DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. John Singleton, the first African-American to be nominated for a best director Oscar, died earlier this week at age 51. He worked as a director in TV, as well as film, directing episodes of "Billions," "American Crime Story," "Empire" and "Snowfall." But his first and biggest impact was in the movies, where at age 24, he earned Academy Award nominations for writing and directing the influential drama "Boyz N The Hood." Singleton grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and "Boyz N The Hood" was his very personal account of life in that particular neighborhood.
Singleton went to USC film school, where he wrote the beginnings of "Boyz N The Hood" as his student thesis. When Hollywood expressed interest in turning his screenplay into a film, Singleton insisted on directing it himself - which he did. Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as Tre Styles - a young man trying to navigate life in South Central LA and the only one of his friends who lives with and is being raised by his father. Laurence Fishburne plays his father, who in one scene, takes his son and one of his son's friends to a nearby neighborhood and challenges them to take a more thoughtful and political perspective on life in the hood.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOYZ N THE HOOD")
LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Furious Styles) I want y'all to take a look at that sign up there. See what it says? Cash for your home. You know what that is?
MORRIS CHESTNUT: (As Ricky Baker) It's a billboard.
CUBA GOODING JR: (As Tre Styles) Billboard.
FISHBURNE: (As Furious Styles) What are y'all - Amos and Andy? Are you Stepin, and he's Fetchit? I'm talking about the message - what it stands for. It's called gentrification. It's what happens when the property value of a certain area is brought down. You listening?
GOODING JR: (As Tre Styles) Yeah.
FISHBURNE: They bring the property value down. They can buy the land at a lower price. Then they move all the people out, raise the property value and sell it at a profit. Now, what we need to do is we need to keep everything in our neighborhood - everything - black. Black-owned with black money - just like the Jews, the Italians, the Mexicans and the Koreans do.
WHITMAN MAYO: (As The Old Man) Ain't nobody from outside bringing down the property value. It's these folk...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, groaning).
MAYO: (As The Old Man) ...Shooting each other and selling that crack rock.
FISHBURNE: (As Furious Styles) Well, how you think the crack rock gets into the country? We don't own any planes. We don't own no ships. We are not the people who are flying and floating that [expletive] in here. I know every time you turn on a TV that's what you see...
MAYO: (As The Old Man) Oh, yeah.
FISHBURNE: (As Furious Styles) ...Black people...
MAYO: (As The Old Man) Yeah.
FISHBURNE: (As Furious Styles) ...Selling the rock...
MAYO: (As The Old Man) Right.
FISHBURNE: (As Furious Styles) ...Pushing the rock...
MAYO: (As The Old Man) Yeah.
FISHBURNE: (As Furious Styles) ...Pushing the rock. Yeah, I know. But that wasn't a problem as long as it was here. It wasn't a problem until it was in Iowa, and it showed up on Wall Street, where there are hardly any black people. Now, if you want to talk about guns - why is it that there's a gun shop on almost every corner in this community?
MAYO: (As The Old Man) Why?
FISHBURNE: (As Furious Styles) I'll tell you why. For the same reason that there's a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves. You go out to Beverly Hills. You don't see that [expletive]. But they want us to kill ourselves.
MAYO: (As The Old Man) Yeah.
FISHBURNE: (As Furious Styles) Yeah. The best way you can destroy a people - you take away their ability to reproduce themselves.
MAYO: (As The Old Man) Yeah.
FISHBURNE: (As Furious Styles) Who is it that's dying out here on these streets every night? Young brothers like yourselves.
BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with John Singleton in 1991, when "Boyz N The Hood" was first released.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: When you sold the script for "Boyz N The Hood," you insisted on directing it yourself. I was wondering what the movie was like in your mind when you envisioned an assigned director doing it?
JOHN SINGLETON: I never could envision an assigned director. That would be like selling my mother. You know what I'm saying? It'd be like (laughter) - it would be like selling one of my relatives to someone. Can you imagine somebody like Alan Parker trying to direct "Boyz N The Hood"? You know, it would probably end up - Furious would be a Baptist minister. Tre would be a choir boy. And at the end of the movie, Doughboy would sing a gospel song. So I don't think anybody else could've directed this film outside of myself.
GROSS: Alan Parker is, by the way, the person who directed "Mississippi Burning" among other things - for our listeners...
SINGLETON: Yes (laughter).
GROSS: ...Who are trying to figure out which director he is. So you thought it would be shown in things that would end up being stereotypical and generationally - and location would - all wrong.
SINGLETON: Yeah. I couldn't let nobody from, you know, Iowa or - you know what I'm saying? - or Idaho or even Encino to write this film. It had to be directed by somebody who lived it.
GROSS: What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in?
SINGLETON: I grew up on Vermont and 101st in a part of South LA known as Inglewood in the flight path of LAX. And it was rough, but it wasn't as rough as it is now - because, you know, the neighborhood is now seeing the aftereffects of the last decade of the burgeoning crack trade. And, you know, it's suffering because of that. It's now just trying to get back up.
GROSS: Do you have any friends who were killed?
SINGLETON: A couple.
GROSS: What were the circumstances?
SINGLETON: Well, I had one friend - his name was Robbie Stringer. He got killed because he - in the mid '80s when cocaine was made cheaper in the form of crack, you know, because that all happened in the early '80s, right?
GROSS: Mmm hmm.
SINGLETON: You know, he started getting involved in the trade and stuff. And he got killed when he was 17. He got killed in an alley down the street from my house. It really changed my neighborhood just like, you know, when one of the kids in the film gets killed. It changes everybody's life.
GROSS: How did it change your life?
