When he wroter and directed Boyz N The Hood four years ago, John Singleton became the toast of Hollywood. At 23, he became the first Black and the youngest director ever nominated for an Oscar in the best directing category. There were standing ovations, handshakes and accolades everywhere he went.
And there was money. Boyz, a coming-of-age movie about the extreme importance of Black fathers in the lives of their sons, pulled in more than $100 million worldwide. His follow-up, Poetic Justice, about a sensitive relationship between a postal worker and a woman who's seen her share of violence, earned $30 million. And the still-in-release Higher Learning brought in more than $30 million in its first three weeks. Higher Learning, a film about racial and sexual tensions on a mostly White college campus, features Singleton's significant other, supermodel Tyra Banks.
The money and the accolades heaped on him were nice but they have never distracted him from his mission of making movies that could make Black people feel good, proud and aware. "I want to dignify African-Americans through films. We need to show them with some dignity. Humanize them, not just with positive images. We need to show a balance of good and bad," Singleton says. "There's a wealth of Black literature out there that has yet to be put on the screen correctly. Traditionally, Black men in the movies were always emasculated. They took their manhood away. Hollywood didn't want to see strong Black men. Everyone shows us as demonized or angelic characters shuffling and singing in church."
He decided he wanted to change all that when he was the ripe old age of nine. That's when he fell in love with the whole world of movies and moviemaking. Sure, it was upsetting that the only positive characters he saw on the big screen were White. But he also was totally blown away by the awesome technology he saw in the hit film Star Wars.
"I used to make movies when I was in elementary school," he remembers. "I was like talking a book and flipping the pages of that book and making little animated movies. I had everybody in class doing that. Back then, it wasn't cool using your mind. But I made it cool."
Because he wore glasses, he says, all his classmates assumed he was smart. But, he says, he wasn't really smart, just okay. "I became smart because everybody expected me to be," he says. "I became intelligent."
Singleton was raised as an only child although he admits that his father has a number of other children. He was raised by parents who were separated during his childhood. They still live in separate parts of greater Los Angeles.
Undeterred by the onslaught of adolescence, Singleton took courses in cinematography while still a high school student. At the University of Southern California he was the first student ever to be represented by the powerful agency, Creative Artists Agency, a company that handles some of Hollywood's heaviest hitters.
"I got an agent in school because I knew how to write screenplays. I got to CAA because I had an internship with someone who knew my agent. They gave my script to an agent," he says. "Throughout college I had internships, meeting with people to get to know the business. I did all the menial tasks. I paid my dues."
And that dues-paying paid off handsomely when the script for Boyz generated lots of interest at Columbia Pictures. Even though he was fresh out of college, Singleton boldly played hardball with bigshots, refusing to surrender control of his project to anyone. Columbia officials wanted someone else, a seasoned director, to take over the Boyz project.
"I said `hell, no!...'" he says. "I knew another studio was interested in it."
Now, the powers-that-be know to approach him a bit more gingerly. At 27, he is already a seasoned veteran of Hollywood. "I'm a veteran," he says, "but I still have some growing to do, becoming a better filmmaker and a better storyteller."
Singleton's demeanor is low-key but extremely serious. For him, public smiles come about as frequently as leap year. But, there is a totally different side to his personality. And Tyra Banks, now 21, brings that out. She has been a successful model since graduating from high school four years ago and has performed on NBC's hit comedy Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as Will Smith's girlfriend.
John and Tyra met two years ago through friends and have been dating ever since. He manages a bit of a smile when discussing her. "What can I say? [Tyra] is a good girl and she is very smart," Singleton says. "She has a lot going for her. I want a woman who's got a mind. Tyra helps me out a lot. She helps me unwind [and eliminate] the stress. It's a real crazy business and it's really good to have somebody who understands how difficult it is."
Because of his fondness for Banks, Singleton admits to having had some difficulty with the love scenes in Higher Learning between Tyra and Omar Epps. "It was hard but we got through it," he says. "Nobody knows her like I do."
