now Singleton is enjoying a few trappings of that success. Instead of driving his mom’s car, he’s got one of his own--a Nissan Pathfinder. He bought himself a stack of new video games. He’s met many of the celebrated directors he once idolized from afar.
Success, he says one afternoon, “brought me a lot of happiness. But the Rodney King verdict--it was like a wake-up call. It was a way of telling me I still had a lot of work to do.”
As he sees it, everyone has a lot of work to do, including the black community. “People can’t say (stuff) if they aren’t doing anything themselves. If you don’t vote, if you don’t recycle your money in your own community, then you can’t tell me (anything).
“That’s the way my parents raised me. Every other successful immigrant group has made it because they support themselves, they look out for each other. But every time we’ve tried to set up something positive, someone tears it down. If a hard-working black man or woman can’t get a loan for their own business or your own home, then how are they supposed to make any progress?”
Singleton won’t criticize rapper Ice Cube’s incendiary lyrics about Korean shopkeepers (“pay respect to the black fist or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp”). But he insists that racial scapegoating won’t help solve the debilitating cycle of poverty and despair.
“You can’t blame a Korean family because they want to open a business and prosper,” he says. “But black people have to start their own grocery stores. If you respect yourself, it’s easier to respect other people.”
Because he makes movies that voice the troubled mood of his generation, Singleton has earned plenty of respect. Perhaps that’s why, despite his disgust with the Rodney King verdict, he keeps fighting his urge to leave Los Angeles behind.
“There are days when I’m ready to move out--sometimes I don’t think I could get far enough away,” he says near the end of shooting one night. “But then I’d be out of touch. I couldn’t do what I gotta do. If you have a microphone, you have a responsibility to make your opinions known.”
He smiles, uneasily. “Otherwise, having all those opinions ain’t doing anybody any good.”