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John Singleton Sounds Off On the ‘Dismal’ State of Contemporary Black Cinema

At a 25th anniversary screening of "Boyz N the Hood," the filmmaker lamented the absence of cultural consciousness in modern films.

John Singleton

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted a 25th anniversary screening of John Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood” at the SVA Theatre in New York City last Sunday as part of their “Spotlight on Screenwriting” series. This followed an event in Los Angeles the Academy hosted for the film on Friday.

After the screening, Oscar-nominated writer and director Singleton sat down with acclaimed author Walter Mosley to discuss what “Boyz” means 25 years later, including how it launched his career, how time has shifted its cultural weight and, for Singleton, how film increasingly struggles to mean anything culturally. Read five highlights from the talk below:

READ MORE: John Singleton Channels August Wilson – Pens Op-ed On White Directors Helming Black Films

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 12: Director John Singleton (R) talks with Walter Mosley during a discussion at the "Spotlight On Screenwriting: Boyz n the Hood 25th Anniversary Screening With John Singleton And Walter Mosley" presented by The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences at SVA on June 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

Walter Mosley and John Singleton

Singleton uses two words to describe the current state of black cinema: “Dismal” and “abysmal.” 

At the discussion, Singleton repeatedly discussed his interest in films specific to culture and afro-centric experiences. Yet he lamented that films like that are not being made by other minority directors, especially in the studio system.

“It doesn’t matter how many hits and how much money the movies are making,” said Singleton. “They don’t have any cultural consciousness to them now. They have smatterings and little bits here and there, but it’s abysmal. It’s not like every movie has to make a statement at all. Movies don’t have to preach, they’re entertainment first.”

“But in terms of cultural weight  if we have cultural weight, it will be entertaining. And that’s what I feel I try to go for. I just try to rep hard for Spike [Lee], when he was starting he was trying to get people to say ‘hey listen, we can have our own idiom in film. We can have a black film aesthetic. We can have a thing that’s unique.’ When I do whatever I’m trying to do, I’m still trying to rep that,” he said.

This lack of personal voices in film is a result of a studio culture that he doesn’t think would support “Boyz N the Hood” today. 

Mosley and Singleton broke down how, unlike government-sanctioned international cinema that “gives artists free rein to have dissenting views,” said Singleton, cultural specificity is lost in commerce-driven American cinema.

“There are so many stories that have yet to be chronicled about what really went on in Los Angeles in the early eighties,” said Singleton. “Yet our film culture is all based on commerce. You have a paucity of personal voices in film. Yes, you have a lot of independent films that are getting made, but even so, they’re not what they were. You don’t have as many anachronistic true voices that are different from the norm. You have that at a lower level, where people are making films on their iPhones now, doing new stuff.”

“There used to be a time where you had a support of these voices. These films that were really specific…you don’t have that with the studios right now,” Singleton added. “That’s why American cinema is really suffering right now. It’s sort of like the small movies are the farm stuff for the big films. If George Lucas didn’t make ‘American Graffiti,’ he wouldn’t have ‘Star Wars.’ And ‘American Graffiti’ is specific to a sort of time and place that was changing and evolving. You could never make those films now. You could never make ‘Boyz N the Hood’ now.”

Morris believed in spite of media attention from Black Lives Matter, the push for awareness of minority voices will not translate directly to more prominence for black artists.

“In truth, Black Lives Matter says we’re paying attention to everything, because if our lives don’t matter then your lives don’t matter,” said Morris. “And they’ve done a lot of work and they are doing a lot of work. But I think it’s a long journey from that to those 25, 35, 135 million dollar movies.”

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Morris Chestnut, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube in “Boyz N the Hood”

AMPAS 2016

“Boyz N the Hood” came from a young USC grad making an identity as “a black filmmaker repping Los Angeles.”

