DEAR JOHN: An Open Letter to John Singleton

I am writing you a letter because I wanted to say “I love you.” I mean, it goes a little beyond that and it’s not a romantic thing, but it is a thing. I love you so much that I have been holding off writing you for, I dunno, 18 years. I keep waiting to find the right time to write you, but there really isn’t a good time for deep conversations, is there? Here. I’ll just rip off the Band-Aid and get this done.

You wrote and directed Boyz N The Hood.  You were a talented, isolated and passionate film student at USC and, in probably one of the most inspired and monumental moments in film history, made a simple, brilliant and honest film about what it was like living in South-Central Los Angeles. Your cast was revelatory. The music was epic, the cinematography and direction impeccable. You showed the world what African-American peoples living in a forgotten and discarded world experienced. Some struggled and triumphed, others did not. It was a snapshot of a life and a place that most people dared to discuss.

You were rewarded, if we can call it that, with OSCAR nominations for original screenplay and director. Youngest man, youngest African-American man to ever receive such an honor. It was joyous. You had made a commercially successful film, about black people, that was also acclaimed. I mean, Hollywood was just turned on its ear. Ice Cube was the lead in a Hollywood film. Not Ice Cube from Are We There Yet?, but N.W.A. Ice Cube; angry, St. Ives-swilling, I-don’t-give-a-fuck Ice Cube.

You lost at the OSCARS. You lost your writing award to Callie Khouri, who wrote Thelma and Louise. You lost your direction award to Jonathan Demme, who did The Silence of the Lambs. I enjoy both of those films. I do. In fact, I think both represent a cultural shift in films, just as much as Boyz did, but still. You lost to the script about women driving off a cliff and a director who made a thriller about a dood who kills and eats everyone. It’s cool. Shake it off and make something else.

You released Poetic Justice. You made a movie that brought us a film about a sad and damaged woman. It’s not the most original story, but it was Janet Jackson. She wasn’t doing the Rhythm Nation, she was depressed and she had braids. She wrote poems that were, in fact, Maya Angelou’s. Her love interest was Tupac. No joke. Her boyfriend who was killed was Q-Tip. She and Tupac go on a road trip, find love and Lucky (Tupac) opens Justice’s (Janet) soul. I’m into this.

It’s about real, albeit super beautiful, black people dealing with things, falling in love, and doing stuff that their white counterparts were doing. I watch Poetic Justice alongside Before Sunrise. They’re kind of bookends on an era, y’know?

But then you take a break and write Higher Learning. You’re dating Tyra Banks, supermodel and all-around badass, so cast her as the female lead. Ummm “¦ can she act? Well, not really, but who cares, right? Well, I DO. She’s not particularly good. And neither is the rest of the film. The casting is pretty decent; but it kind of smells of stereotypes and overwrought drama. It is sweeping, kind of like all the films being made around that time. It’s got 5 billion characters, all talking and emoting, trying to find themselves, being shitty college students and generally looking way better than any normal college student should look. Jennifer Connelly, as Taryn, may be one of the worst lesbian characters ever written into a script. Michael Rapaport is lost soul who becomes a neo-Nazi who kills Tyra, sorry, Deja, a track runner dating the main character. The main character, Malik, (Omar Epps) spends his days being schooled by his girlfriend, Deja, and living through every stereotypical life experience of a black male ever created for effect. It’s a scattered mess and I got it, maybe a little too easily since you hit me over the head with Thor’s hammer the whole time. I get it’s all a metaphor for what happens when people, of all shapes, sizes and types, meet and interact, right? Well, I dunno. The story and direction are so chaotic, I really don’t know what the fuck you were trying to do. Most of the movie had me rolling my eyes and I was so disappointed, my brain wanted to call or write you and freak out. I wanted you to do better and BE better, especially if you were going to be bigger. You clearly did, too, but you failed, dood. That movie was pretty bad.

After that disappointment came Rosewood. I LOVED IT. Who doesn’t love a period drama with Ving Rhames and Don Cheadle? You produced a film about a massive stain in our country’s history books. It’s angry, it’s telling and it’s REALLY depressing. I mean, a movie about how an angry mob of white people killed an entire town of black folks is probably not a blockbuster, but you did it. I knew about Rosewood and had never even thought anyone COULD make a movie about it. But you did. Thank you.

I mean, I could go on and on, right? It’s not like you don’t know your own filmography. But you disappeared and I don’t know why. I mean you made Shaft and 2 Fast and 2 Furious and a few other meh works, but long gone are the attempts to make films about being a black person in America, as I’m pretty sure 2 Fast has no bearing on well, ANYTHING.

