A legend lost 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY GEORGE PIMENTAL - in memory John Singleton is being remembered for his important contributions to film.
  • PHoto by George Pimental
  • in memory John Singleton is being remembered for his important contributions to film.

Off the top here, we need to pour some on the block for writer-director-producer John Singleton, who passed away earlier this week.

Best known for his debut film, 1991's Boyz n the Hood, Singleton was a unique and authentic visionary who understood and created films about the power, nuance and influence of African Americans on popular culture. "We make up 20 per cent of this country," he said in a 1995 video interview, "but we make up 95 per cent of what's cool and hip about this country."

Singleton was 22 years old and fresh out of USC film school when he enlisted an untested gangster rapper named Ice Cube to star in a character-driven film that meshed the cool, badass vibe and aesthetic of the about-to-explode West Coast hip-hop scene with the harsh realities, pain and trauma of living as a black person in Los Angeles in the '90s.

Boyz n the Hood is a teenage coming-of-age film at heart, but it showed the world that even if they have the aspiration, skills and desire to succeed in America, for many young black men and women, that just isn't an option.

An instant hit (Roger Ebert called it "an American film of enormous importance"), Boyz netted Singleton Best Screenplay and Best Director Oscar nominations (the first black director and youngest person ever nominated for the latter). His next flick, Poetic Justice, tackled the complex relationships and difficulties between young black women and men (while kick-starting Tupac's fledgling acting career), and then poured all America's racial tensions into one college drama/ensemble with Higher Learning, released in 1995 (post-Rodney King, pre-O.J. Simpson trial).

It's not a subtle film but the Michael Rapaport white supremacy/school shooting scenes are sadly prescient of recent current events and many of the same issues Singleton hits us with are still problems 25 years later. (Bonus points for casting Tyra Banks as a track athlete—John Singleton could recognize screen presence.)

Singleton was also one of the first directors to put Snoop Dogg in a major film (Baby Boy, 2001) and his use of music was unparalleled—I'll always remember my buddy Cortez and I scrolling through the credits of the Boyz in the Hood VHS tape hunting down a track. In the pre-internet days, this was the only way two white kids from Pemberton High could ever discover a song like "O-o-h Child" by the Five Stairsteps (and it's not like you could find a Five Stairsteps CD in Vancouver either; we didn't get that track until Spike Lee released in on the Crooklyn soundtrack in 1994. Kids these days have no idea...)

Like Spike Lee, John Singleton was a visionary and a revolutionary. The Hollywood/cinematic establishment just recognized Lee with a (long overdue) Oscar this year, but after his untimely death, it seems John Singleton's legacy will remain underground, on the streets, with the characters he created and the musicians, artists, filmmakers and fans his honesty and integrity inspired. His work deserves another look, now more than ever, and Boyz n the Hood is available on Netflix.

At the Whistler Village 8 this week, it's still mostly Avengers madness but there is a new flick worth checking out. Long Shot is a nimble odd-couple, fish-out-of-water comedy starring Seth Rogen as a maverick journalist who ends up reconnecting with his childhood babysitter and first crush (Charlize Theron), except now she's making a run for presidency and needs a savvy speech writer.

Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, The Night Before, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), this one succeeds on the chemistry of its stars and the mix of crass and class, politics and comedy, romance and Rogen.

A refreshing R-rated comedy worth checking out.

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