Filmmaker John Singleton died yesterday at 51. Most will remember him for his 1991 debut Boyz N the Hood. I’ll forever remember him for the advice he gave me about storytelling.
He was already a Hollywood juggernaut when he spoke at the University of Florida in 1998. Boyz, had put him on the map. Poetic Justice (1993) Higher Learning (1995) and Rosewood (1997) tattooed his name as one of the most significant auteurs of his generation.
That night, Singleton spoke to a packed house of students eager to hear rags to riches tales that end at the top of the Hollywood sign looking down at a conquered industry.
Singleton kept the focus on the struggle. Writing the script to Boyz had been therapeutic. Fighting with producers over budget was not.
(Unable to afford a helicopter to show the nightly patrol over a Compton neighborhood, Singleton opted for giant lights to shine on the actors from above, accompanied with the appropriate sound effects. Problem solved. I think of his anecdote every time I see the scene when the suit-wearing USC football recruiter comes to Rickey’s house.)
After his talk, there was a Q&A, which quickly devolved into scores of star-struck kids asking the director for a part in his next movie.
I waited until the Q&A was over to ask my question. Waited until the gracious auteur had worked the room, shaken every hand, signed every autograph, and was near his exit before asking his opinion on a topic that was dear to me but hopefully dearer to him.
My chance came when he turned into me in the crowd. He was short. (I’m 5’ 9” and looked down to him.) Still, his presence dominated the room. I’m sure my voice shook when I asked, “Mr. Singleton, how do you feel about telling the story of the other?”
He paused, giving my question a moment’s thought. No need to establish what “the other” meant. He knew.
Then looked me in the eye and spoke words that echo each time I sit in front of a keyboard. “You have to be careful, because it’s been done so poorly in the past that it has caused harm.”
I have been careful, Mr. Singleton. Thank you for your art and insight. Rest easy.
Fred Smith was born in the '70s, wore long socks and short shorts in the '80s, played drums in bands in the '90s, and became a husband (to the greatest woman on the planet) and a father in the 2000s. This decade he's made a few movies and written a few books you can check out on this site.
Stick around. Have a few rounds on the house. Then, you know...buy something.
Fred Smith's latest book of short stories, The Closet, is now available on Amazon HERE.