Singleton describes his first feature as a bridge between what he saw and grew up with in Los Angeles and his study of Italian neorealism (films like “The Bicycle Thieves” and “Open City”).  Yet there was one figure in Singleton’s life who started the whole quest.

“I look at it as a time capsule of what I was thinking and feeling at the time,” said Singleton. “I was 20 years old and I went and saw ‘Do the Right Thing,” which came out in the summer of 1989. Spike [Lee] has always been my cinematic big brother. Before I went to school and he visited LA he pushed other people out of the way to shake my hand. I told him I was going to USC Film School and for him to watch out for me. So I went to school for four years, repping black cinema. I was one of the only black filmmakers and students in a predominantly white film culture. It was a continued marginalization – the attitude was there was only one Spike Lee. I was like, ‘I’m not the next Spike Lee, I’m the next John Singleton.’”

The need to create “Boyz” was driven by Singleton’s desire to write a film about what he knew: His family and his story.

“I was at USC, which was still adjunct to the neighborhood I was growing up in,” said Singleton. “And I wouldn’t say I was having PTSD because I was still in the environment, but I was having dreams like that. Having dreams about the stuff I’d seen in my childhood and teenage years. But I’m on an island – if you step off the campus, you’re in the mix. This is the eighties still. The script for ‘Boyz’ came out of that.”

READ MORE: The 10 Best Oscar-Nominated Directors

There are promising movies to Singleton that are immersed in a time and place. A favorite of his? “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” 

Singleton and Mosley lavished praise on Benh Zeitlin’s 2012 film, which Mosley helped foster when Zeitlin brought the script to Sundance Labs in 2008.

“Beautiful, beautiful film,” said Singleton. “Benh [Zeitlin] did a great job on that. There a scene where she goes over on that ferry and goes to that place, and it’s a questionable place…you don’t know if she’s seeing her mother or a vision of her mother, and the woman fries that alligator tail. And she’s telling this quasi-sexual story. But that never could’ve been done if the filmmakers didn’t live down there. And he’s not black, but he’s a brother, you know? If you see that movie, he takes you somewhere special and different, and he does it in an interesting, lyrical kind of way.”

The two took inspiration from how Zeitlin and his crew went spent several months in Louisiana taking in the culture of a world that would become The Bathtub. “They lived with the film,” said Mosley. Singleton thought other filmmakers should take note.

“I’m interested in doing a quasi-sort of thing with Chinese kids. I’m not Chinese. But I’m going to immerse myself in what these kids are going for,” said Singleton. “There’s not enough of that. And you can be from a certain culture and not know anything about where you’re from, too. That’s why a lot of black filmmakers are making marginal films right now. Because they’re not really astute at what the weight is that came before them. If you’re making gumbo, and the base is bad, it’s not going to taste good.”

Mosley and Singleton

Mosley and Singleton

Singleton wants his work to serve as a “conduit” for the voiceless. 

Director of eight films and three TV shows since “Boyz,” Singleton has kept himself busy in the past 25 years. Yet the work that interests him to this date remains small, personal, ostracized stories.

“I always wanted to be the kind of storyteller that was still accessible to folks,” said Singleton. “I’m doing ‘Snowfall’ [the upcoming series for FX], I have another show called ‘Rebel’ which just got announced… I’m interested in continuing the foundation that was set with ‘Boyz.’ Near my office there’s a park I go to, and I see people who just got released, people who are schizophrenic, people who are living from halfway house to halfway house. When you’re in and around folks, you get stories.”

“Everyone has stories to tell, but not everyone has a way to tell it. Not everyone can sit down and write it, damn near make a movie about it. But what I feel is that I’m a conduit for those folks,” he said. “And I’m not so visible that I’m not accessible. I’m not on TV all the time, I’m not doing the celebrity thing. I’d like to think I work like Ernest Hemingway. He would travel to different places, and he would write about his experiences. I love listening and talking to folks, and that’s how I get the rhythm and cadence of language.”

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