Even though they were dating, he says Tyra still had to audition for the role of Deja, a smart and beautiful track star at the mythical Christopher Columbus University. "She came off well. She was nervous about the movie," says the young director who admits he wasn't nervous. "She had to prepare and learn how to run track and how to do exercises."
Ever since Boyz, Singleton has had to deal with an age-old byproduct of monumental success--hangers-on. "People have been wanting to be my friend, especially women," he says. "They want to be with me because I'm John Singleton, not John. With Tyra I don't have to worry about that."
Because she is in such demand for modeling work around the world and because his work takes him out of L.A. very often, frequently there is distance between the two of them. He shrugs it off and says that either he flies to where she is or vice versa when time is available. "It doesn't hurt our relationship," he says.
In Hollywood, love relationships between celebrities quickly prompt fans to ask the inevitable question about marriage. But don't look for any strolls down the aisle anytime soon. Singleton emphatically says both are not ready to consider marriage. "We're too young for it right now," Singleton says. "Tyra's definitely too young."
When not working or spending time with Tyra, Singleton loves to play with the numerous electronic gadgets he has around his home. He has a couple of computers and a number of video games throughout his home and in a huge entertainment center. In addition, he has a massive video screen with surround-sound built in for videos and laser discs.
He also unwinds by traveling, biking, scuba-diving, playing Nintendo, reading and, of course, watching movies. It's also relaxing, he says, to play with his two cats Deja (like Tyra's character in Higher Learning) and Q-Tip at his home in the upscale, mostly Black Baldwin Hills section of L.A. His home offers him a sweeping view of downtown L.A., the mountains and canyons. Unlike many other celebrities,
Singleton proudly points out that he never considered moving to Beverly Hills or Malibu when he started earning significant money "I wanted to make sure I was in a Black neighborhood, around Black people," he says.
In addition to his moviemaking, Singleton's New Deal Productions, located at Columbia Pictures studio in L.A., has a music division. He is now working with a rap artist named Mr. Grimm and plans on adding other artists to the label soon. Singleton also plans on making more music videos (He directed Michael Jackson's Remember the Time), animated films and hopes to produce movie projects for other writers and directors. "I want to become much more than a filmmaker," he says. "My ultimate goal is to i un my own studio."
If and when that happens, he will be buoyed by the thick skin that he has developed over the last few years. While Boyz received near-universal praise, critics weren't nearly as kind to Poetic Justice and Higher Learning.
"I'm pretty thick-skinned. Do you think it matters to me whether an insulated White man living somewhere doesn't like my movies or the brother on the street who went to see it and paid?" he asks. "Who do you think I care about most? I don't feel any pressure from critics. I only feel pressured to make good movies."
In the future, Singleton wants to make pictures that give Black youngsters a wider range of heroes than athletes and entertainers, and make them want to achieve academically. "Black people really need to hear about using their minds. We need to make sure kids know it's cool to achieve," he says. "If you talk to a Black child in any city in this country and ask what they want to be when they grow up, they'll often say a basketball player, a football player. There are other heroes. Look at Johnnie Cochran (O.J. Simpson's lead attorney). Little kids should be looking up and saying, `I want to be like Johnnie Cochran.' That's the kind of kid I was. My father was always an advocate of that."
Singleton himself is an advocate when it comes to the study of Black history. He points to Africa's Goree Island as an example of parts of Black American history that many do not know about but need to. Goree Island is off the coast of Senegal and was a waystation of sorts where slaves were separated by sex and strength, etc., before being sent to the western hemisphere. Millions did not make it past Goree Island and were eaten by sharks.
If Blacks were exposed to more of the richness of their heritage, Singleton says, Black-on-Black crime would probably be a lot lower and, above all, their battered self-esteem would be much higher.
For Singleton, the most important word has always been "focus." He says he will always remain focused on what he wants and feels he must do. "I want to keep challenging Black people," he says. "I want people to have a sense of who we are as a people. I want to keep making people think. It's my responsibility."…