Director John Singleton talks South Central, Tupac’s death, and the Dark Knight

John Singleton is a hustler, but don’t knock him. He is also a notable director – if not for his films, then for the hunger he blings like Yoda’s wisdom. Sitting in a room in the upstairs of the UC, an hour and change before his talk at Gusman Concert Hall, he chows down on two turkey sandwiches with reserved concentration. Clearly beat from a day spent filming The Fast and the Furious 2, his mind is still revved on energy – plotting – as he looks up briefly from large bites to answer interview questions.

“The film is looking good, man. We’re on schedule, but we’re over budget. We’re spending a lot of money in Florida, more than some small countries make,” he says with a laugh.

This perseverance is a product of his upbringing in South Central, Los Angeles, a place he helped flesh out in the minds of viewers, especially white Americans, with his debut film, Boyz N the Hood, in 1991. He wrote and directed the film at the ripe age of 22/23, yanking its sobering tone and subject matter from his experiences and surroundings – a battle of the mind where drugs, crime, and violence distort and camouflage the paths a young black man can choose. To quote Cappadonna, Singleton “came to the fork in the road and went straight.” This strong willed decision led to Boyz and a nomination for Best Director, making him the youngest film maker to reap an Oscar nod – replacing Orson Welles.

“South Central is still the wild, wild West. The right of passage is dysfunctional. In certain cultures, the right of passage is, well you, get a car, or you join the football team, or a baseball team, run track. There, you know, you’re either a Blood, a Crip, an athlete, or you stay inside watching TV,” he says. “I didn’t want to grow up and be a musician, a rapper, or an athlete. I wanted to grow up and be like Steven Spielberg, which is my saving grace, it saved me.”

This affinity for Spielberg, and films like Jaws, Predator, and Terminator 2:Judgement Day, has dredged up confusion among certain fans, critics, and haters alike, who do not understand how/why a marquee black director can “keep it real” with socially reflective films like Higher Learning and Rosewood, and then jump ship into a sea of popcorn for a big budget action movie – a sequel to boot. People often make instinctive comparisons to the resume of another prominent black director, Spike Lee, when Singleton’s artistic mission statement is quite different.

“I didn’t want to be considered any one type of director. I went to film school at USC to make movies. For me to be able to make different types of movies, I have to make movies that are really commercial too,” he explains. “Action films keep what’s known as the “studio machine” going – so fine, I’ll flex an action film for a little while, then I’ll go back to doing dramas, comedies, whatever.”

Time will tell if he’ll return from the lucrative pastures roamed by Jerry Bruckheimer, but count on seeing hip hop stars in his films either way. A controversial preference that started when he cast Ice Cube in his first film (impressive in Boyz), it now includes Snoop Dogg (Baby Boy’s highlight), Busta Rhymes (distracting in Shaft), and Fabolous and Ludacris in this summer’s Furious sequel (wtf?). Samuel L. Jackson (ironically, Shaft in Shaft) issued a statement in July that ripped rapper-turned-actors, labeling their hire an “aberration” and sympathizing with actors committed to the craft, who lose roles “because of some actor who’s been created.”

“Sam’s right about that. They (rappers) should study the art. They should have respect for the art. Most people put musicians in films because it’s some kind of marketing ploy. I go for it in terms of character. I had Cube study with a coach, Ludacris studies with a coach too,” he defends. “Tyrese (star of Furious 2, singer) just has way more flavor than Vin Diesel. He’s younger, he’s hot, you know what I mean? Vin Diesel’s just like, “Yuh, yuh,” Tyrese is energy.”

While O.J. Simpson is damn lucky he had more evidence than this, Singleton offers valuably resonant proof when the conversation turns to his late friend, rapper Tupac Shakur. Tupac not only exhibited a comforting, yet kinetic chemistry with Janet Jackson in his 1993 fairweather film Poetic Justice, he also contemplated a role in 1995’s Higher Learning and the lead in last year’s Baby Boy. In fact, Singleton envisioned Tupac as Baby Boy a.k.a Jody, a man who personifies the masculine struggles/traps of life in the ‘hood contrasted with the search for maternal comfort from women and sex. Tupac’s death in 1996 ended hope that the role would prove cathartic and eye opening for an artist who was quoted in Vibe magazine as saying, “Everyone’s at war with different things…I’m at war with my own heart sometimes.”

Singleton labels a heavily debated article about Tupac’s death, published in the Los Angeles Times in September, “bullshit.” It proclaimed that the Notorious B.I.G. gave members of the Southside Crips the murder weapon and a $1million contract to slay Tupac.

“I think Tupac became the person that he wanted to become. He was a very confused kid. He worked at making everyone think he was the biggest, baddest cat around, but he was only like 5’9″, you know, a small dude, a pretty dude. You can only get shot so many times, and it’s a trip man. People don’t want to talk about that,” he confesses.

“This kid made himself into this image, it’s wasn’t that he was that person. He was conflicted. I’m about the only person who ever told Pac, ‘You should fuck music, you should just be an actor.’ The last time I saw him alive, he was shooting a video at Crenshaw Mall for ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ I congratulated him, and his face was so…he went through a lot of shit.”

To relax, Singleton buys comic books every week. While this does not mean much to the average person, especially when he is privy to VIP rooms and Tyra Banks (a brief fling), he thanks his success for being able to do so. When he was growing up, discussions about “what tastes better: Boston baked beans or Lemonheads?” were interchangeable with dreams of a black Superman. Now he reads stacks of comics, and ponders helming flicks with comic book characters like Luke Cage, Sinbad, and Batman.

“Someone should make a true Batman. Do ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’ from 1986, when the city’s going to pot, and he’s like 65 and popping those little pills just to keep going,” he says. “Now that you brought up Frank Miller (illustrator), I’m going to call up Universal and see if I can get ‘Sin City.’ It’d be a hard R though.”

Now 34, Singleton is clearly making moves and movies for himself. He is quick to admit that most people in Hollywood are sellouts, and attributes his longevity and stability in the business to “a little bit of luck, a little bit of hustle.”

Still residing in South Central, his office is also based there, on 43rd and Crenshaw. When he is not visiting/filming in Miami and partying at B.E.D, one can probably find him there – watching flicks with the doors open. He finds it a little disheartening that local kids never stop by for insight. Sometimes he wishes one would, but as he realized early on in South Central, life is what you make it.

Hunter Stephenson can be reached at