John Singleton is one of the most important American filmmakers of the last 50 years.
Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, along with Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing among other films in the late ’80s and early ’90s with African-American directors (A Rage in Harlem, Straight Out of Brooklyn), marked the beginning of a new cinematic era: the Black New Wave (as Roger Ebert dubbed it) cinema — films said to be by African-Americans, for African-American audiences.
The influence of this new generation of young directors is undeniably and indescribably important. With the emergence of these new talents there was a long overdue renaissance of so-called “black films” which examined, with disarming force, life for African-Americans living in America, without concerning themselves with the broad appeal typically demanded by the Hollywood system. Even if films of the Black New Wave weren’t obviously or inherently socially conscious dramas about the black experience, they still featured majority-black casts and had African-Americans in key creative roles behind the scenes who didn’t feel the need to make their movies have broad “cross-over appeal” to draw white audiences. A new group of underutilized and ignored filmmakers had free reign to represent themselves as they saw fit in a medium that for decades had, at best, pushed the experiences of black characters to the margins — and at worst maintained continuity with negative black stereotypes that date back to pre-Civil War minstrel shows and beyond.
Many films of the Black New Wave enjoyed success, earning profits at the box office and winning awards at prestigious international film festivals. Singleton’s own Boyz n the Hood earned him two Oscar nominations: Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. For the latter, he was both the youngest person and the first African-American to be nominated for the award.
But for all the praise these filmmakers were receiving, the potential of the Black New Wave was rendered inert by the Hollywood mainstream.
Speaking as part of the Hollywood Masters series at Loyola Marymount University, Singleton said, “They ain’t letting the black people tell the stories.” The experiences being shown in the films of the Black New Wave had been co-opted, Singleton felt, by the (white) powers-that-be invested in maintaining the status quo. “‘We’re going to take your stories but, you know what? You’re going to go starve over here and we’re not going to let you get a job.'”
Over the last several years, however, “African-American films” have become more prevalent. Both critically and commercially successful, films such as Moonlight, Straight Outta Compton, and Get Out have given representation to black characters and black stories on a large stage. (Moonlight, in a watershed moment, won Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards.)
In his interview with The Knockturnal, Singleton spoke of this trend — a trend that could be signifying the emergence of a New Black New Wave of sorts.
“I’m hopeful that that will continue to happen, because it’s proving to be very commercial, as opposed to what happened before, where the people who weren’t embedded in the culture were trying to tell those stories. They financially were successful. I’m hoping that more people will be able to show their visions and bring their light, because it’s just basically good storytelling and commercial.”
In the year 2017, it’s not unusual for big-name Hollywood actors and directors to jump ship to television. Singleton has recently made this transition himself having had not one, but two new shows debut this year: Rebel on BET, which began its run in March; and Snowfall on FX, which debuted earlier in July. During our interview, he discussed working in television versus film and how it fits into his storytelling ethos.
“[Y]ou can have a longer narrative. That’s the thing that was most exciting to me. It was really playing with that elongating narrative. It’s not encumbered by two and a half hours, if you’re lucky. You can undo the plot with multiple characters. If anything, whenever I tell stories, whenever I do it, it’s more character based anyway. That’s enjoyable for me, to find different ways to explore various characters in whatever stories I want to tell.”
“[It] used to be the difference between American filmmakers and European filmmakers were, American films were more plot based and European films were more character based. You know what I mean? I think it really holds true in terms of theatrical cinema still, but in terms of television, we’ve got it, we’ve got it down pat … I think a lot of the great people in television have taken a cue from European television and European media in general and doing a lot of the British television shows that have been going on for 20 years. They’re finding the influence in American TV now…”
“This is really the first British show from an aesthetic point of view done in this environment … We knew what was at stake in that. We knew this was a grand story that had to be told, had to be told right. That’s what people, I think have responded to now.”
Snowfall covers territory that Singleton has explored before: life in the early ’80s in South Central Los Angeles. Specifically, the show chronicles the beginnings of the crack cocaine epidemic that decimated low-income minority communities through a combination of violence, widespread hysteria, and laws introduced by the Reagan administration that have since come to be viewed as discriminatory.
“[T]hat’s what I know,” Singleton said of returning to the subject in Snowfall. “[I]t’s definitely from parts of my life. I felt that I still hadn’t been able to explore everything that I could say in that world. I just felt that there were two generations that were affected by this thing. These events, it was tough to really go back and check it out again.”
Snowfall‘s emotionally and morally complex themes are a defining feature of many of the stories Singleton chooses to tell — a cinematic vision that has cemented his auteur status. “[I]t’s just part of my personality. I like to tell stories that are really hitting an audience on an emotional level,” he said, “but finding ways in which not to over dramatize it, just [to get people to] really feel it in an organic manner.”
