June 2007 Interview: John Singleton

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John Singleton exploded onto the scene with his critically acclaimed film, Boyz in the Hood, in 1991. He became the first Black filmmaker to be nominated for the Academy Award for best director and to this day remains the youngest person ever to be honored with the nomination. A serious Blackademic, Singleton has challenged racism, sexism and homophobia in many of his films. You may remember some of the classics: Higher Learning, Shaft, Rosewood, Poetic Justice. Lately he’s been producing films like Black Snake Moan, Hustle and Flow and Illegal Tender just to name a few. Always pushing the envelope as a director, producer and screenwriter, John Singleton has attracted some elite clientele, working with everybody from Tupac and Sam Jackson to Terrance Howard and Nia Long. Ladies and Gentlemen, Blackademicians, it is my privilege to present John Singleton.

Pierce Freelon: So I’ll start with the Luke Cage question. I’m a huge comic book fan, as I said, especially Marvel. Bishop, Storm, Blade and all them, they got a few Black characters sprinkled out throughout the Marvel Universe but Luke Cage is real interesting in that he’s an ex-felon. And I was wondering if you could talk about why it’s so important for us to have this Black superhero and also, if you end up being able to do the film, if there will be a critique of the prison industrial complex, in terms of him being a champion for Black people with that as well.

John Singleton: Well definitely, my whole interest in doing the picture-who knows if it will get made-was making a super hero that was a convicted felon. He wasn’t a thug, he wasn’t a posturing thug dude, he was basically just a guy from the inner city who got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, hanging with the wrong people. And so that was what really intrigued me about it. The reason I really wanted to do this movie was just to have this scene with this Black man breaking out of prison with his bare hands. That was the reason I wanted to do it. You know, a lot of people would go crazy to see that.

PF: We need that image to get the psychology of breaking this chain of the prison industrial complex.

JS: Yes.

PF: This year and the past couple years there’s been a lot of films, we’ve talked about some of them today. Catch a Fire is one of them, Stomp the Yard, Akeelah and the Bee recently, Pursuit of Happyness, Pride with Terrence Howard as well. Do you think that we are breaking new ground in terms of putting accurate or positive portrayals of Black people in film?

JS: I think things are getting better. You know, there are a lot more pictures with African American actors doing various roles that aren’t necessarily defined by them being Black in the context of what white people think is a Black person’s journey. The characters are who they are, you know? Not just defined by their Blackness. But I think there’s still a long way to go, because most of those pictures that you just named are with men, you know what I mean? A young woman pointed out to me today at Syracuse, she says, “Why is it that there are a lot of movies with men, not with women?” And the irony is that women in contemporary Black culture have more economic, political and social power than men. The pop culture fantasy that a lot of Black people have is that the men have more power. And men, you know, we have our maleness, but women actually are the ones who have the upper hand but they’re not represented in pop culture.

PF: So we need to see more…

We need to see more of a balance. More of a balance between men and women.

PF: My last question, it kinda connects into two questions. When I talk to young brothers out in the community, a lot of them talk about wanting to be basketball players, athletes, entertainers, rappers. With the exception of my brother in law, Molefi (MK) Asante, who is also a filmmaker, I’ve never heard any brothers say that they want to go into filmmaking.

JS: I never hear that either.

PF: Why? Why is that?

JS: Because it’s not a reality that some people see for themselves. The only way that you can have any effective change in your life is if you see a certain reality for yourself and you’re willing to do the hard work to make that vision that you see a reality.

PF: Okay. And so kind of also tied in with the film, to close it up. One of my professors told a story one time about Rosewood, going to the theatre to see Rosewood. He said it was opening weekend or something like that and it was completely empty. But there was some other film like, How to be a Player

JS: Booty Call.

PF: And it was completely packed. So why is it that we don’t embrace these films that we need so much?

JS: I think that there’s a culture of ignorance in Black culture, in Black pop culture that breeds ignorance and breeds kind of a fight for knowledge. A fight not to seek something new, they want to see the same old thing.

PF: Alright, thanks.


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