SINGLETON: It just - it made me - it was like a crux in which all these things that were happening - growing up in the early '80s - were, like, coming to fruition. And I was realizing that there was a certain system in order to - that was working towards, you know, my demise, you know, and to bring me down. I could just look around. I can remember being able to go to the park when I was a kid, and there would always be a park supervisor there. You could check out a basketball or a baseball or whatever. And after certain laws were passed here in this country - the Reagan administration and Proposition 13 here in Los Angeles County - tax money didn't go towards park supervisors or anything, and social programs and stuff was being taken away. And I could see that, you know? So what does a park become then? The park becomes a turf. It doesn't become a recreational facility. You know, I can remember when Ronald Reagan deemed ketchup to be a vegetable. I was in sixth grade. So I'm now a product. I'm a product of the last decade, and now I'm out for change.
GROSS: Mmm hmm.
SINGLETON: You know, it's the '90s. And so I'm ready to deal a new hand.
GROSS: Now, "Boyz N The Hood" is - a lot of it is about the importance of having a father around - a strong father...
SINGLETON: That's right.
GROSS: ...As a good role model and also to kind of discipline you and, like, teach you the difference between right and wrong.
SINGLETON: There's a whole population of young people - black, white, whatever - that don't have a strong father figure or strong family background, for that matter. Most people don't even talk to their kids, all right? And the deal is that it's my belief that a young boy needs a man to teach him how to be a man. A woman cannot teach him how to do that. She can only teach him her perception of what she believes a man to be.
And as a result of this, since we have a whole population of young men that don't have father figures, that don't have that direction, they're always in pursuit of their manhood, you see? They're always going to be not really in tune with themselves as young men and throughout their lives searching, searching, searching for a sense of what being a man is.
GROSS: Did you have a strong father?
SINGLETON: Yes. My father was the model for Furious.
GROSS: And in the movie, the parents of the main character are separated. Your parents were separated, too.
SINGLETON: My parents never married. But they were still good parents, you know?
GROSS: So who did you live with?
SINGLETON: I lived with my mother for a certain period of time. And then when I turned 11, I went to live with my father.
GROSS: It's kind of like the character in the movie.
SINGLETON: It's exactly like the character in the movie.
GROSS: Now, in the movie, the character changes because the mother kind of made a pact with the father that if discipline became a real problem with their son that she would send him over to the father and have him live with the father. Was that what happened with you?
SINGLETON: Yes. Yes, it was.
GROSS: What was - what were you getting into that was a warning sign to your mother?
SINGLETON: Just, you know, fighting too much and (laughter) getting into some certain things that I shouldn't have been getting into. I was on the wrong path, and I needed to be guided onto the right path. And that's why I went to live with my father.
GROSS: What did your father do to lay down the law right away?
SINGLETON: He taught me a sense of responsibility. He made me work around the house. He taught me to value myself and my culture. And when I was - you know, just, you know, where - and respect him, you know? And, you know, I looked up to my father like most people look up to Superman, you see? And...
GROSS: Did you - I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt.
SINGLETON: No worries, Terry.
GROSS: I wanted to know if you ever defied your father.
SINGLETON: Yeah, a couple times. We got into it and stuff. (Laughter) You know, I didn't do everything my pops told me. I would never - I wouldn't be here right now, you know? I mean, my father wanted me to go into real estate. And I was, like, no.
SINGLETON: He's, like, real estate - you know, real estate is the way to go. You can get your license before you finish college. I was, like, no. I'm going to be a filmmaker, you know? So I don't do everything my father tells me.
GROSS: Were you ever looked on by some of your friends as too much of the good kid of...
SINGLETON: Oh, heck no.
GROSS: OK - just...
SINGLETON: I've always been a psychological person. I've always been a kind of person that could (laughter) sway attitudes and sway weak-minded people into certain directions, whether that - whether or not they wanted to or not go into that direction.
GROSS: This is a great trait to have as a filmmaker. How did you use it as a teenager?
SINGLETON: Well, I mean, there are certain people I could get to do certain things that they ordinarily wouldn't do. My father always taught me to be a leader and not a follower, to work smarter and not harder. And so if you have a certain population of people that are followers, they're easy to be led. And they're easy to be led through the power of the way you speak to them. You see what I'm saying? And so, I mean, my father taught me to value that. And also, I learned that a lot from comic books, too.
SINGLETON: I mean, no - you learn a lot from comic books. You read comic books, and you have certain characters who are kings and consider themself royalty and certain people who command respect like Doctor Doom and stuff. And you look at the way they speak and the way they - you know, they describe them. And there's stories about how they walk, and they've been - you know, that what they're about and everything. And as a kid, I internalized that - me and my little friends, you know? And so I had my little pack just like, you know, Doughboy, Ricky and Tre.
GROSS: "Boyz N The Hood" has gotten very good reviews. It's doing really well at the box office. How is that going to affect the next movie that you make? Do you know what that movie will be? Are you getting surprising offers?
SINGLETON: I'm writing my next film right now. And my next film is going to be even more experimental. I mean, now that I've done something like this, it allows me to be more free and - with my work. And it's going to be about the war between black men and women on an economic level, you know? (Laughter) It's a romance.
GROSS: (Laughter). That's...
SINGLETON: It's, like - you know, it's a straight-up street romance. And since it deals with emotions and love, it's even more dangerous than "Boyz N The Hood." So maybe you'll have couples shooting each other in the theaters.
SINGLETON: No, not for real. I'm just joking. I'm wondering whether or not...
SINGLETON: ...I'm going to be able to get a date after this movie.
GROSS: Well, John Singleton, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
SINGLETON: Thank you very much. All right. Peace out.
BIANCULLI: John Singleton, the Oscar-nominated writer and director of "Boyz N The Hood," speaking to Terry Gross in 1991. He died earlier this week at age 51. After a break, Soraya Nadia McDonald reviews Damon Young's new memoir of essays called "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "THE LINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.