John Singleton And The Making Of ‘Rosewood:’ Screenwriter Gregory Poirier On Memories & Regrets

John Singleton
Credit: Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

EDITOR’S NOTE: Much was written about maverick Boyz N The Hood director John Singleton when he died early last year. In the wake of the George Floyd murder, there are several treatments of the Black Wall Street atrocity in the offing, but Singleton and Gregory Poirier had the field all to themselves when they collaborated on Rosewood, a drama woven from historic events of the 1923 Rosewood massacre in Florida, when a white mob killed black people and destroyed their town. Not many could have gotten such a movie made by a major studio back in 1997, but Singleton directed it for Warner Bros. It has taken Poirier, who won the WGA Paul Selvin Award for his work, time to find a handle on his own complicated relationship with Singleton, and that is what makes this guest column most poignant.

Gregory Poirier Karen Vaisman

Recent events surrounding Black Lives Matter and the national conversation arising from the protests that have broken out around the country got me thinking a lot lately about my first produced script,
1997’s Rosewood. In many ways, Rosewood feels more relevant today than it did 23 year ago. The racism, economic frustration and multi-generational hatred of 1929 depicted in the film are on full display in
our country nearly a hundred years later. Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

Mostly though, recent events have made me think about the extraordinary man who directed Rosewood, John Singleton.

When John passed just over a year ago, far too soon and way too young, I thought about writing a tribute to him. I sat down several times to start, but it is clear now that John’s death hit me harder than I first understood, and writing about him took some distance.

I was fortunate to have John direct my first produced screenplay. He was the first director I worked with in the development process and I learned a great deal from him. One of the first things he said to me
when I was hired was that we had a fine line to walk together; Rosewood was a true story, and some of the survivors were still alive, so we could not betray what actually happened back then. But we also
had to make a movie, with an engaging story and characters people could relate to. There would inevitably be times when we would have to stray from the strict reality of what happened, so it was our
responsibility to always stay loyal to the spirit of the truth.

And what a brutal truth it was. We spent hours over several days together recording interviews with survivors of the Rosewood massacre, most of whom had been children at the time (and all of whom are gone now). It was an experience I will never forget. After we were finished with the interviews John tossed out most of the more extreme ideas he had for how to change the story; we both felt the
weight of what these people had actually experienced.

One big thing we did was add a central character loosely based on a number of different real people and with a slight resemblance to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, a stranger that rides into town and experiences the events that unfold. This was a conscious decision to give the audience a classic structure that they could recognize, since the movie they were about to see was very difficult to watch at times.

John knew that we needed to give them what he called “mooring”.

John’s understanding of movies from an audience’s perspective was rooted in his almost childlike love of cinema. My favorite memories of John are of sitting in front of his laser disc player as he showed me
scene after scene from movies he loved, talking with unbridled enthusiasm about specific sound cues… some of which he’d run again and again to make sure I caught it… or camera moves, or edits, or
costumes. He talked about which shots he thought were planned and which were happy accidents; I remember him saying, “You can’t exactly ask the flamingos to go back to one.” He literally walked me
into book stores and bought me books on filmmaking that he thought I should read. His love of the craft of filmmaking was inspiring.

Others can speak to his rich family life, and have, but in his work life all that mattered to John was what was in the frame. He was famous because of how his career started, but fame wasn’t his goal. Neither
was material gain. When we were working on Rosewood together, John was driving a weathered sports car which I’m pretty sure was a Datsun 280z, and this was ten years after they had changed their nameplate to Nissan. As a young guy starting out in Hollywood, with visions of Beverly Hills in my head, I asked why he drove such a modest car. He said, “The trick is to keep your nut down. If you don’t need the money, they can’t tell you what movies to make.” In retrospect I’m not sure that John stuck to his own advice, and I sure know I didn’t, but he meant it when he said it. The movie was the point, not the movie business.