Maybe you were beaten down by the Hollywood system that didn’t like African-American films that actually had some real bite and feelings to gnaw on? Maybe you got lost and ran out of ideas? Maybe you let your ego rage out of control and forgot about what made you interesting, which was your introspection and honesty? Who knows, but it really sucks. I expected so much from you. You started out, blazing trails and telling stories that meant something. You faltered, sure, but you seemed to keep trying. It brought me so much hope and as an African-American woman, I was thrilled with your successes. Hell, I was thrilled with your failures because you were making them big and embarrassing, like Ishtar embarrassing, but the system was letting you make them.

But maybe you got tired of fighting? Or maybe I wanted more from you that you could give? Or maybe you’re just not THAT good?  In any case, I just wanted to let you know I’m crossing my fingers that you’ll make films again, good films. I love you enough to keep wishing for this. Give me a call! I’ll be glad to talk about all of this with you, if you’re even interested.

Sincerely,

rosasparks

15 thoughts on “DEAR JOHN: An Open Letter to John Singleton”

  1. I completely agree with you, Rosa, but I want to let you know, John is still working. In fact, he is attached to one of our projects. He is an opinionated, excited, passionate filmmaker who doesn’t do anything half-assed. Sure, he’s taken some crap projects, but everything I’ve seen him do, he does with 150% energy. Also, I’ve sat next to him at premieres and he is BY FAR the best audience member to sit near at a movie. He reacts, interacts, yells, laughs, it’s awesome. He truly loves movies. You can tell.

  2. From what I understand, the box office failure of Rosewood cost Singleton a lo of his cache as a director as far as studios are concerned. Plus, he’s got to do more mainstream movies like 2F2F in order to show he’s not just a “black movie” director. I don’t blame him for his absence as much as I blame the Hollywood system.

    1. When Rosewood came out, I thought it looked so horrifying and scary (town full of black people being burned to the group by a group of white people), and that it was real and happened in the 1920s, that even though I wasn’t old enough to see it, I was still scared to watch it. I still want to see it today, but the story is absolutely chilling.

  3. The Fast and the Furious series actually gets an unfair rap — it’s dumb fun, sure, but it does dumb fun *really well*, with amazing cars, and it’s given a platform to visionary, under-appreciated directors to reach a wider audience (not only John Singleton but also Justin Lin of “Better Luck Tomorrow” badassery).

      1. Heh, Justin’s got a mortgage to pay just like everybody else — he tried a second non-blockbuster movie with Finishing The Game, pushing the financial limit for an indie production to the point where he had to beg MC Hammer for the money to finish it, and the result was… well… let’s just say I’ve never seen box office numbers quite this painful:

        http://boxofficemojo.com/people/chart/?view=Director&id=justinlin.htm

  4. Co-freaking signed, Rosa!

    I didn’t realize Singleton did “Higher Learning”–it was an airplane movie otherwise I wouldn’t have selected it.

    As a film fan and WOC I was rooting for him. He needs to rediscover his passion…and anger. I mean anger in a good way, a worthy cause or story, like Rosewood.

    IMDB says he’s exploring superheroes (“Luke Cage” based on the comic book) and directing Wolf Boy, Taylor Lautner (“Abduction”).

    *sigh*

    1. And another thing I am not gonna put the whole load on Singleton. We need POC to run the studios, brave souls who won’t buckle to the power of the business machine. I don’t think it will happen soon. There’s a lot of stuff going on in Ho’wood now and it echoes the conservative White movement that dominates politics.

      Maybe Singleton needs to move to cable. That’s what Spike did with his documentaries.

      1. Me again, Rosa. You know I am mouthy about movies.

        So I’m skimming teh webz about Singleton. He values films that are “culturally specific” such as Woody Allen and Akira Kurosawa. So I am going to guess that what Singleton wants to do is produce a repertoire that is varied. Of course there will be the blockbuster action films like “2 Fast 2 Furious” and the upcoming comic book adaptation. (Comic books are in right now.) Doing only message or culture films would be limiting I’m guessing.

        1. He has said his influences are Kurosawa, Allen, Scorsese, and Coppola. He watched A LOT of movies because his childhood apartment was near a theatre and he would go all the time. His favorite movie of all time is Star Wars.

          I just think he could’ve done more with what he’s had. I mean, I did sit through the 2 Fast movie and I’m not saying it’s beneath him, but I wonder if he couldn’t have also done something else.

          He is also interested in making films about people and always has been. I want to see more of that. I like good action films; Batman Returns is one of my favorite movies, EVER, because it delves into the sadness that everyone has.

      2. OH YES. I blame Hollywood for not giving him a chance. In fact, for every Precious, we get 5 bazillion pieces of shit like He’s Just Not that Into You and movies with Reese Witherspoon and gawd knows what else.

        If that isn’t white washing, I don’t know what is. I am just hoping he didn’t GIVE UP. I see he’s making that movie with the wolfteen dood and he’s been trying to make Luke Cage FOREVER.

        I don’t want him to give up, that’s all. Also, maybe he should do indie films? Less money may equal more freedom?

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