John Singleton on Early Success: I Didn’t Allow Myself to Enjoy It as Much


In 2017, I interviewed John Singleton for an article looking back 25 years to the Oscars in 1992, the year he was nominated for best director and best screenplay for his debut, “Boyz N the Hood.” A few quotes from the director, who died Monday, wound up in the story then. But the interview covered more ground, including how he felt to be the first African-American up for best director. Here’s the transcript:

[Read the John Singleton obituary and an appraisal of “Poetic Justice.” | See where to stream his best films.]

Were you expecting to be nominated for best director at the Oscars?

I wasn’t at all. It was a surprise. I went to school as a screenwriter, so it was a great surprise to get nominated by the [Writers Guild] for best original screenplay. In the back of my mind, I was hoping I would get nominated for best original screenplay at the Oscars. I didn’t think about the best director nomination because the [Directors Guild of America] hadn’t nominated me. At the time, when I was that age, I was new to the business. The film performed very well, people loved it, and I was making the film for a core black audience. I didn’t think it was going to cross over. I thought it would be like a great rap album, so it was really a surprise to me when the film garnered such critical success. I’m always worried when certain people like my work. They’re part of the establishment — why do they like me? I was trying to do a counterculture film, like “Easy Rider.”

So did you have mixed feelings about being embraced by the Oscars?

No, my mantra at the time was I was happy, but I don’t think I allowed myself to enjoy it as much. You do these things for the passion of it. You don’t do it for the notoriety of it. There was a political thing about it. Barbra Streisand wasn’t nominated for best director. That was a huge controversy. Some people said I took her slot. The irony was Barbra had gotten me into the D.G.A. — she signed my application.

How did that happen?

I was walking around the studio, and I had to get three signatures. Barbra was cutting “Prince of Tides,” and I’m a huge Barbra Streisand fan. People wouldn’t realize that. My daughter is, too. So I went to her editing room and talked to her, and she signed my application. Sidney Poitier signed it, too.

That’s amazing.

Yeah, and after I made “Boyz N the Hood,” I went around the lot, meeting veteran filmmakers — Francis Coppola was making “Dracula,” and Steven Spielberg was shooting “Hook.” So I’d go hang out on these sets and watch my cinematic idols work and interact with them and socialize with them. That’s what I remember most about the time. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I was living my cinematic dreams, and I was also going into a business that traditionally didn’t have people like me and wasn’t really welcoming people like me. But the generation that befriended me, at one time, they were the young game-changers. So they were anointing me to continue. Francis Coppola told me to write as many films as I can and keep them personal and make films that I’m passionate about. Not to follow the norm of what the marketplace wanted me to do. And I still have that attitude.

How did you feel about being the youngest and the first African-American best director nominee ever?

I felt good. At the same time, it was an irony because two years before, Spike Lee would have been for “Do the Right Thing.” [He was nominated for the screenplay but not for direction and didn’t win anything.] He’s always been a big brother to me. I met him when I was 18 years old. He was deserving of that honor, but Spike’s snub helped “Boyz N the Hood” over the top.

You presented an award with Spike at the Oscars that year. How did that go? Were you nervous?

I don’t know that I was nervous, but I felt like I was put on display. We just looked at each other like, “O.K., let’s go out and do this thing.” We’ve always been really close for all these years. We’ve been cheering each other on professionally.

Do you remember how you picked out what to wear?

I think I wore the same suit I wore to Cannes. I wasn’t as fashion-conscious then as I am now. Which I think is great. I was in preproduction on my next movie, “Poetic Justice,” hanging out with Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson, and then I had to go to the Oscars. That was where my head really was. I even missed the Oscar luncheon because I had to rehearse with the actors. I didn’t really allow myself to enjoy it as much as I could’ve because I was nervous about getting caught up in the hype of it. The last thing I wanted to do was to be talking about just “Boyz N the Hood” 20 years later because that was the only thing I ever did. That was how I was at 24 years old. I had a lot more work to do. I wanted to express myself in all different type of genres. That’s what I’ve attempted to do over the course of my career.

How did you feel when your categories came up? Did you think you might win one?

I was hoping I would win best screenplay. I knew Jonathan Demme was going to win best director [for “Silence of the Lambs”]. He came really close to producing “Boyz.” He was the first professional director I knew who said, “You have something here with this screenplay.” He was going to get it made at Orion Pictures. He flew me to New York, he had read the script, he wanted to produce it. He took me to lunch and gave me some directing tips and took me to a screening room, and he was just about to show “Silence” to the studio for the first time. He said, “I have this film. It’s a little long right now. It’s just a rough cut. Will you sit and watch it?” I was sitting in the theater and I was just about to watch it, and I said, “I’ve got to go do something else.” Because I was trying to hang out with Russell Simmons and Public Enemy. I’m happy I saw the film in its final form because it’s so brilliant and it really holds up. I was hoping I would win the screenplay award because I continue to believe my film was the most original film of the year.

So your applause for Demme when he won best director was genuine?

We were friends. When we were both nominated, we celebrated. I used his advice for my first film. He would tell me things about thematics and what’s going on behind a scene. This was just over lunch, and the things Demme told me have resonated with me to this day. I use them all the time. All those guys who were working at the time befriended me and helped my career.

Does it feel like it’s been 25 years since “Boyz N the Hood”?

It doesn’t feel that long. I still feel like I did at that age. As I’m talking to you, I’m about to go back to that neighborhood to shoot a scene for my new series at FX, “Snowfall.” I’m sitting here, like, O.K., I’m going back into my own element. How can I make this different? How can I take it to the next level? I’m never too far from South-Central Los Angeles.

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