Singleton’s stories, in whatever package he happens to put them in, have a unifying quality: a devotion to empathy; examining his characters and their faults, and their trials, both grand and ordinary. “I love to have the confined be grander than ordinary people. As a storyteller, I don’t think there’s enough of that[.]”
In his view, telling stories is an inherently personal act. “In film school, the teacher used to tell us, ‘You don’t have to tell us who you are, but in your work, we’ll find out who you are as a person, whether you want us to know or not.’ That’s what our film school teacher taught us one time.”
In this way, storytelling — whether by means of the written word, theatre, film — is also a very vulnerable act. The storytelling is allowing the audience to view a part of themselves. “[In film school, people] made stories of short films walking to class, trying to get a sense of who they were as a person, because whenever they’re taking a camera and they’re giving actors direction on life or something, they’re basically, like I said, having a conversation with an audience. Whenever you see anything I do, you see what type of person I am. You’re seeing the aspect of my character.” It could be said, then, that the intensely personal nature of storytelling, and filmmaking in particular, creates a shared bond with the audience, a communion of vulnerability: the unmasking of the storyteller by the audience, and the audience seeing a familiar face looking back.
“I always say Boyz n the Hood is one of the best hip-hop movies … We’re giving you a window to our world that you have never lived, but you’re seeing firsthand what it was like to live in those times. It’s hip hop without having somebody burst out rapping and everything. It’s the attitude. It’s the vibe. It’s the culture.”
In creating the aesthetic and vibe of Snowfall, Singleton knew how important it was to capture the authenticity of the time period of early ’80s Los Angeles, especially South Central. “You have to understand there’s a generation of people that went through this that are older and then there’s a generation of people who didn’t go through it who are young and looking at this,” he said of the era. “They’re seeing how pop culture was– how their pop culture was created. See what I’m saying? All the hip-hop music in the last 30 years, came out of this type of environment.”
Watching the show, the attention to detail to every aspect of life at the time is unmistakable, even the smallest details. “Yeah, we had to get someone to take the bars off the windows” (bars on windows was not the common practice at the time) “and also talk to the homeowners, because they’re used to putting themselves in jail.” And of the music choices: “[T]here was no hip hop at the time, it was all funk. Tech music and funk music groove music, you know what I mean? Before hip hop hit like a wave, it was mostly East coast. Anything that was really pop oriented, was more dance oriented.”
But to really sell the reality of the fiction, Singleton had to find the right cast.
“Initially, I didn’t know if [he] could do it because he wasn’t from there,” he said of British actor Damson Idris, who plays Franklin Saint, a black character who was born and bred in South Central. “He grew up watching my movies and listening to the music of West coast hip hop and he’s a very studied actor. He’s a theater trained actor, so he pulled it off.”
There have been many recent examples of Hollywood “whitewashing” films: casting white actors in roles that were originally written for non-white actors. This usually crops up in adaptations: Doctor Strange, Ghost in the Shell, and Adam Wingard’s upcoming film adaptation of the anime television series Death Note. But there have also been those who criticize the erasure of American actors from American stories. Obviously, with the casting of Idris, Snowfall opens itself up to this line of criticism.
“There are American stories that some people wish to have black actors playing American stories,” Singleton admits. “[B]ut I don’t think it’s set in stone anywhere. Sidney Poitier isn’t from America, he’s from the Islands. He’s the best American actor, bar none … [Actors] can’t just have a half decent face and they’re going to come in and have an opportunity … [T]hey have to have the training. You know what I mean?”
In its uncompromising examination of the crack epidemic, there are, naturally, many scenes of heavy drug use, sex, and violence (often with one of those begetting another). But Singleton says that FX never attempted to restrain them or have them tone down the content. Mostly. “If it got really bad, they’d tell us to hold back, but we do a lot in this first season of the show…”
There’s a distinct dichotomy in regards to the explicit content and the emotional honesty. And with the subject matter being what it is, it would impossible to have one without the other. The ugliness of the actions depicted are in and of themselves honest, and are the basis of the truth of the characters’ existence in that point in time. One almost can’t help but wonder if what some audiences are responding to is the storytelling on its artistic merits or if they’re there for the sex, drugs, and violence (getting the same thrill as they would out of a schlocky horror film). Whatever the answer may be, Singleton is aware of the allure:
“It just never ceases to fascinate me how American audiences are really into the outlaw image, that outlaw felon. They’re not going to go out and do the things that characters do, but they want to be in that world. They’re not going to want to live it, but that will become a voyeuristic perspective. Look at it from afar and fantasize about what it is to be in that world … We didn’t have to glamorize it and make it sexy, whatever. We’d go ugly. It’s amazing how the uglier it goes, the more people are fascinated with it.”
[Author’s Note: The excerpts from the interview contained within this article was conducted by Knockturnal writer Riyad Mammadyarov unless otherwise noted. Additionally, the structure and questions of Riyad’s in large part influenced the structure of and the themes examined in this piece.]
Photo Credit: Dimitry Loiseau