John Singleton, the groundbreaking film director, screenwriter and producer, died Monday in Los Angeles after suffering a stroke on April 17. He was 51. A family spokesperson said Singleton passed away peacefully at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, surrounded by his family and friends.
“We want to thank the amazing doctors at Cedars-Sinai Hospital for their expert care and kindness and we again want thank all of John’s fans, friends and colleagues for all of the love and support they showed him during this difficult time,” the family said in a statement.
Earlier on Monday, the family had made the decision to remove Singleton from life support at Cedars, where he had been in the ICU unit since suffering the stroke 13 days earlier. Singleton suffered the stroke while at the hospital and had been “under great medical care.”
A two-time Oscar nominee for writing and directing his debut film Boyz N the Hood (1991), Singleton was a trailblazer in black cinema. He was a benchmark in filmmaking and his voice spoke to an audience with black storytelling that had never been seen or heard. He shined a light on black narratives in the ’90s, adding his pioneering voice to the need for inclusive voices in the industry.
Born in L.A. on January 6, 1968, Singleton attended Blair High School and went on to Pasadena City College and then to USC School of Cinematic Arts. At first, he was toying with the idea of pursuing computer science, but then he enrolled in USC’s Film Writing Program — and this was the spark that started a career that would cement him as one of the most influential filmmakers of our time.
It wasn’t long after graduating from USC in 1990 that he released his first feature film, Boyz N the Hood. This would start an extraordinary run at Columbia Pictures, where he won a green light for three films in five years — a feat rarely matched by contemporary directors — all by the age of 26. Also at Columbia, Singleton was heavily backed by studio chief Frank Price, a political conservative who responded strongly to Singleton’s talent and family-oriented social messaging.
The Boyz N the Hood script was spotted by a studio reader, Jeff Stockwell, who went on to become a screenwriter in his own right. The film essentially put Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube on the map as prolific cinematic actors. The movie also starred such A-listers as Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as well as Morris Chestnut, Regina King and Nia Long. Written and directed by Singleton, Boyz n the Hood followed three men as they navigated their lives through the obstacles of race, violence, cultural identity and relationships in L.A.’s Crenshaw neighborhood.
It put a spotlight on what many would refer to as “urban” filmmaking when in reality it was just Singleton telling stories that he knew and thought deserved to be told. He was a black filmmaker putting a lens on the black experience with compassion, empathy and a degree of rawness that has never been done before. He broke ground in more ways the one.
Boyz N the Hood was a commercial and critical success and Singleton earned Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. At the time, Singleton was 24 and was not only the youngest person ever to receive a Best Director nom but also the first black person nominated, paving the way for the likes of Lee Daniels, Barry Jenkins and Jordan Peele after him. Boyz N the Hood cemented its legacy in Hollywood when the U.S. Library of Congress saw it as a culturally significant piece of art and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2002.
As an example of the film’s national influence, Singleton was invited in July 1992 to testify before a Senate subcommittee at a hearing titled “Children at War: Violence and America’s Youth.” He and other witnesses spoke about the possible causes of rising homicide rates among America’s youth, including violence in media, substance abuse and the availability of weapons. Coincidentally, the chairman of that panel — the Senate Labor & Human Resources Subcommittee on Children, Family Drugs & Alcoholism — was Sen. Christopher Dodd, who would go on to lead the MPAA from 2011-17. Click here to watch Singleton’s full testimony, including his interaction with Todd.
While at Columbia in the 1990s, Singleton added youth, hipness, and cultural awareness to a rich mix of talent deals that were skewed toward more established names such as Penny Marshall, Danny DeVito and Harold Ramis. His production company New Deal Entertainment became a training ground for young black executives and was an obligatory stop for black music stars including Ice Cube and the late great Tupac Shakur, who were only beginning to find their way with older white executives.
In 1993, he followed up Boyz N the Hood with Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson, Shakur, King and Joe Torry. In this dramatic road-trip movie, the world is seen through the eyes of the titular Justice, a poet played by Jackson. In the film, Shakur’s character leads everyone on a road trip from Los Angeles to Oakland as they interact with one another, attempt to build relationships and deal with their own baggage.
In 1995, Singleton continued to explore race relations and identity in the collegiate drama Higher Learning, which reunited him with Ice Cube and Fishburne. The film featured an all-star cast including Omar Epps, Michael Rapaport, Jennifer Connelly, Kristy Swanson and Tyra Banks. This would be followed by numerous films including Rosewood (1997), Baby Boy (2001) and Four Brothers (2005). He even lent his voice to prominent Hollywood IP including the Shaft remake in 2000 and 2 Fast 2 Furious in 2003.
Singleton also served as producer of the critically acclaimed Southern hip-hop drama Hustle & Flow, starring future Empire leads Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. The aforementioned Stephanie Allain would partner with Singleton to produce Brewer’s Hustle & Flow film that in 2005 pushed both into the spotlight with its critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for Howard.
Written and directed by Brewer, the Paramount film was difficult to get funded. Singleton believed in it, supported it financially and took it to Sundance in 2005 where it was a hit. Everyone was clamoring for the movie, but Singleton went with Paramount because it promised him two additional features. However, Paramount allegedly didn’t follow through with the promise and Singleton sued the studio and MTV films for $20 million in 2011 for alleged breaches of contract and fraud. They eventually settled to end the litigation. In the end, Hustle & Flow was made for $2.8 million and grossed more than $23 million.
Singleton continued to be a voice in film and TV, championing the black community and encouraging studios to let them get behind the camera.
Singleton professed joy at seeing other black filmmakers match or surpass some of the marks he had set. “I hope to God he breaks my record,” Singleton said of Daniels right before he became the second black man nominated for a directing Oscar. Yet it seemed that Singleton’s achievements momentarily were forgotten, as the #OscarsSoWhite movement later excoriated the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Hollywood in general for a lack of racial and gender diversity. By that time, Singleton, though still in his 40s, had seemed to become an elder statesman. Never quite as insistent as peers like Spike Lee in demanding change, he had already changed the industry.
He carried on and continued to use his platform to tell inclusive stories in film and TV as a director and producer. He also co-created and executive produced the FX drama series Snowfall, which focuses on the start of the crack epidemic in Los Angeles and has been renewed for Season 3. He also directed episodes of Billions, Empire and American Crime Story, along with Marion Jones: Press Pause for ESPN’s 30 for 30.
“In his private life, John was a loving and supporting father, son, brother, and friend who believed in higher education, black culture, old school music and the power of film,” the family statement said.
“John’s confidence in his place in Hollywood was only matched for his passion for the sea. John kayaked in Marina Del Rey every morning. His greatest joy, when not on set, was sailing his boat, J’s Dream, up and down the Pacific Coast. The American writer Willa Cather once said, “There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in the storm.” We who have grown up with John, made movies with him, sailed with John and laughed with John, know the universe of calm and creativity he created for so many. Now in the wake of his death, we must navigate the storm without him. It is, for us, heartbreaking.”
Like many African Americans, Singleton quietly struggled with hypertension, his family said. More than 40% of African American men and women have high blood pressure, which also develops earlier in life and is usually more severe. His family wants to share the message with all to please recognize the symptoms by going to Heart.org.
Singleton is survived by his mother, Sheila Ward, his father, Danny Singleton and his children Justice, Maasai, Hadar, Cleopatra, Selenesol, Isis, and Seven.
Details about memorial services will be provided at a later date.