John Singleton: Director’s Cut

In the ‘hood and abroad, John Singleton is a legend—the man responsible for bringing such classic characters as Ice Cube’s Doughboy from Boyz n the Hood and Tupac’s Lucky in Poetic Justice to the big screen, while placing much-needed emphasis on the poignant tales the inner city has to offer. While some Hollywood heads might […]

In the ‘hood and abroad, John Singleton is a legend—the man responsible for bringing such classic characters as Ice Cube’s Doughboy from Boyz n the Hood and Tupac’s Lucky in Poetic Justice to the big screen, while placing much-needed emphasis on the poignant tales the inner city has to offer. While some Hollywood heads might scorn the rapper-to-actor conversion, Singleton continues to guide untested Hip-Hop stars in their first leading movie roles, with many of the artists being critically praised for their smooth acting transitions.

Lately, the 37-year-old acclaimed director/producer has been supervising the summer blockbusters Hustle & Flow and Four Brothers, co-starring Ludacris and Andre 3000, respectively. When studios were not willing to take on Hustle & Flow, which was written and directed by Memphis native Craig Brewer, Singleton stepped in to put up his own money to produce the film. After seeing the critics reactions to Brewer’s story, major studios started a bidding war for the film – proving that John Singleton knew exactly what he was doing.

John Singleton took a short break from his promotion trail to chat with Alternatives about life in the director’s chair. Alternatives: Before we discuss your upcoming films, I want to talk about the movies that have been so influential in the film world and in Black cinema. What is it like to have people say that movies like Boyz n the Hood and Higher Learning are classics?

John Singleton: It feels great. It’s like it’s everything that I set it up to be. I don’t make flash-in-the-pan movies. I try to make movies that endure and that are classics.

AHHA: Right. But in a previous interview, you mentioned that you don’t like to go back to those films when people bring it up. Why is that?

John: Because once I do a film, I’m in the moment of making that film. I don’t dwell on it and want to talk about it years later. I just want to go on, move on to the next movies. It’s like an old man talking about his past. You don’t do that. You just go on to a new adventure.

AHHA: What do you think of the quality of today’s Black film genre?

John: There is no quality of today’s Black films. There is none. There really isn’t. The films that are being made now are not necessarily films that speak to what’s going on in Black America, what that means, and what we’re going through. A lot of them are comedies. None of them are really topical.

AHHA: Do you think directors should get back into doing thematic Black movies?

John: I think people should [make] whatever movies they want. I mean, I always try to make films that have some type of meat to it. I don’t have to say anything—it’s so funny, because for many years I always got the rub that every time I tried to make a movie, I was trying to get some type of message with a picture. I never even tried to do that with my first movie Boyz n the Hood. I was trying to make something that was interesting and topical. It’s not [always] about trying to give people a message. People come to be entertained, but you gotta have movies with some meat to it. I mean, white people make movies with meat to it—the good filmmakers do. Some don’t, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to make films that have something to say. Even Hustle & Flow has something to say. The bottom line is that everybody has a dream. Not everybody has a way to get there to express it, but everybody’s got something in them that they want to get out. Even if they’re a pimp. [Laughs]

AHHA: Getting into that movie Hustle & Flow, the plot—a pimp who wants to be a rapper—seems like it would be cheesy.

John: Well, no, it’s about a guy who’s basically at a point in his life where he realizes that he hasn’t progressed. He hasn’t moved forward. He’s just been inching along, and he just happens to be [a pimp]. That’s what he does.

AHHA: What made you want to get involved in that project?

John: The script. The script was really good. And I just knew if it was made, it would be something people would want to see.

AHHA: And with the difficulty trying to get the movie in motion as far as distribution, how rewarding is it now that people are supporting the movie?

John: It was [difficult] at first because I went through traditional channels, studios to try to get it made. But then once I told myself that I could do it on my own, and I could put up the money and green light it myself and be my own studio, then it was much easier. It’s so rewarding—for everybody in town to tell me that I was crazy for doing this and to do it, and now I go from being the crazy person to being the smartest person in the business. But I mean, I’m one of those kind of people that—I believe in betting on myself. I can’t lose by betting on myself.

AHHA: In this movie, you worked with some of the same actors you’ve worked with previously, like Elise Neal and Paula Jai Parker. Why is it that you like to stay with the same faces?

John: It’s not necessarily the same thing. It’s just that they’re really professional people and they’re really good actors. Working with people who are really on top of their game, there’s nothing wrong with that.

AHHA: There’s been heavy controversy about placing rappers into movie roles. What are your feelings on that?

John: I’ve made a career doing it, so there’s no controversy with me. But the difference between me and everyone else is every rapper who has ever worked with me had a career making movies. It hasn’t been like, “Oh that guy was the cool guy in the movie for the moment.” Everybody who’s worked with me has gone on to do great things and have a career. And that’s unique to me.

AHHA: Which artist that you’ve worked with has surprised you the most with their performance?

John: I don’t know about surprised. Surprised isn’t the key word. I’m just kind of happy it’s all worked out. And it’s so funny because every time I do it, it’s always a new experience. People can’t believe that I pulled a performance out of this person. But I’m like, Wait a minute. I’ve been doing this since the beginning of my career, since I was 22-years-old. Nobody knew Ice Cube was a star except for me. Not even Cube knew he was a star, he’ll tell you that. I was like, “Yo you’re a movie star.” [He’s like] “I am?” [Laughs] “You’re a movie star.”

AHHA: Can you talk about your experience working with Ludacris in Hustle & Flow and Andre 3000 in Four Brothers?

John: They have different strengths and are cool to work with. I mean, I admire all those cats. They’ve done well for themselves in terms of their careers. When they get to a certain point [where] they excel so much in one field, they want to try and conquer something else, that’s beautiful. You look at what’s happened with Luda and you see Luda’s performance in Crash, you see how he’s evolved. Luda can lead. He’s a leading man now. He could headline a movie.

AHHA: Do you want to give a brief synopsis of Four Brothers, what people should expect before it hits theaters?

John: Four Brothers is about these four guys who grew up in foster homes, and they’re adopted mother is killed so they go to her funeral in Detroit and they find out that it wasn’t some random killing. Somebody actually hunted this woman down. So they go after and try to catch who killed her and try to find out why. It’s Mark Wahlberg and Tyrese and Andre. It’s a hot movie [and] strong performances.

AHHA: You had roles in a couple of movies you were involved in, like Shaft, similar to directors like Quentin Tarantino and Alfred Hitchcock. What do you think is the appeal of putting yourself in your own movies?

John: I just made cameos. Most of those cats [directors] can’t really act anyway. [AHHA: Laughs] I think directors should just direct. For me, it’s kind of a superstitious thing. I believe if I make a cameo in a picture, nine times out of ten it will do really well.

AHHA: Oh really?

John: Yeah. Alfred Hitchcock used to do that all the time. You used to see him in the background of the picture. I don’t know if it was superstition, but he used to do it all the time.

AHHA: What do you think it takes to be a good director?

John: I think it takes focus. It takes initiative and attention to detail. Attention to detail is everything, and most people don’t have that. They look at the broad strokes, but they don’t look at details.

AHHA: What do you want to be your legacy?

John: That I always made bold movies. And the movies that I’ve made, the things that I’ve done were unprecedented. That’s what I want my legacy to be.