Tuesday, February 12, 2013

An Evening With John Singleton

John Singleton is awesome.

I've known this since the 90s when Boyz N The Hood first came out, and captivated me and millions of other viewers around the world, when we saw our first representation of "realistic" young black people on the big screen.

But to see him up-close-and-personal about 20 years later, to watch that same classic movie on the big screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre, AND to have Mr. Singleton right there in the room talking about the slight sounds of a baby crying and traffic in the background as Riiiiiickkyyyyyyyyy!!! gets shot. Now that was an phenomenal f*cking experience.

And I use the "f" word loosely, because it was a common term this evening, in different variations, because John Singleton is a raw, real, and to-the-point kinda brother. He cussed, he told candid stories, he recapped his career with the right amount of class and braggadocio...and he reminded me exactly why to this day, he is the creator of about 3 of my top 5 movies of all times.

Boyz N The Hood. Baby Boy. Poetic Justice. We watched clips of them all tonight, and I was so inspired to hear the stories behind the stories, and hear the voice of the man whom I have admired for the last two decades.

Presented by the Canadian Film Centre and Clement Virgo Productions, "An Evening With John Singleton" on this 12th day of February in 2013 was yet another great Black History Month event for me, and a great reminder of the minds and artists that have helped to shape the psyche and entertainment of our generation.

Singleton was introduced by Clement Virgo, a Canadian filmmaker (and Jamaican native) who has written, directed, and produced films such as "Poor Boy's Game," "Lie with Me," and "Save My Lost Nigga' Soul," along with directing episodes of The Wire, The L Word, and Soul Food.

This was the 4th in a series of Black History Month features from the CFC, with previous guests including the great Spike Lee, and Lee Daniels. Admission from the events have provided scholarships to black filmmakers to attend the Film Centre (through the CFC's Diversity Scholarship Fund), and has served as an inspiration to aspiring artists and fans alike.

Garvia Bailey, the 9-year CBC radio veteran, and host of "Big City, Small World" led the discussion with Singleton, and took him through the processes and side-stories of his journey in film and navigating Hollywood. She did a great job leading him through a comfortable, entertaining, and informative conversation.

What resonated with me was how COOL Singleton was. With a "motherf*cker" here, and a "n*gga" there, he definitely kept it real and definitely was candid about his experiences from a young student filmmaker, to the Hollywood heavyweight he is today. He remains authentic to who he is.

Even if we all knew bits and pieces of his journey already, it was still fantastic to be able to sit amongst his admirers and listen to him tell his rendition of his biography live. He's a funny dude. And it's not that he was "telling" jokes, but his mannerisms, his language, his forwardness and confidence made it evident why he has become who he is.

You can tell he didn't compromise. He didn't do anything less than exactly what he believed he should be doing. Whether others agreed or not. And it is this boldness that made him the first African-American (and the youngest, at age 24) to receive a Best Director Academy Award nomination, and that make his films like Higher Learning, Rosewood, and Four Brothers the classics that they are today.

John Singleton is undoubtedly a trailblazer, because he was courageous enough to tell a story of black America that had not yet been seen, yet so many could relate to. Even living in the Toronto suburb of Ajax...I could RELATE to Boyz N The Hood as an adolescent/teen. The characters, the energy, the music...there was something so familiar about the characters and their emotions that made it hit home with many of us. We FELT that movie. We still do.

And I remember studying the movie in a film class, back in the late 1990s at the University of Windsor and thinking...wow, this film has really made an impact on the world. And again now, another 10 years later, we're still discussing it's relevance, and it's significance in film and pop culture history.

Singleton clarified that he was only depicting a "certain type of black life"..but regardless of who's reality it was, it was a film and an image that meant a lot of things to a lot of people. Filmmakers everywhere were inspired by this young twenty-something who had taken Hollywood by storm with his movie, just like Singleton admitted to being blown away by Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing."

We don't all have someone to inspire us, but when you do...it's a powerful thing. Singleton looked at Spike Lee as a man doing what he also planned to do with his life...and he never looked back. He told the crowd, Spike Lee made a black movie with "Do The Right Thing," but he was determined to make a "blacker" movie..and he was motivated and encouraged by the possibility of it.

He discussed the casting of Poetic Justice with Janet Jackson and the late Tupac Shakur, and preparing for Baby Boy, starring Tyrese Gibson, Snoop, and Taraji Henson. The camaraderie, and despite the fact that he was just a young man himself, how he had to find the courage to still be authoritative and run a tight ship on set.

"I made that niche for myself," he told us, proudly claiming the genre of films that he has excelled at, and that few have been able to do quite like he has. A natural storyteller, John Singleton wrote his characters based on the emotion and circumstances of personal experiences, along with the determination to tell the stories of the faces and neighbourhoods around him.

Just like Spike Lee told clear stories of Brooklyn, John Singleton was waving the cinematic flag for Los Angeles. And in his "trilogy" of Boyz N The Hood, Poetic Justice, and Baby Boy, he did just that: shone a light on South Central LA without reservation. A California native, he stayed true to his experiences, initially, and made sure we saw his town through the eyes of an insider.

Now other films like Higher Learning, Rosewood, Four Brothers, and 2 Fast 2 Furious allowed him to step outside of his created niche, and into a broader scope of different cultures, locales, and experiences. His list of subsequent credits are impressive, with direction and writing on Shaft as well, he has also produced movies like Hustle & Flow amongst many others.

All "film" credits aside, my love for John Singleton is rooted in his writing. The stories of Baby Boy, Higher Learning, Poetic Justice, and Boyz N Da Hood have stuck with me, consistently. I own the movies, and can watch them ad nauseum. I never tire of Jody. I never tire of Doughboy. I never tire of Professor Maurice Phipps, and of course Justice and Lucky will always have a place in my heart.

Singleton left Los Angeles for south Florida for over two years, to be able to tell the story of Rosewood. He noted that the "hood" life surrounding his movies, his stars, and his peers was getting to be too much. Life was imitating art, and combined with success, money, status and visibility, his surroundings were full of tension and occasionally even danger.

His journey has been an interesting one so far, needless to say. He told stories of Richard Pryor, chilling with Michael Jackson, getting to know Tupac, and even talked about his friend Quentin Tarantino's "black fetish" and his interpretation of Django (he loved it, by the way) and the surrounding controversy.

What resonated with me most from this event, were Singleton's last thoughts. He said that he doesn't mind being considered a "black filmmaker." He said that not all black people who make films consider themselves to be "black filmmakers" out of fear of what others will think, but it is something he is settled in, and "I am who I am" he declared.

He also fondly thanked Spike Lee for making a lot of the bold media statements that he has (and Singleton, in turn didn't have to). A close friend of his, who he just spent time with last week, Singleton said that he loves Spike Lee because he always says what's on his mind, and that "not enough people are that candid."

Singleton believes that it is possible to have a signature vision, and that your legacy can be achieved as long as you stay "true and passionate to who you are as a storyteller." It is his truth and his passion as a storyteller that definitely motivated and encouraged me to find my own voice as a young writer. Hearing him live today has encouraged me again to continue to follow my own "signature vision" and not be afraid to stand boldly in it.

What a night! Watching Boyz N The Hood with John Singleton in the room. For real though...what's better than that? It was an honour to even be in his presence, and I so appreciate what the Canadian Film Centre put together tonight: an opportunity for me to continue to receive inspiration from someone who has already shaped so much of my writing identity over the years.

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