Becoming, at the age of 24, the youngest individual and the first African American ever to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award, John Singleton made movie history with Boyz 'N the Hood, his astonishing 1991 directorial debut. An intensely personal portrait of life and death in South Central L.A. that was inspired by the director's own experiences, the film earned Singleton comparisons to past wunderkind Orson Welles and heralded him as one of Hollywood's most important new directors.
Born January 6, 1968, in the South Central L.A. neighborhood he would later immortalize on celluloid, Singleton was the son of a mortgage broker father and a company sales executive mother. Raised jointly by his divorced parents, he went on to attend the University of Southern California, where he majored in film writing. While a student at U.S.C., Singleton won a number of writing awards that led to a deal with the Creative Artists Agency during his sophomore year. At the age of 23, he wrote and directed Boyz 'N the Hood, a coming-of-age drama that centered on an intelligent 17-year-old's (Cuba Gooding Jr.) efforts to make it out of his neighborhood alive. Featuring a strong cast that included Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, and Laurence Fishburne, and deft direction that humanized the violence of South Central L.A. rather than sensationalized it, the film was a major critical and commercial triumph. One of the highest-grossing films in history to have been directed by an African American, Boyz 'n the Hood also made history with its twin Best Screenplay and Best Director Oscar nominations for its young writer/director. In addition to those nominations, Singleton was also honored with the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best First-Time Director.
Singleton followed Boyz 'N the Hood with Poetic Justice in 1993. Starring Janet Jackson as its heroine, a South Central L.A. hairdresser coping with the shooting death of her boyfriend, the film boasted magnetic performances from its entire cast, which also included rapper Tupac Shakur as Jackson's love interest. Although it was profitable, Poetic Justice failed to find favor with most critics, some of whom noted that it lacked the power and urgency of Singleton's previous effort. The director's subsequent project, Higher Learning (1995), also fared rather poorly among critics. A drama about racial, gender, and political conflict on a college campus, it benefited from the performances of its ensemble cast, which included Omar Epps, Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube, and Kristy Swanson, but was weighed down by the presence of one too many one-dimensional characters that existed to highlight the issues Singleton was attempting to explore.
Ironically, it was Singleton's most critically appreciated effort since Boyz 'N the Hood that was virtually ignored by audiences. Rosewood, a powerful drama based on the real-life 1923 massacre and destruction of an African-American town in Florida by whites from a neighboring community, was widely considered Singleton's strongest film since his directorial debut. A dense and ultimately depressing multi-character epic fueled by the presence of such talented actors as Ving Rhames, John Voight, and Don Cheadle, the film did not attempt to make a happy ending out of its stark material, which may have accounted for its inability to win a large audience.
In 2000, Singleton returned with his biggest project to date, a glossy, expensive remake of Shaft. Starring Samuel L. Jackson as its titular, Armani-clad hero, the nephew of original Shaft Richard Roundtree (who had a cameo in the new film), the film was an exercise in flamboyant, unapologetic political incorrectness, featuring easily distinguishable bad guys and good guys and meaty helpings of bad-ass attitude. Shaft earned decidedly mixed reviews but was a summer audience pleaser, putting its director back on the map.
Finding his way back into familiar territory, Singleton's next film, Baby Boy (2001), was constructed as a loose follow up to Boyz 'N the Hood. Starring vocalist/model Tyrese Gibson and Omar Gooding, the film marked a notable return to the sensative issues that Singleton had touched upon in the past after the flashily entertaining but ultimately inconsequencial departure of Shaft. Singleton made a rare appearance in front of the camera for BAADASSSSS! before helming the hit sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious. He produced raig Brewer's Oscar winning Hustle & Flow, a film that ended up overshadowing his directorial effort form that same year, Four Brothers. He maintained his working relationship with Brewer by producing his Hustle & Flow follow-up Black Snake Moan.
~ Rebecca Flint Marx, All Movie Guide