In the end, Rosewood didn’t do much box office. The reviews were generally good, and Siskel and Ebert raved about it, but John was right; it was in many ways too difficult to watch, a chapter of American
history most Americans don’t want to be confronted with. We were at a test screening and several older white people got up about 55 minutes into it and walked out. John turned to me and said, “There goes the Academy.”

When the movie opened softer than we hoped, John went to the Magic Johnson Cinemas where he shook hands with and thanked every single audience member that came out of the theater. Yes, he really did that.

He was funny, and prescient, and talented. But John was also human, and complicated. My first agent once told me that if you want to be a director, you have to have balls of steel; ego doesn’t have to be your defining characteristic, but it had better be one of them. As a newbie writer on my first produced feature, I was shocked to show up on set one day and find that there had been an addition to the title page of the distributed script: “Story by John Singleton.”

This had never been discussed, he had never written a single word, and the movie was based on a true story. I immediately went into a panic that I’m sure many young writers can identify with; I am nobody, he’s a big director.

How do I stand up for myself without torpedoing my career?

Of course, I didn’t have to do anything. Panicked, I called the Guild and they talked me down pretty quickly by reminding me that wasn’t up to him, or up to me. When a production executive (in this case the director) is proposed for credit, all written material will be submitted and the Guild will sort it out. Since John hadn’t written anything, it was unlikely I had anything to worry about. And in the end, he never even officially asked for a credit on the movie. I don’t know if someone talked to him about it or if he just decided on his own to let it go, but one day his credit was gone as quickly and quietly as it had appeared.

The experience did have two major effects on me however. First of all, it made me wary and suspicious in all credit situations going forward. I became fiercely protective of my credits, sometimes to my own detriment, digging in when taking the high road would have served me better. It is an issue I still grapple with today.

Worse, it soured my relationship with John. With the benefit of hindsight I know he wasn’t being malicious, and he wasn’t trying to take something away from me; for a while there he just thought he
deserved a story credit, and he stuck it on there, and in the end he changed his mind. But it stuck with me, and a few months after the movie came out he was quoted in one of the movie magazines as
saying that Rosewood was the first movie he hadn’t written himself because it was so complicated that it was easier for him to just “give dictation.” I straight up lost my mind. I called him and yelled at him and
said some things that I now regret. He tried to tell me that he had been misquoted, and that he was just about to call to ask me to take a look at the script for Shaft, but I couldn’t hear him. And that was the end of our friendship.

It was entirely my loss. John Singleton had a passion for movies that I have rarely, maybe never, encountered in anyone else. I could have worked with him again. He could have and would have willingly been a mentor. I could have learned from him and absorbed that passion for cinema that he lived with everyday. I could have gained so much by staying in his life, but righteous indignation won the day.

In our changing industry, in which CGI actually does make it possible to tell the flamingos to go back to one, it was undoubtedly getting harder for John to make the kinds of movies he liked to make. Personal
movies, grown up movies, movies with depth and intent and humor and joy and love and sometimes the rhythm of jazz. John Singleton movies. But I have no doubt that he would have found a way. John
died at an age when artists become masters, and I will mourn his loss forever. But we must also mourn the remarkable films that an elder John Singleton would have made. We have all been robbed.
One thing I have learned in twenty-five years as a working writer is that if you carry grudges in this business, you won’t have a long career. I have worked happily, and well, with people who at one time or another drove me out of my skull, that I couldn’t wait to get away from at the time. Life is too short and our industry too small. John lived this way, he lived in grace.

The last time I saw John was just a few weeks before his death. He was sitting at the counter at Soho House with some other guys, and I saw him and stopped to say hi. He jumped off his chair and drew me
into an embrace, genuinely glad to see me. He took my phone and entered his number so I could call him and we could get together. It was brief, but even in that short, public encounter I could feel his old
passion, and his deep, honest pleasure at running into an old comrade in arms. He hugged me a second time, and I went on my way.

I never called him.

Here is the trailer for Rosewood:

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