John Singleton flashed an ear-to-ear grin. “I feel vindicated,” he told me. “I also feel rich. This is my definition of a good time.”
The scene was the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. We were having a drink to celebrate Singleton’s latest coup. He had carefully organized a bidding war among distributors for his latest production, Hustle & Flow, and had come away with a $9 million payday. The same bidders who had turned Singleton down pre-festival, when he’d asked a mere $1.5 million for his self-financed movie, were now courting him.
To orchestrate the bidding war, Singleton, smiling and, as always, gracious, had carefully staged three separate Sundance screenings but kept invitations under wraps, thus making them seem like a hot ticket. The then CEO of Paramount flew in from New York to ensure his seat at the table; he ended up buying it. (The offer came from Tom Freston, then chairman of Paramount and its parent company, Viacom, who was shortly to be fired by Sumner Redstone over a tech deal).
My drink with the ebullient Singleton came to mind as I read the obits and other tributes about the filmmaker, who died Monday at age 51. His work is lauded as “bleak and realistic” by the New York Times. Boyz N the Hood “dramatized the horrors that confront black youth,” wrote Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times.
Singleton’s work inspired respect, to be sure; he was the auteur who found his muse in South Central. He was only 22 when he began shooting Boyz N the Hood and was 24 when he was nominated for a Best Director Oscar. “As the movie was going along I learned how to direct,” he said at its 25th anniversary screening in Manhattan last year. He lost the 1992 Oscar to Jonathan Demme for Silence of the Lambs.
While I, too, developed enormous respect for Singleton’s work, I felt that the tributes combine to make him seem like an angry and distanced figure, missing an important facet of his character: Singleton was a serious filmmaker who truly enjoyed Hollywood’s power plays and was bemused by its power players. He was thrilled by his early success, but he also knew how to deal with later rejections. Rosewood, a period picture about a 1923 Florida race riot, failed to find an audience. So did Baby Boy. But Singleton reacted by shrewdly recycling Shaft with Samuel L. Jackson and also contributed to the Fast and the Furious franchise. Singleton’s movies helped foster the careers of some major talent — Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur in Poetic Justice and Taraji P. Henson and Snoop Dogg in Baby Boy.
In Hustle & Flow, Singleton cast Terrence Howard as a Memphis pimp who aspired to be a rapper (It was directed by Craig Brewer). The studios did not respond warmly to the screenplay. Hence, arriving at Sundance, the filmmaker decided to start fresh. If screenings went badly, “I could afford to lose a few bucks,” he said. If they went well perhaps he would end up with the funding to support a series of low-budget indie films.
When I encountered Singleton on the first day of the festival, he confided his strategy with a guilty smile and admitted he felt it was a long shot. The key, he said, was to generate bids.
“The screenings went great,” he told me two nights later. “Not only were the studios in a bidding mode, they were buying me drinks and selling me on what great partners they would be.”
Singleton had his agents at the ready. Late-night meetings were held, terms argued over. Then hands were shaken and Singleton showed up for our drink. “This is a game,” he told me. “You absolutely cannot afford not to understand it.”
I am glad Singleton understood it and enjoyed it. I suspect he would like being remembered as a player as well as an auteur. Unfortunately, he never realized his dream of making a series of indie pictures: He ultimately sued Paramount for $20 million for backing out of its promise to make the films. He won, but terms of the settlement were never revealed.