John Singleton: Higher Learning in Hollywood: Moviemaker Opens Up about His Work and His Relationship with Model and Actress Tyra Banks

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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. …