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Ground-Breaking Director John Singleton Dies At 51


Hollywood has lost a legend. Film and television director John Singleton died yesterday at the age of 51 following a stroke. Singleton's films gave voice to the black American experience in a way that hadn't been done before. His stories felt real. They felt raw.


LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Furious Styles) If you want to talk about guns, why is it that there is a gun shop on almost every corner in this community?

WHITMAN MAYO: (As The Old Man) Why?

FISHBURNE: (As Furious Styles) For the same reason that there's a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves.

MARTIN: That's a clip from Singleton's 1991 debut film "Boyz N The Hood." He was just 23 years old when he wrote and directed that movie. It earned him Oscar nominations for his writing and directing, which made Singleton the youngest person and first African American to be nominated for best director. That was just the beginning, though. Singleton became a prolific filmmaker. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans joins us now to remember his legacy. Thanks for being with us, Eric.


MARTIN: Let's go back to that year, '91. He was just 23 years old. And he emerges as this as this writer-director that broke all kinds of boundaries. What did that particular film, "Boyz N The Hood," mean to audiences and to other black filmmakers?

DEGGANS: Yeah, I think it's hard to remember now because so much of pop culture and television and movies are different. But when "Boyz N The Hood" came out, there weren't a lot of films out there that captured what life was like in South Central Los Angeles at that time and that humanized the people who lived in that neighborhood - poor black and brown people struggling with poverty and gang violence and drug violence.

And he was able to create these characters that were very memorable. He had this amazing cast - you know, everybody from Cuba Gooding Jr. to Laurence Fishburne to Regina King. And then he was also able to, because the film was a success, inspire this idea that there would be a bunch of other great black filmmakers to come behind him and tell these authentic stories that would humanize people that aren't often humanized in films at that time.

Unfortunately, it took quite a while, I think, for that to take...

MARTIN: Right.

DEGGANS: ...Hold. And only now are we starting to see the fruits of that, where you can look at a movie like "Black Panther" and you can see, you know, the director, Ryan Coogler, tapping, you know, his experience in Oakland the way that Singleton tapped his experience growing up in Los Angeles to tell these authentic stories about black culture and black people. It's finally happened in film and television, but it took a lot longer, maybe, than people thought at the time.

MARTIN: Right. We all associate him with "Boyz N The Hood." But as I noted, I mean, he made a lot of art. He made a lot of film, a lot of TV. How do you - as a critic, as a fan, how do you identify something that maybe isn't - is a little off the radar? What stands out to you in his works?

DEGGANS: Well, what I think he's known for is having a very intimate knowledge of Los Angeles and being able to recreate that city in ways that is really interesting and really compelling. So he did this great documentary about the anniversary of the Rodney King riots. He did an amazing episode of television, "American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson" (ph). He directed an episode of that that was centered in Los Angeles and centered in race and centered in the politics of the time. He was known as somebody who could articulate those things regarding Los Angeles but make them feel like a universal story.

MARTIN: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans remembering the life of film and TV director John Singleton. Thanks so much, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINITUS TEMPO'S "MAGIC JACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.